SELECTIONS FROM THE HORROR WRITING INTENSIVE

This coming Thursday (January 25, 2018), my online course Horror Writing Intensive: Analyzing the Work of Genre Master Stephen King, via Writers Digest, starts up again and so I thought I’d give y’all a little sample of what that looks like. If you’re reading this after the 25th, never fear, the course rolls around again every six weeks or so—just hit that link for the next go-around.

The Horror Intensive is a shorter, two-week course split into “The Idea” and “The Writing,” with short writing assignments for each. We use Stephen King’s books On Writing and Skeleton Crew as well as my own Writing Monsters as texts and there are PowerPoint videos, written course material to add to those and give further examples, and I also post additional material every weekday for those two weeks. I’ll just throw out some more or less random tidbits to give you a sense of the sort of things you’ll see:

—–

Here are some examples based on the Stephen King quote from On Writing in the recorded sessions: “All tales of horror can be divided into two groups: those in which the horror results from an act of free and conscious will—a conscious decision to do evil—and those in which the horror is predestinate, coming from outside like a stroke of lightning.”

Personal evil—essentially a villain, as in “Cain Rose Up”:

“Good drink, good meat, good God, let’s eat!” Garrish exclaimed, and shot at Quinn. He pulled instead of squeezing and the shot went wide. Quinn was running. No problem. The second shot took Quinn in the neck and he flew maybe twenty feet.

Exterior evil—monsters, aliens, or the malevolent oil slick from “The Raft”:

Randy shook his head. Maybe it was an oil slick, after all… or had been, until something had happened to it. Maybe cosmic rays had hit it in a certain way. Or maybe Arthur Godfrey had pissed atomic Bisquik all over it, who knew? Who could know?

—–

More from Stephen King on the nature, source, and wellspring of ideas, from an interview with Rolling Stone:

I can remember as a college student writing stories and novels, some of which ended up getting published and some that didn’t. It was like my head was going to burst—there were so many things I wanted to write all at once. I had so many ideas, jammed up. It was like they just needed permission to come out. I had this huge aquifer underneath of stories that I wanted to tell and I stuck a pipe down in there and everything just gushed out. There’s still a lot of it, but there’s not as much now.

—–

Don’t let your characters just be assigned to the mystery—throw them into it all the way, and make sure that there’s always something personally at stake for them. Keep these three questions close at hand, and think about them for all of your major characters, and keep them for everything you write, not just horror but any fiction in any genre:

  • Why does s/he care?
  • What does s/he have to lose?
  • What does s/he hope to gain?

For all of your characters, start with you and with other people you know, but build out from there. Don’t just give them your day job and a house in your neighborhood. Give your characters everything you are, everything you hope to be, and/or everything you hope you’ll never be. Your hero should be your best self and your villain your worst self, but neither should be, literally, you.

—–

Every writing teacher and editor says “show, don’t tell,” but what does that mean exactly, especially for the horror author?

In On Writing Stephen King wrote: “Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It’s far from easy.”

Boy, is he right! But there are techniques we can learn to make it, if not easier, then more effective, easier to read if not to write.

In the recording I described the concept of “emotional distance’ In the way that it separates fiction from journalism. Don’t allow your characters, or worse yourself, to report on what’s happening or what has happened in your story. All this “show vs. tell” stuff comes down to bringing your reader and your character together to share in the experience of a moment. String enough of those moments together in the right way, in the right order, and you have a story.

—–

If the end of a sentence gives your reader a chance for a short breath and the end of a paragraph allows a deeper breath, the end of a chapter is essentially permission to walk away from the story for a time, to take a long break. When asked by The Paris Review why Cujo is all in one huge chapter, King said:

“…Cujo was a standard novel in chapters when it was created. But I can remember thinking that I wanted the book to feel like a brick that was heaved through your window at you. I’ve always thought that the sort of book that I do—and I’ve got enough ego to think that every novelist should do this—should be a kind of personal assault. It ought to be somebody lunging right across the table and grabbing you and messing you up. It should get in your face. It should upset you, disturb you. And not just because you get grossed out. I mean, if I get a letter from somebody saying, I couldn’t eat my dinner, my attitude is, Terrific!

—–

“The Mist” relies heavily on isolating the senses, especially our dominant sense of sight. We know there are things in the mist—we can hear them and even feel them moving around—but the mist prevents us from seeing them. In this example, the first person narrator comes to grips with this and in different ways, and it affects his theories on what they’re actually dealing with out there:

All the things in the mist operated primarily by sense of smell. It stood to reason. Sight would have been almost completely useless to them. Hearing a little better, but as I’ve said, the mist had a way of screwing up the acoustics, making things that were close sound distant and—sometimes—things that were far away sound close. The things in the mist followed their truest sense. They followed their noses.

And also think about that in terms of suspense. We’re now left with the idea that the monsters have a decided advantage. We rely on sight but can’t see, they rely on smell and the mist does nothing to prevent that. That imbalance between human and monster raises the stakes.

Get into the depths of your POV character’s primal experience of that terrifying moment.

—–

I hope this made you curious enough to sign up, if not this week, then next time the course rolls around.

 

—Philip Athans

 

Here’s the link: Horror Intensive

 

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THE RELIGION OF FANTASY AND THE FANTASY OF RELIGION

Believe it or not, I actually try to avoid talking about religion, both publically and privately. It’s a subject that either makes me scared, angry, or disappointed—mostly disappointed—except when it has to do with fantasy.

Yes, I’ll admit it, I was the guy in the D&D group who was not just willing to play the cleric, but volunteered for the job. I loved the concept, which was basically this: What if religion actually, y’know… worked? What if the gods weren’t just real but actually interacted with you and granted you magical powers? How do you not play that character?

Most D&D players tend to ask, How can you possibly want to? Clerics have been and still are seen as the helper character—the person who casts cure spells but is otherwise kind of annoying—and so is played by the last person to get to the table. This tends to be true, unfortunately, because most DMs are reluctant to get deeply into creating an actual religion around those characters. But that was never me. The idea of creating the dogma and ritual around that character and his god and religion instantly and thoroughly fascinated me, and surely accounts for things like including religion as a major topic in my online Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction course, the whole R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen series and my constant pitch at Wizards of the Coast to publish the Cyrinishad—the “bible” of the mad god Cyric—as an “in voice”/”in world” (un)holy text (but they wouldn’t let me), and of course my wildly unsuccessful book How to Start Your Own Religion that has been bought by dozens of people and moved one fundamentalist Christian to unfollow me on Twitter.

Real world religions make me deeply uneasy, but pretend religions fascinate the hell out of me.

I’ve written a little before about the general lack of religion in science fiction, and what seems to be a default futurist view that there just won’t be religion in “the future.” But now here we are, actually living in the future that some of the grand masters of the genre were trying to imagine fifty or sixty years ago (or even more recently) and we have smart phones and drone warfare and a global economy and an International Space Station—and churches all over the place and religion front and center in the lives of billions of people and there is absolutely no sign of it going away any time soon.

Religion might, in most places and among most faiths, be getting much nicer—more modern—but no, