WHO IS PHILIP ATHANS NOW?

Fantasy Authors Handbook snuck out into the world exactly twelve years ago today. My first post was a long-form author bio, in the hope of introducing myself to the world. On the occasion of this anniversary, I thought it time to take another look at that and see how this Philip Athans character might have changed in the past twelve years. The original post started off with…

The New York Times best-selling author Philip Athans started writing stories the second he became literate, and an early love of movies and TV sent him to film school.

Since then I’ve stopped calling myself, specifically, a “New York Times” best-selling author, since my one book that appeared on that list, Annihilation, didn’t break the top fifteen in its category, so by tradition (don’t tell this to the marketing team at Wizards of the Coast) if you make the extended list you can call yourself “best-selling” but you add The New York Times only if you crack the fifteen-book “published list.” So, anyway… there’s the first edit.

Best-selling author Philip Athans started writing stories the second he became literate. Most of those early illustrated “books” were lost, but a few survived, and one can be experienced here. Moving seamlessly from Star Trek and Lost in Space to Major Matt Mason toys and Big Little Books to science fiction novels like Lester Del Rey’s The Runaway Robot, Phil has always—from his very first memories onward—been a raging all-in science fiction fan. When one of his friends brought a Fantastic Four comic to class in fourth grade, Phil was all in on what’s now called “Bronze Age” Marvel Comics—and that was how he met a certain Cimmerian of ill repute and added fantasy to his list of obsessions.

Thanks to Star Wars, a movie that was made specifically for Phil, age twelve, he started to read up on special effects and filmmaking in general and decided he wanted to become the next Steven Spielberg. He made good on that by going to film school where he switched to wanting to be the next Martin Scorsese, but then graduated, moved back to the film industry free zone of suburban Chicago broke, clinically depressed, twenty years old, and rudderless.

That’s when he really started writing, inflicting short stories and poetry on innocent magazine editors all across America, Canada, and the UK. Convinced that the rejection letters he received showed a lack of intelligence and refinement on the part of those editors, not his own, let’s say, “developing” skills as a writer, Phil, inspired by the punk fanzines he’d been reading for a while, started a literary magazine of his own. In its short, five-issue life span, Alternative fiction & poetry, went from complete obscurity to semi-obscurity. Still, there’s never been a better crash course in running a creative business than just diving in and doing it yourself. This is also where Phil realized he had become one of the unintelligent, unrefined editors rejecting the work of many a literary genius. But, concentrating on the positive, he also said “yes” to a whole lot of fantastic authors.

Of course, that magazine lost money—kind of a lot of money for a young, unemployed would be writer—and reality finally closed in. By then he’d met a girl who he wanted to take out on dates, so he got a job in a record store to at least earn a little money, and Af&p ultimately fell by the wayside.

While still selling records he married that girl, had his first of two children, and set out to turn a hobby (role-playing games) into a career. A number of freelance assignments ended up getting him his first paying job in publishing. He sent a proposal for a freelance project (Greyhawk: 2000) to TSR, Inc. and the vice president of the games division (Jim Ward) was so impressed by the proposal and Phil’s resume that he passed it on to the executive editor of the publishing division (Brian Thomsen), who was looking for a new editor. Phil apparently said the right things in an interview he was sure he completely tanked and in September of 1995 he became the newest editor for TSR Books, one of the premiere publishers of fantasy fiction in the world.

His editing job moved to Seattle two years later when TSR merged with Wizards of the Coast, and Phil moved with it, finding a new home and a string of successes in the Pacific Northwest.

The best thing about that job was the intense, hands-on development of complex intellectual properties that went way beyond traditional genre publishing. His passion and skills in that regard are exemplified in the great leaps forward that the Forgotten Realms novel line made under his care. Phil worked with established authors like R.A. Salvatore (whose FR novels, The Two Swords and The Pirate King, broke the top five on the New York Times hardcover fiction best sellers list), but he also had the enviable opportunity of discovering new talent and starting some outstanding young authors on successful careers. Though he wrote his first novel in 1985, he published his first, the successful-in-sales-only computer game novelization Baldur’s Gate, in 1998 and has gone on to publish a bunch more since.

Thanks to the success of the Pokémon trading card game (which Phil had nothing to do with) and the bonuses it spat forth, he had a second child in 2000, because now he could actually afford it.

When Wizards of the Coast became part of Hasbro (also thanks to the success of the Pokémon trading card game), Phil stayed on for another ten years or so, rising up the ranks from editor to senior managing editor. Then the entire global economy almost slipped off a ledge into oblivion, a new edition of D&D tanked, book retail lost Borders and a lot more, and the company decided they didn’t want to pay Phil anymore, or really publish any books anymore, so off he went into the wild blue yonder, and by “wild blue yonder” I mean the impossibly cruel economic wasteland of 2010.

Things got a bit iffy there for a few months, but who says there’s no second acts in American life? Unhireably old, Phil went into business for himself, and after a couple of bad ideas and blind alleys finally settled Athans & Associates Creative Consulting into a busy, successful freelance editing, ghostwriting, and consulting business.

And he’s only just realized that he’ coming up on twenty-six years of actually making a full time living reading fantasy, science fiction, and horror novels and working closely with their authors.

Not bad for a sci-fi/fantasy/horror/comic book/RPG nerd, eh?

Oh, and he ain’t done yet.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

Find me at PublishersMarketplace

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

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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THE BEST OF FANTASY AUTHORS HANDBOOK IS ALMOST HERE!

Releasing in paperback and Kindle formats next week, The Best of Fantasy Authors Handbook, Volume I 2009-2013collects fifty-eight of the first five years’ worth of posts, most (at least a little) expanded, revised, and/or updated for this volume. Here is the complete table of contents and the introduction, just to tease things a little. And hey, if you need to save the cost of the book, this is the list of posts you’ll want to read here for free while you still can… you have maybe a week to do that. And, of course, still enjoy all the posts from 2014 on, which will remain here for a while.

Enjoy!

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Introduction

PART I: GENRE

What is science fiction, fantasy, and horror and why should we care?

Hi, Conan, It’s Me, Phil

Cross & Mix Genres

Don’t Be a Snobby Reader (Like Me) or How Andy Gibb Made Me Want to Read a Romance Novel

Don’t Grow Out of It

I Geek, You Geek

Science Fiction Can be Fun Again

PART II: CHARACTERS

All stories are about people, and all people are about relationships.

What Moves Your Villain: Excuse vs. Defense

He Wouldn’t Do That

An Evil Genius, Bent on World Domination… But Why?

What Readers Respond to in a Hero

PART III: STORYTELLING

A story is what happens when two or more people disagree about something.

Excuse Me, Number One, I Have to Go Number Two

Show Me a Story

In Search of the First Paragraph

Wait… What Happened?

In Defense of Multiple Points of View

The Art & Science of the Title

Stealing from Your Own Experience

Funny You Should Say That

Character vs. Gimmick: A Tale of Two Short Stories

How Not to Open a Short Story

Write Down These Three Questions

PART IV: WORLDBUILDING

The one thing that makes fantasy and science fiction entirely different from all other genres.

Legion: A Study in Inconsistency & Implausibility

Happy Feast of the Moon

Plausible Technobabble

The Distance Between Here and There

Only Imperial Stormtroopers are This (Im)Precise

What Are You Wearing… And Why?

Write-Arounds

PART V: CRAFT

Now you have to actually write the thing, and it should probably make sense.

Details, Details, Details

Galen Blinked His Elbow

But it Just Isn’t a Rule

The Foresooth File

King of the Capital

Quotes in the Scriptorium

Beware of Typos Bearing Gifts

To Swear or Not to Swear

Basic Training

Getting Started

Living Dialog

What Not to Say

First Things First

Typesetting Basics for POD

“Some Basic Dialog Tips,” Phil Suggested

PART VI: AUTHORSHIP

If you want this to be more than a hobby, pay attention.

Annihilation by Any Other Name

Save the Bullshit Excuses

Review This

Successful vs. Successful

Practice, Practice, Practice

The Hardest Part: Patience

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Author

Twenty-five Years After My First Sale(s)

Depression and Writer’s Block

Do I Have to Go to College?

Every Writer Must Have Intellectual Curiosity

No One Cares About Your Great Idea

What You Need and What You Should Have

What Else Are You Working On?

Six Ways to Break Through Writer’s Block/One Hundred Titles

INTRODUCTION

I started Fantasy Author’s Handbook on June 15, 2009 for all the right reasons: to get people to buy my book The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, which was set for release in the months ahead. If you’re an author, or trying to become an author, and you think that sounds like a selfish reason to start a blog, well… good luck selling your book when the time comes! If not me, who? If not then, when?

Before beginning I did a little bit of research on the whole blogging thing, which wasn’t quite new in mid-2009 but was certainly new to me. Everyone seemed to agree on two things: release content on a regular basis, and make sure it’s actually, y’know… content.

Some bloggers post something every day, some once a month. I knew there was no way I could post something of even the slightest value every single day—I would never have kept up on that for twelve years and counting. And once a month seemed too long between posts. I was afraid I would forget all about it after a few weeks passed. So I went with weekly. I chose Tuesday because I used to work in music retail and that’s the day new albums are (were?) released.

As to content, a countdown to the release date of the book is not good enough.

Meandering political essays on the hot button topic of the day might have gotten some things off my chest but had nothing to do with writing science fiction and fantasy.

The content of a blog designed to draw attention to your writing should match the content and spirit of the books you’ve written. So I’ve tried my level best over the past decade plus to provide weekly thoughts on the art and craft of writing genre fiction.

What you hold in your hands is what has been voted on by me and the teeming constituency of (I hope) imaginary (or so the doctors tell me) people living inside my head. The criteria for inclusion within was quite rigid. If it seemed as though a greater than single digit number of people had read it, if I still think it’s at least mostly correct in its assertions, if on a second read I wasn’t embarrassed by it, and if it is actually on the subject of writing fiction of any genre at all, it made it in.

A lot was left on the table—or back at fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com, as the case may be. I’ll leave you to explore the “outtakes” on your own.

Herein are some opinions, observations, conversations, ideas, complaints, recommendations, warnings, and encouraging words on the subject of writing fiction in the genres I have loved my entire life.

Do with it as you will.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

Find me at PublishersMarketplace

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

Now available for pre-order on Kindle: The Best of Fantasy Authors Handbook, releasing June 15—paperback edition coming very, very soon!

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DOES FANTASY HAVE TO BE MEDIEVAL?

I’m going to answer that right away: No, it doesn’t.

By now we’ve all read “urban fantasy”—stories set in the contemporary world but with the addition of magic and monsters—or historical fantasy set in Victorian times, or combined with the traditional Western… But still, medieval fantasy hangs in there as the template, the standard by which other forms are relegated to sub-genres like urban fantasy, weird west, steampunk, etc.

Why?

The medieval occupies this pre-literal, pre-realist space for us. It’s a space where the fantastic feels like it could have happened, and, perhaps more importantly, it’s a space that seems steeped in symbol and allegory; where the figures who populate the landscape like dragons and giants can be more than just dragons or giants—they can be allegories for trauma or social disintegration.

…said Jessica Hines, interviewed in “Why Game of Thrones & Fantasy Literature Get Medieval.” That’s a good place to start. But then all aspects of fantasy, science fiction, and horror worldbuilding are allegories for all sorts of things, and like giants and dragons, not just trauma or social disintegration.

Could it be that medieval fantasy is considered the default setting of the genre because we’ve all signed on to Tolkien as the progenitor? In “Empire of Fantasy,” Maria Sachiko Cecire wrote:

What is less known is that Tolkien and Lewis also designed and established the curriculum for Oxford’s developing English School, and through it educated a second generation of important children’s fantasy authors in their own intellectual image. Put in place in 1931, this curriculum focused on the medieval period to the near-exclusion of other eras; it guided students’ reading and examinations until 1970, and some aspects of it remain today. Though there has been relatively little attention paid to the connection until now, these activities—fantasy-writing, often for children, and curricular design in England’s oldest and most prestigious university—were intimately related. Tolkien and Lewis’s fiction regularly alludes to works in the syllabus that they created, and their Oxford-educated successors likewise draw upon these medieval sources when they set out to write their own children’s fantasy in later decades. In this way, Tolkien and Lewis were able to make a two-pronged attack, both within and outside the academy, on the disenchantment, relativism, ambiguity and progressivism that they saw and detested in 20th-century modernity.

So like the old saying if you walk around all day with a hammer eventually everything starts to look like a nail, if you’re a medieval historian eventually every story is set in at least a version of medieval Europe (and/or England and/or Scandinavia)? That sounds reasonable. Of course, there are medieval fantasy stories that pre-date The Hobbit. but the resurgence of Tolkien’s work in the sixties led to imitators in the seventies, including the culturally powerful Dungeons & Dragons, which all worked together to cement a generalized medieval setting/technology as the default for fantasy.

And don’t get me wrong, I love a good medieval fantasy—and I think for all the right reasons. For one thing, that technological context provides for interesting weapons and gadgets, but not the sort of weapons and gadgets that the people who make those things invented since then, which is to say, incremental improvements that became massive shifts. In a medieval fantasy there might be a fireball spell, but no nuclear weapons. Some few people with access to certain magic might be able to speak with each other over long distances, but it’s not like everyone has a cellphone and is in constant communication with everyone else, including emergency first responders and law enforcement that tend to be adventure killers. Fantasy heroes are on their own.

One thing fantasy authors have done a pretty good job of along the way is allowing for much of the social evolution we’ve gone through since then into their invented worlds, even while pushing back on technology. So maybe your weapons technology caps out at the crossbow and the trebuchet, you can’t travel any faster than a horse can carry you, but that doesn’t mean women and children have to be treated as property, something like 99% of the population has to be illiterate, and all the various other aspects of normal day-to-day life in medieval Europe that made it, by our modern standards, a god-awful hellhole must remain.

But then… have we done that?

Have we worked the social horrors out of our fantasy medieval periods? Are we presenting worlds of myth and magic and civil rights and inclusion?

That, in fact, may not be your goal. One thing fiction can do, and that absolutely includes all forms of genre fiction, is depict a world that sucks in some way that’s similar to a way in which our contemporary world sucks, and then provide some kind of working through of that.

In a Paris Review interview, author Kazuo Ishiguro said:

I’d wanted for some time to write a novel about how societies remember and forget. I’d written about how individuals come to terms with uncomfortable memories. It occurred to me that the way an individual remembers and forgets is quite different to the way a society does. When is it better to just forget? This comes up over and over again. France after the Second World War is an interesting case. You could argue that De Gaulle was right to say, We need to get the country working again. Let’s not worry too much about who collaborated and who didn’t. Let’s leave all this soul-searching to another time. But some would say that justice was ill served by that, that it leads eventually to bigger problems. It’s what an analyst might say about an individual who’s repressing. If I were to write about France, though, it becomes a book about France. I imagined myself having to face all these experts on Vichy France asking me, So what are you saying about France? What are you accusing us of? And I’d have to say, Actually, it was just supposed to stand for this bigger theme. Another option was the  Star Wars  strategy: “in a galaxy far, far away.” 

Fantasy in particular has never been anything but an attempt to grab hold of something about that author’s contemporary experience and grapple with it free of the constraints of fact. Fantasy lets us explore and comment in a way that conveys a certain set of truths, as we know it—whether we think those truths are positive or negative—without having to be good journalists and cite our sources or, Heaven forfend, allow both sides their fair argument.

Fiction has no requirement for fairness.

That said then, do we still have to cleave to medieval fantasy as the standard? I don’t think so, and clearly I’m far from alone in that. So then if we question that, what else can we question? Does fantasy have to be, as I used to describe the Forgotten Realms: “Guys fighting monsters with magic?” Does there have to be any fighting at all?

You know I’m Mr. Pulp Fiction, Mr. Sword & Sorcery, Mr. Space Opera… but I’m also Mr. Literary Fiction, Mr. Poetry, Mr. Real Life Pacifist…

Maybe something crept in over the Memorial Day weekend, when a lot of the media turns their attention to war, and too often in a positive way, but here’s a challenge I’ve seen precious few authors take on in the fantasy genre: Could we write fantasy without fighting? Without defaulting to a patriarchal aristocracy and monarchy in our worldbuilding? Without strapping a sword to every character’s hip the same way authors of Westerns strap a six-gun to everyone’s hip, even though very few people in the Old West actually routinely carried guns?

I don’t know… we might be ready for: “People thinking their way out of problems with magic and coming to understand monsters as misunderstood neighbors.”

I don’t know… maybe we need to start with a role-playing game with no combat system.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

Find me at PublishersMarketplace

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

Coming soon.

Very… very soon!

 

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WHAT DO WE EXPECT FROM AUTHORS, AND WHAT SHOULD OUR READERS EXPECT FROM US?

Here’s what I think…

Starting with the understanding that authors are human, and therefor inherently flawed, we should expect authors to write the best books they can. In keeping with the Golden Rule, that means our readers should expect the same thing from us: that we write the best books we can.

If we start with the understanding that we’re human, we should also start with what I believe to be the central reality of creative writing, that there’s no such thing as perfect. No one has yet written, nor will anyone ever write the perfect novel. Those words simply do not go together. There is no universal set of criteria by which to judge that, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just an asshole. All art, whether it comes in the form of a novel or a sculpture or a song or anything else, lives, always has lived, and always will live entirely in the realm of the subjective.

That said, I know I can, if I were so inclined (and rest assured, I am not so inclined) put together a list of books I’ve read, or started to read, that I absolutely hated—books in a moment of knee-jerk reaction I’ve proclaimed as “bad,” or “the worst.” Likewise, there are books that I stop just short of worshipping. In similar moments of weakness I’ve even used words like “best,” or maybe even “perfect.” But this is strictly hyperbole, on both ends of the spectrum.

Writing a novel is hard. In fact, if any of us were to take a step back we would flee from the very thought of it. It’s nothing short of intellectually impossible to arrange a million or so letters into tens, even hundreds of thousands of words, in just the right order so they trigger an imaginative journey in the mind of complete strangers separated by time, place, and culture. Looking at it that way, it’s just absurd that such a thing could be conceived, let alone done, and done over and over again by author after author for century after century all across the globe. For me, anyone who does that is worthy of at least the respect of a first read.

So then should we expect any novel to be “perfect”? That’s crazy talk.

Can we expect it to be “good”? By what measure?

Can we hope to like it? Of course!

If we don’t like it does that make the author a villain of some kind, a deceptive rascal passing himself off as a “novelist” like some kind of intellectual wolf in sheep’s clothing? Get over yourself.

If we do like it does that make the author a giant astride the Earth, a figure of unquestioned perfection to be worshipped by all who come into the light of this great work? Cults start this way, and there’s never been a really positive cult, now has there?

The humanity of authors and the imperfection of their work can take many forms. I won’t flog away at current stories of authors who have come out on one side or another of political and social divides, or dive once more into the breach of how long ago does an author have to have died before we can understand openly racist remarks as a product of a less enlightened time and not a bad person. Some authors wear their politics entirely on their sleeves, so if, for instance, like me, you know enough about Ayn Rand, have read some of her other work (I’ve read both Anthem and The Fountainhead), and have a good sense of her perspective and her place in history that you’re content to leave Atlas Shrugged on the shelf, then fine. If, like me, you feel more sorry for H.P. Lovecraft than you are angry with him, but won’t give Ian Fleming the same historical cover, also fine.

This is all part of it, and by “it,” I mean any form of public expression. The work and the artist are both inherently imperfect, creatures of their time and culture, their upbringing and education, their fears and aspirations—their humanity. And one way or another they’re going to disappoint. Though his short stories are central to my education as a writer, Harlan Ellison was an imperfect guy. No more perfect were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and other writing idols of mine like Woody Allen. I know authors are people, and people do and think bad things—sometimes even commit unforgivable crimes.

I expect authors to write the best books they can, and hope they’re the best people they can be too. I hope my readers will expect the same of me. But with precious few exceptions all I really need to know of authors as people I will find, one way or another, in their work, and in most cases, I don’t really know much of anything about a particular author’s life going in. I can “agree to disagree” with a contemporary author about some things, other things will have me running for the hills. I reserve the right to ignore authors I don’t like—either as writers or as people. I also reserve the right to change my mind over time. And that only works if I respect my readers’—or my potential readers’—right to ignore me if they don’t like me, and change their minds along the way. We all have to individually find our own limits, and I don’t think anyone should be forced to read any novel, just as much as I don’t think anyone should be prevented from reading any novel.

I am one author. I am one reader. Every other author is one author. Every other reader is one reader. That’s how this has been working since the invention of the written word, and it will keep working that way well after I’m gone.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

Find me at PublishersMarketplace

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

 

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COVER REVEAL…

This week, a bit of a teaser…

Coming soon.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

Find me at PublishersMarketplace

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

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DIE, SEMICOLON, DIE!

I hate semicolons.

There, I said it.

As a copy editor, it has been both a joy and a grinding labor to give manuscript after manuscript a thorough, even complete semicolostomy. Behind me lay the corpses of thousands upon thousands of these insidious guerilla insurgents in the punctuational war against clarity, agents of the twisted ideologies of pretense and confusion.

Whew.

It felt good to get that out.

Now, a couple other smart people who have railed against semicolons…

Why do I avoid, as much as possible, using the semicolon? Let me be plain: the semicolon is ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly. I pinch them out of my prose.

Donald Barthelme

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons… All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Kurt Vonnegut

I hereby proclaim us the Three Musketeers vs. Semicolons!

By now you might be wondering a couple things, including where this mutant creature came from in the first place. In “A History of Punctuation,” Florence Hazrat sheds a little light on that subject:

The superstar of European printer-intellectuals, the Venetian Aldus Manutius, invented the semicolon for the Italian poet Pietro Bembo’s dialogue De Aetna (1494), allowing new ways of sophisticated pausing. Just quite when and how to use the mark puzzles us to this day, giving rise to angry dismissals and offensive expletives. The 20th-century writer Kurt Vonnegut called them “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” The lack of boundary and definitiveness makes readers anxious. The American author Edward Abbey called them a “storm of flyshit on the typescript.” But, when readers were asked about their favourite punctuation mark in a 2012 survey in the Swedish journal Språktidningen, the semicolon won with a 10 per cent lead on all other signs.

Goddamn Swedes, at it again. I like this paragraph mostly for the second barrage from Mr. Vonnegut, but at least now we know it’s been “allowing new ways of sophisticated pausing” for 527 years. A lot of terrible things have been around longer than that.

If for no other reason than to keep this blog educational, here are the four accepted rules for semicolons, via The Punctuation Guide, so if you do insist on keeping them in your writing you can at least use them correctly:

Between independent clauses when a coordinating conjunction is omitted

The upperclassmen are permitted off-campus lunch; the underclassmen must remain on campus.

Though there they give a perfectly fine example of how to avoid the semicolon…

The example above could be recast with the conjunction but, in which case a comma, rather than a semicolon, would be required.

The upperclassmen are permitted off-campus lunch, but the underclassmen must remain on campus.

I would rather see the but than than the semicolon.*

Between independent clauses linked by a transitional expression

Heavy snow continues to fall at the airport; consequently, all flights have been grounded.

Or, you could just write: All flights have been grounded due to heavy snow at the airport.

In lists with internal commas

The new store will have groceries on the lower level; luggage, housewares, and electronics on the ground floor; men’s and women’s clothing on the second floor; and books, music, and stationery on the third floor.

If you have a list this complicated in fiction you’re info dumping and need to stop doing that. Break this shit up, thereby eliminating the legal necessity for the hated semicolon.

In elliptical constructions

In 1992, Starbucks had fewer than 200 stores; in 2002, almost 20,000.

This might be the only one that actually stands, though it still feels more appropriate in journalism than fiction. Still, what would Hemingway say about anything described as “elliptical”?

And in any case: Between 1992 and 2002 the number of Starbucks stores increased from fewer than 200 to almost 20,000.

So that’s four for four that can easily be rewritten to be just as clear, if not clearer, without that evil thing, which has shown up in the most peculiar places, like Jean Cocteau’s Intimate Relations (Les parents terribles):

Grandfather who collected semicolons. He counted the semicolons in Victor Hugo. He said: “I make it 37,000 semicolons in Les Misérables.” And then he started all over again in case he’d made a mistake.

But, Phil, you might still be thinking, the semicolon is perfectly fine, if used correctly, and can serve our writing in various ways. Shouldn’t we come to our writing ready, willing, and able to use any and every tool at our disposal to make our writing speak to our readers?

And to that I reply, Yes, actually, that’s exactly what we should do. Learn how to use all the tools, then bring all of them along every time you sit down to write, and use those tools carefully and with intent. Even, may God save us all, the semicolon.

—Philip Athans

* It’s okay if you laughed at that.

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FANTASY AND/OR SCIENCE FICTION AND/OR HORROR

I’ve written before on the difference between fantasy and science fiction, and even how we can combine genres like science fiction-horror or science-fantasy, but in reading Science Fiction Handbook, Revised (1975) by L. Sprague de Camp & Catherine de Camp, their take on the subject stuck out to me:

In general, we use the term “fantasy” for stories based upon supernatural ideas or assumptions, such as the existence of demons, ghosts, witches, and workable magic spells. “Science fiction,” on the other hand, is the term used for stories based upon scientific or pseudo-scientific ideas, such as revolutionary new inventions, life in the future, or life on other worlds. Some stories, like several of H.P. Lovecraft’s, fall on the border between the two classes.

Indeed, but Lovecraft’s work is almost always classified as horror, even if the supernatural beings come from space (hinting at science fiction) or from some unknown dimension like the Dreamlands (reading as fantasy). I think a case can be made that Lovecraft wrote primarily a three-part admixture of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. In his own writing about his own writing he classified his work as “weird fiction” and didn’t seem overly concerned with any more granular a distinction in genres. The infamously xenophobic Lovecraft even expressed some desire to leave behind the limitations of the real world, the present culture, the way things work. But maybe it was precisely his inherent xenophobia that caused him to see any interruption in a narrow sense of the way the world works as a certain cause, at least at first, of a feeling of existential horror. If even one part of the way we’re raised to see the world crumbles away, surely the rest of the foundation upon which we’ve built our selves is destined for ruin. In “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” Lovecraft explained it this way:

I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasize the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear.

It’s the fear of the unknown that drives an awful lot of what we’d probably all see as traditional fantasy or science fiction. Lovecraft isn’t the only author, or even the first author, to conjure up monsters or supernatural forces to challenge the sanity of some hapless human who might begin under the terribly mistaken impression that we have this whole universe and our places in it figured out. The more we find out about the world, much less the effectively infinite universe, the less sure we are that we know anything. What’s out there? A friendly E.T. who just wants your help getting home, or something that uses you for a womb to create a predator that’ll kill everyone else on your spaceship? The answer just has to be both, and with some wildly crazy shit we don’t even know how to imagine on top of that. This is really where you can start with science fiction—it comes from another planet, then add some dollops of fantasy—a planet where the laws of physics are completely different, and finally end up with horror—and for no reason you can at all detect it will eat you after its finished making you murder your entire family. The thing that adds the horror is entirely without limits, as described in “Weird Beings” in Worldbuilding Magazine:

There are plenty of tropes and common elements in unknowable monsters—causing insanity, a general disregard for human affairs, god-like powers—but in truth there are no rules. Rules are used to understand how something behaves, and these monsters cannot be understood. These beings are the closest thing to absolute creative freedom a worldbuilder can have since they diverge from our reality, which most fiction is based on. An unknowable monster can have any motivation, take any form, or do anything that the creator desires so long as some part of it doesn’t fully make sense or sit right with the audience.

To me, Alien is still the scariest movie ever made, and it succeeds by being equal parts science fiction and horror. There are horror elements cooked into fantasy even by the more conservative authors of “fairy stories,” like the fully scary scenes with Gollum in The Hobbit. My favorite short story of all time is Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” which begins and ends with scenes of some of the scariest horror ever written, wrapping an entirely science fiction premise. And maybe more than anyone, at least since Lovecraft, Ellison not only questioned but openly challenged genre convention. In “On Horror: An Interview With Harlan Ellison” by Richard Gilliam published in the book On Writing Horror, Ellison said:

The people who insist on calling themselves “horror writers” exclusively have stifled themselves; they’re like those tunnel-visioned, superannuated “fanboys” who write “science fiction” exclusively or write “westerns” exclusively. It’s an amateurish way for someone who thinks he or she is a writer to run a career. If you’re a writer, you should be able to write more than just one type of fiction… which is also smart from a commercial perspective, since it opens additional markets—it opens the world—for the writer!

In the same book Douglas E. Winter pointed out in his essay “Darkness Absolute: The Standards of Excellence in Horror Fiction” that “Horror is not a genre. It is an emotion.” Any fantasy novel can, like The Hobbit, have horror scenes, and any science fiction story can, too, in the same way that science fiction stories can have a little fantasy and fantasy can have a little science fiction. Simon Van Booy wrote in “Becoming a Multigenre Writing Master”:

A professor once told me that life is just like the experience of eating fruit. Every time you bite into an apple, the taste, texture, or juiciness is slightly different. That’s because it’s natural. Every time we bite into a machine-made cookie, it’s the same experience over and over again, which is not like life at all. And so to write successfully in multiple genres, give up your attachment to one particular version of yourself. Explore all your sides: the serious, the funny, the laid-back, the confident, the shy, and the bold. That way you can work on a book about war in the morning and a book about mice in the afternoon.

Or work on a book about mice at war with zombie cats on a planet where magic is real.

—Philip Athans

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BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXVII: SCIENCE FICTION HANDBOOK, REVISED

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books I think science fiction and fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some (like this one) may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the SF/fantasy author, so worth looking for.

I ran across a copy of Science Fiction Handbook, Revised, by L. Sprague de Camp & Catherine de Camp (Owlswick Press, 1975) at a used bookstore not far from my house and was amazed to find it in impeccable condition, dust jacket intact. How could I possibly pass it up? It sat on my to read shelf for at least all of the COVID lockdown time, but I eventually got to it and found it equal parts enlightening, heartening, bizarre, borderline offensive, and quaint. But let’s keep in mind right away that this is the 1975 revised edition of a book originally published in 1953, so there’s a bit of a layer of dust on the contents, jacket or no.

The book begins with an overview of the science fiction genre, up to date as of forty-six years ago. Most notable in this section is the de Camps’ dismissal of fantasy as a popular genre with only the slightest nod to Tolkien. I found this odd considering the first time I remember reading anything by L. Sprague de Camp was in his series of Conan collections in which he curated the original Robert E. Howard stories, finished some unfinished Howard tales, and wrote some of his own. But 1975 is maybe five years prior to what then became a huge resurgence of fantasy, so I won’t say he was wrong that no one was reading fantasy, he was just… writing this in 1975.

Still, this section had me adding to my to-read list: The Clouds and The Birds by Aristophanes, Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, Micromegas by Voltaire, “What Was It?” and other stories by Fitz-James O’Brien, The Wolf Leader by Alexandre Dumas, and Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

L. Sprague de Camp’s career started in the later part of the pulp fiction tradition, and his love of Conan the Barbarian, if nothing else, sets him largely in that tradition: genre stories should be fun, written to sell, and keyed to the tastes of the current roster of magazine editors:

In 1942, one of the authors sat in the headquarters of the U.S. Navy in Manhattan, facing three officers gathered to interview him as to his fitness for a commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve. These men seemed interested in the fact that, on the questionnaires he gave his occupation as “writer.” They had trouble, however, in putting their concern into words. After some beating about the bush, one said:

“What we want to know, Mr. de Camp, is: why do you write?”

Sprague de Camp thought and answered: “To make a living.”

They relaxed. We suppose they feared that he might say he wrote to express his soul or to convey his deathless message to the world. Not that there is anything wrong with expressing one’s soul or conveying one’s deathless message, provided that one has some other means of support. Still, most writers do have to consider the bread-and-butter aspect of their writings.

God forbid we attempt both. In this 1975 edition he’s pretty openly disdainful of the “New Wave” authors like Harlan Ellison and J.G. Ballard. I’d love to go back in time and encourage him to rethink that, allowing room for Howard and Ellison, Dunsany and Ballard, or both Edgar Rice and William S. Burroughs, but alas…

Speaking of the pulp tradition, the de Camps quote Jack Williamson and Edmund Hamilton’s “formula” for a science fiction story that I think makes for a perfectly usable short story prompt:

Three men go out to save the world. One goes mad, one is eaten by the Things, and one returns to tell the tale.

Speaking of quaint verging on offensive, as seen above, the de Camps do rely on the traditional male pronoun for everything—and I mean everything. Though passing reference is made to certain female authors of the day, the whole book clearly assumes that science fiction writers are men, writing stories for boys, as we see underlying n this weirdly schizophrenic take on fans:

Because many science-fiction fans are adolescents, and because some adolescents are given to exhibitionism and gaucherie, fans as a group have sometimes been scorned as eccentric. Actually, the average fan displays high intelligence, a voracious appetite for reading, and a personality type that often finds it hard to get along with ordinary people. The fans’ interest in speculative literature gives them a common bond, which they do not often feel towards the average person.

And I couldn’t help but take offense to this heavy handed bit of flagrant and baseless ageism:

Collaboration works best when the collaborators make contributions of equal importance and when their special skills complement, rather than duplicate, each other, it is usually best for the younger to do the rough draft. The younger writer is likely to be more fertile and facile, while the older is probably the keener critic, with a sharper eye for inconsistencies, grammatical errors, and other flaws.

In the quaint but not offensive column are numerous long passages of text and advice that only demonstrates just how much technology has changed since 1975:

When, at last, you write your final draft, type with a black ribbon, reasonably fresh, on white paper of average grade. Either make two carbon copies, or—if you can afford it—one carbon for your files and one Xerox of the ribbon copy. The latter is ideal for further reproduction; but a typed copy made with fresh carbon paper will serve and saves the writer money.

Wow—how expensive were “Xeroxes” in 1975? The de Camps go on to describe their complex filing system, with each story or novel given its own index card tracking publication dates, when rights were reverted, reprints, and so on, and ledger pages to keep track of royalties. I’d advise, if you can find this book in the first place, that you actually look at the information they track, though Excel will better serve as a repository for the same information, just as a backup drive or cloud storage will mitigate your Xeroxing and carbon paper expenses.

The advice in terms of actually writing a science fiction short story or novel, is a bit light. This book reads more like “how to be a science fiction author” than “how to write science fiction,” but there is some good advice, mirroring some of the same advice I’ve offered myself, like this pearl, which belongs in last week’s post:

At gatherings, people have asked: “Mr. de Camp, do you think that I, too, should become a writer?”

Strictly speaking, the right answer to such a question is “No.” Unless a person has a strong urge that he will struggle to become a writer no matter what anybody says—if there is no doubt in his mind—he had better avoid this profession. He will almost certainly do better financially in some other occupation for which his physique, education, and personality qualifies him.

In general, the de Camps advise us to write, and more or less figure it out ourselves, though with a nod to help from books like theirs, more formal education, and so on, with this statement at the heart of it:

Other professionals, such as lawyers and physicians, spend years in special training before they are competent to practice. Why should a writer expect to master his profession any sooner?

It’s hard not to agree with that in principle.

And this paragraph nicely encapsulates the nature of a short story:

In a short story, there is no space to waste. The reader has no tolerance for long beginnings. To hook the reader, shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph. There is no space for great complications and no time for lengthy processes, such as a basic change in a person’s character. You cannot develop character; you can at best reveal it and show its relationship to the action. You have a brief development leading up to one major incident, told in a concentrated, concise manner. If you can put in a snapper ending, so much the better.

And I just like this advice on the subject of active writing:

While all sentences narrating an action may be said to move, some move faster than others. Those that move the fastest have a simple structure of substantives, and other verbs with the necessary prepositions, conjugations, and other operative words to tie them together. Those that move slowly are stuffed with adjectives and adverbs.

All in all Science Fiction Handbook is more entertaining as a glimpse into the world of what I now do for a living from the year I turned eleven than it is a must-read how-to for contemporary authors. Some things, like advice to write clearly and to take learning your craft seriously, remain unchanged, while we’re safe to set aside the assumption that only men write or read science fiction, and do so using fresh new typewriter ribbons and carbon paper, even if you still have to save up for the occasional luxury of a Xerox. Maybe it was that expense that drove one author of the de Camps’ acquaintance to explore other income streams, embodied in this fun quote from L. Ron Hubbard: “Some day I’ll pull something that’ll make Barnum look like a piker.”

—Philip Athans

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HOW TO ENJOY WRITING

I have been guilty of perpetuating the… myth? feeling? cliché?… that writing is not just difficult but effectively impossible, no one should be encouraged to try it, only mentally ill people are attracted to it in the first place, and if you’re the slightest bit serious about it it will only exacerbate those mental illnesses until it ultimately destroys you.

Y’know… the sort of  stuff that even smart people like Connie Willis said in a Clarkesworld interview:

When I’m on panels with writers who say, “Oh, I just love writing. I just sit down and it flows out like magic,” I always want to slap them.

Or what Steven James said in his book Story Trumps Structure:

The truth is, if you like long hours in solitude, emotional turmoil, constant self-criticism, and bouts of heartrending disappointment, you’ll make a good writer. And if you can actually tell an engaging story, you might just make a great one.

Terrifying, right? But then when I look back at my own writing life, I find that when I’m writing, I’m less depressed, more engaged, and when I’m finished I’m happier, easier to get along with, and in almost all cases it’s really a joy to start, to do, and to complete. And I’m not alone. William S. Burroughs said in an interview with The Review of Contemporary Fiction:

I don’t know. I just sit down and write! I write in short sections; in other words, I write a section, maybe of narrative, and then I reach into that, but if it doesn’t continue, I’ll write something else, and then try to piece them together. The Wild Boys was written over a period of time; some of it was written in Marrakech, some of it was written in Tangiers, and a good deal was written in London. I always write on the typewriter, never in longhand. 

I wrote portions of Baldur’s Gate in Renton, Washington, some in Issaquah, Washington, and… okay… bad example. But you might be thinking, Okay, but Burroughs is famously, if not infamously incomprehensible, known as a disorganized, stream of consciousness writer and all that stuff, but maybe that’s exactly what he can teach us. Still, no one can accuse the brilliant J.G. Ballard of incomprehensibility, but in a Paris Review interview, he seems to indicate he has no more trouble writing than did Burroughs. When asked “So, how do you write, exactly?” he answered:

Actually, there’s no secret. One simply pulls the cork out of the bottle, waits three minutes, and two thousand or more years of Scottish craftsmanship does the rest.

So then Ballard was a drinker and we know Burroughs was a heroin addict… deep breaths. I’m not advising you to hurt yourself with drugs and alcohol. But what can you do that’s safe and healthy to calm yourself down, get the fear out of the way, and just write?

This starts with being honest about what scares you. Is it that you’re somehow “not ready”? This is usually the terror of research at work. But consider the advice of Mark Billingham in his “Ten Tips For Writing Crime Fiction”:

Obviously, there will be stuff you need to know about, but then there’s the temptation to crowbar in everything you’ve found out at the expense of the story. Why not be counter-intuitive and do your research afterward? That way you only find out the things you really need to know and avoid falling into the trap of showing off. You’re writing a novel, not a documentary, so don’t worry about annoying the handful of readers who might actually know this stuff in detail and will take great pleasure in letting you know where you went wrong. We all get the occasional angry letter and they’re fun to read out at events. Truth is not always the same as fact… especially these days.

And this goes for worldbuilding, too. If you think you have to build your world out in such detail that it will anticipate everything you might need to tell this one story, you’re officially doing too much worldbuilding. Keep in mind what Mark Billingham said about being okay with occasionally getting things wrong and who might bitch about it later. Just write, and let future readers, your literary immortality, and other similar bits of, let’s face it, complete nonsense, take care of itself, or not, as the case may be. And if you don’t believe me, how about Bertrand Russell from nothing less than his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

Vanity is a motive of immense potency. Anyone who has much to do with children knows how they are constantly performing some antic, and saying, “Look at me.” “Look at me” is one of the fundamental desires of the human heart. It can take innumerable forms, from buffoonery to the pursuit of posthumous fame.

Speaking of smart people, in another Paris Review interview, Kurt Vonnegut said:

If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.

No one dies at the end of this. No one gets hurt—not really. Some people will like what you’ve written, some people won’t. Some people will get all angry about what you’ve written or how you’ve written it—or they’ll pretend to anyway. Some people will post on the Internet that it’s the greatest novel of all time—but it isn’t, really, because there’s no such thing. This novel, this short story, this poem… is what you have to say right now, said in the way you’re saying it right now.

So then, what have we learned about how to enjoy writing? Start with this…

  • Don’t be afraid to be as incomprehensible as William S. Burroughs, at least in your rough draft. Your raw creativity is always more interesting than your strictly controlled craftsmanship.
  • Write anywhere. Okay, you don’t have to fly to Tangiers, or even Renton, but get yourself out of your bubble and let writing happen for you, not to you, wherever and whenever it pleases you.
  • Calm yourself, without dangerous chemicals. Brush off the fear or nervousness so you can relax into it.
  • Research and worldbuild later—even after you’ve completed your rough draft. Let your story and characters tell you what you need to research, and what you need to make up.
  • Get over your legacy. No one, including you, has any idea if you’re going to be the next Shakespeare. Shakespeare had no idea he’d be Shakespeare. Just write, and let the future take care of itself.

…and you’ll find at least a few ways to write joyfully all your own, if you go ahead and write.

—Philip Athans

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ISOLATION 14

They keep calling me Mr. Hartford.

“My name is Donovan,” I say, but can’t be sure I’ve been heard.

I’m cold, and I want to tell them that, too, but I can’t, or I don’t try.

Someone is holding my ankles down and I bend my right knee to slip out, but I can barely lift it off the bed. I’m strapped down. Above me is a ceiling of plain white acoustic tiles and a fluorescent light that’s flickering—one of the tubes is, anyway.

“Don’t try to move around, Mr. Hartford,” one of them says to me.

I can’t see her. She’s behind me. And then I think maybe there’s someone else here, too. Someone named Hartford?

But the room feels like it’s been made for one.

The walls are cinderblocks painted a light blue. Some of the blocks are scratched, showing cement gray underneath. There’s a wheeled cart made of dull metal tubing on which sits three different machines, none of which show any signs of life—no lights, nothing moving.

I try to move my left leg, bend my knee, but I can’t. It doesn’t feel like I can, anyway, but then one of them says, “We’re not going to try to move around, right, Mr. Hartford?”

I try but don’t know if I succeed in shaking my head.

There’s something in my nose, blowing cold air into my right nostril. I reach for it and my elbow bends just fine, though my hand feels numb. I drag the little tube out of my nose and someone puts it back in with a warm, dry hand.

“No,” she says. “We need that in there, okay?”

I think I might be shaking my head again.

She walks around and past me and I can see her, dressed in dark green scrubs, a surgical mask over her nose and mouth. Her eyes are narrow and deeply set under a heavy, masculine brow. I think she’s white—her voice sounds white—but why would that matter? As my eyes follow her they pass a door—there’s a door. The glass in the window has letters running backward, or in some language… I can’t read it.

“You know where you are?” she asks, continuing back around behind my head the other way.

I shake my head but answer, “Isolation 14.” I don’t know why I think that, but it sounds right.

She laughs at me, or maybe she’s clearing her throat.

“My hand is cold,” I say. “My fingers are cold.” I’m holding my left hand up, just barely off the mattress.

She touches my hand, wraps my fingers in hers, and says, “No it’s not. You’re fine.”

But my hand is cold. My fingers are freezing. My hand looks strange, like someone else’s, but it’s definitely mine.

I close my eyes and I think some period of time has gone by. The bed is facing a different direction, my head is turned to my right. There’s the door—the same door. The light isn’t flickering anymore.

“Mr. Hartford,” one of them says—a different one, with a different accent, “do you know where you are? Where are we?”

“Isolation 14,” I say, and my voice is a little better, but it hurts to speak.

“Sore throat?” she asks.

I nod.

“That’s normal,” she says, and I can’t imagine why that would be normal.

The cart with the machines is gone and instead there are two empty IV stands.

This makes me wonder why I keep falling asleep, makes me wonder how long I was asleep. There’s a pinch in the crook of my right elbow and I loll my head down to look at it. There’s an IV there, leaking a little bit of colorless liquid under a transparent plastic strip. I pick up my left hand to try to pull it out, but her hand on my wrist is firm. She pushes it back down, but doesn’t restrain me.

“Someone’s holding my ankles,” I tell her and she laughs at me.

“Do you know what year it is?” she asks and I can’t imagine why she would ask that. “Do you know the name of the President?”

“I can’t stay awake,” I say, maybe finishing the entire sentence before I’m asleep again. It’s like one slow, heavy blink and the empty IV stands are gone and there’s a folding chair, putty brown, in its place. The door is on the same side of me.

“Help me,” I say, if for no other reason than to determine if there’s anyone in the room to hear me.

There isn’t.

I reach up with my left hand to pull the IV out of my right elbow and my hand flops down on the tube. It hurts a little when it hits. My fingers move slowly—barely at all. I can’t get a grip on the little tube under the surprisingly thick plastic strip.

I need to get out of here. I need to go home. I need to get back to work. There are bills to pay, I tell myself, but I can’t think of what bills are due. What do I need to pay? When do I need to pay it?

“Mr. Hartford,” a scolding voice says, and a nurse walks in through the door, blocking the space behind it. She’s big, and she isn’t wearing a mask, and her scrubs are green and her shoes are a brilliant white as if today is the first time she’s worn them.

“I’m not…” I start, but lose track of what I was going to say as she gently pulls my left hand back to my side.

“How’s the pain?” she asks. She moves back behind me and I’m vaguely aware of something beeping back there.

“No,” I reply, hoping that will convey the fact that I feel no pain at all. It’s all I have the energy to say.

My left hand comes up and there’s an unpleasant warmth in the crook of my right elbow. She’s putting something in my IV, maybe something for the pain, something that will make me fall asleep again.

“No,” I say again, and this time I put more urgency into it—or try to.

She comes up next to me and takes hold of my left wrist. She has brown eyes and dry, almost chalky skin, and she smells like cigarettes. And she’s trying to drug me—she has drugged me.

“You try to rest now, Mr. Hartford,” she says, and I can see that she’s irritated with me.

“Why?” I ask.

“To help with the pain,” she says, faking a smile, pretending to comfort me. But I was asking why she was trying to keep me here, to keep me asleep, to keep me isolated.

“No,” I say, thinking I’ll explain it to her.

“Let’s not be difficult, now,” she says, and anger blasts through me, faster and hotter than the drugs dripping into my arm and I whip my wrist out of her hand. She gets halfway through this Mr. Hartford business again before I punch her.

I’ve never punched a woman, I don’t think, but I punch this one—hard—as hard as I can, knowing that in the state I’m in, that won’t be very hard. Her head explodes in a puff of red mist and pieces of hot things pelt my face, making me blink. The sheet over me is already soaked and there’s nothing on her shoulders and blood comes out of her neck in fountains, timed with her heartbeat. She’s still on her feet and my left hand hurts a little and is drenched in red and it’s hot—hotter than I though blood could be—and there’s something on my hand. I flick it off and it’s her scalp, or a part of her scalp, and her body makes a terrible sound when it drops to the floor and I can’t see her anymore and I try to scream, or call someone and then the anger is gone all at once, replaced by whatever she pumped into my right arm, and I’m asleep again.

Well, that couldn’t have happened.

No way that actually happened.

This is clear to me when I wake up into the middle of what I guess you could call a panic attack.

It’s literally impossible for me to have punched someone’s head off. Mike Tyson couldn’t do that, and I’m… I feel like I’m old, but no exact number presents itself. This troubles me, but only a little.

The dream of bursting a nurse’s head with my fist still lingers, the feel of the hot blood, the sounds of it—horrible.

I’m still in Isolation 14. I think the last time I was awake there was a folding chair, but now there’s that same cart again but with one of the machines gone.

I puzzle a little over how I could remember that it’s the same cart and that there used to be three machines on it, but not remember how old I am.

I still have an IV in.

They’re still drugging me.

Weird dreams, hallucinations even, and spotty memory—that could all be drugs. Of course that’s all drugs.

“Ah,” a woman says, “we’re awake.”

We’re? We are?

I turn to look at her and my head flops to the side. She’s sitting in one of those big weird hospital room chairs, a little blanket over her knees, a magazine in her hand that’s in some foreign language—I can’t read it. I can’t even tell what language it is.

“How are we feeling, Mr. Hartford?” she asks, and she seems sincerely curious. She isn’t afraid of me—that I can see in her face. I sigh a little, relieved. That clinches it for me. I didn’t punch one of her coworkers’ head off.

“Donovan,” I say, and man, does that hurt.

“Throat still a little sore?”

I nod in response and she stands, letting her blanket fall to the tile floor. She rummages around behind my head and comes back with a little plastic cup with a straw in it.

God only knows what she’s really giving me but I’m so thirsty I don’t care. It hurts to swallow it. It tastes like water, cool but not cold. She smiles down on me as I drink some more. The second swallow less painful than the first.

She pulls the cup away and says, “Let’s not drink too much yet, Mr. Hartford.”

I want the rest of the water and more, but I’m too tired to put up a fight.

“How are we feeling?” she asks, looking at something on the wall behind my head. I’m propped up a little in the hospital bed, tucked in under a white blanket. I still have the IV, but whatever was holding my ankles down is gone. My fingers and toes are cold. I feel like I could move, that I have the ability to move, but I don’t want to.

“My name,” I whisper, because it hurts less, “isn’t Hartford.”

The nurse smiles at me, practically dripping with rehearsed patience, and says, “Of course it is, Mr. Hartford.”

She wraps cold, strong fingers around my left wrist, leaning right over me to do so. There’s a plastic band around my left wrist, but it’s under the blanket and under her hand. I can’t read it.

“Right here,” she says, her voice the sort of sing-song you might use to talk to a three-year-old, “Hartford.”

I shake my head. “Donovan,” I whisper, and she ignores me, tucking the blanket around me. It feels good when she finally covers my toes.

“My hands are cold,” I whisper to her. “My fingers.”

She grabs my left forearm, not as tight, not having to lean over me, and says, “You’re fine.”

“Why am I here?” I ask her, but she doesn’t seem to hear me. I can’t be sure I actually made a sound.

I clear my throat—that hurts—and I whisper, “Are you drugging me?”

She laughs at that and says, “Of course not, Mr. Hartford. Why? Are we feeling a little woozy?”

I shake my head, but I guess you could call this “woozy.”

“Well,” the nurse says, “that’s to be expected.”

Then she leaves. Just walks to the door, opens it, walks out, and closes it behind her.

“Wait,” I hiss out, but the door is already closed.

I take as deep a breath as I can and lay back down. Maybe if I just lay here for a few minutes my strength will come back. I try to think through this—and parts of it, at least, seem pretty obvious. I must have been in some kind of accident or something. I had some kind of surgery. I’m in the hospital. They think my name is Hartford. Maybe they think I know what happened to me, know why I’m here. Both of these nurses seem to feel they don’t need to explain anything to me.

But then I’m not sure the first nurse was even real at all.

That ended in a dream—it had to have—though it didn’t seem to start out as a dream. I saw the room, the door, the ceiling… that’s all the same.

“Knock knock,” someone says instead of knocking, already coming in the door.

Another nurse. This one is heavy, round, with a broad, smiling, pleasant face. There are little cartoon characters on her scrubs—a yellow square with eyes. She’s pushing a cart with a blue plastic bin on it.

“Hi there, Mr. Hartford, glad to see we’re coming around,” she says, all smiles, stopping at the foot of my bed. “We remember each other, right?” She puts a hand over the plastic badge hanging from the V-neck collar of her scrubs. “Do we remember my name?”

I shake my head. I’ve never seen this woman before in my life.

She looks disappointed and I whisper, “I’m sorry.”

“Are we still feeling a little woozy?” she asks, taking her hand away from her badge. I blink at it, trying to focus, and I can clearly make out her picture, but all the writing is in some other language—an alphabet I don’t recognize. I try to remember the name of the alphabet the Russians use, but can’t. It’s not Chinese.

“Mr. Hartford?” she prompts, and I start shaking my head but change over to a nod. I do feel woozy.

“Well,” she says, tipping her head to one side like a puppy, “that’s to be expected.”

Then I shake my head, and I don’t know why.

“Okay, well, my name is Honey… Nurse Honey, but everybody just calls me Honey.”

I shake my head again, and I still don’t know why.

That makes her giggle. I think I might have smiled a little, too.

“I hear tell,” she goes on, dropping her hands into the blue bin, “that we’ve been having a little memory trouble.”

A chill runs down my arms, and not just because of what she said but because of the cheerful, mocking tone in which she said it. Her face falls a little at my reaction.

“Sorry,” she says in some kind of weird, cartoony voice.

I shake my head again but she doesn’t see. She’s looking down and rummaging around in the bin.

She pulls out a shoe—a man’s shoe, athletic shoe—and she holds it up in both palms as though presenting it to me.

“Does this look familiar?” she asks, opening her eyes wide, turning her head a little bit away, waiting, somehow also cheering me on.

I shake my head and say, “It’s a shoe.”

“Good,” she says as if praising a puppy for going pee-pee outside. “Now, whose shoe is this?”

I shake my head. I want to ask for water but instead croak out, “No idea.”

She’s disappointed, but puts the shoe back in the bin. “Well,” she says, as if talking to herself, “that’s a hard one. Let’s see… Ah! Here we go.” She takes out a black leather wallet and holds it up.

“That’s not mine,” I tell her, whispering again. Even as I’m telling her it isn’t mine I can’t think of what my wallet looks like, if I even have a wallet. My wife gave me a wallet for my birthday last year and she put a five dollar bill in it like her grandparents used to do, and we laughed about that. I can feel the memory my laugh in my throat, the tickle of hers in my ears.

She opens it and pulls out a card with the picture of a man on it and more of the foreign writing. “Guess who?” she teases.

I shake my head.

She smiles at me, waiting.

“That’s not mine,” I whisper to her. “I don’t even know what country that’s from.”

She turns the card and looks at it, makes a show of grimacing, then says, “Well, it sure looks like you!”

“Can you—?” I start to ask but cough and sputter.

She steps behind me and comes back with the same plastic cup. She lets me drink as much as I want to, which is all of it.

“Thank you,” I say in something approximating a normal voice.

She smiles as she puts the cup away then goes back to the blue bin at the foot of my bed and picks up the card again. “Sure we don’t want to take another look at this?”

“Can you read that?” I ask. “What language is that?”

She looks at the card again and her face drops. I have a sudden urge to hug her. I think I start to cry.

“Okay,” she says, still looking down at the card.

She thinks for a minute, her lips pressed together, her mouth twisting into strange patterns as she slides the card back into the wallet and drops the wallet into the bin. She moves something around in there, stops, looks up at me, looks back down into the bin, then sets her forearms over the bin, leaning over it.

She looks me right in the eyes and says, “Well, looks like we’re way, way more fucked up than we thought.”

I want to look away from her but I can’t.

“Did I hurt myself?” I ask her.

She just stares at me, her face going blank, almost sagging off her skull.

“Fuck,” I whimper. “Did I have a stroke or something? Did I smash my head? Do I have brain damage? Am I fucking paralyzed?”

She just stares at me, her face so still it’s as if she’s turned to stone.

“Can you hear me?” I whisper, my eyes blurring from tears.

I have to close my eyes.

“Where am I? What hospital is this? What country is this? Have you called my wife? Call my…”

I open my eyes, blinking back the tears, and she’s gone. I didn’t hear her leave, couldn’t hear the door open and close.

“Nurse…?” I try to call out, but I can’t yell or shout, or make my voice any louder than a choked stage whisper. “Honey? Why am I in isolation? Why do you keep calling me Mr. Hartford? Who’s shoe was that? What happened to me?”

But I’m alone in the room.

A woman’s voice crackles over a staticky P.A. system, “Try not get agitated, Mr. Hartford,” she says. “Let’s try to remain calm, okay?”

“What happened?” I ask, then fall into a round of body-shuddering sobs. I think I remember driving, that my wife was in the passenger side next to me. I know it’s her but I can’t see her face behind her long brown hair. “What happened to me?”

“No one here can tell you that, Mr. Hartford.”

I take a few quivering breaths and ask the ceiling, “How can that be?” There was no accident. I remember pulling up to a house I think is our house, but it doesn’t look any different from any other house.

“Is there anything else we can help you with, Mr. Hartford?”

I loll my head around on my shoulders, scanning the room, the blanket still firmly tucked around me on the bed, looking for anything… something.

“My hands are cold,” I say finally. “My fingers are cold.”

“Of course they aren’t, Mr. Hartford,” the voice replies. “You don’t have any fingers.”

That’s when I start screaming.

—Philip Athans

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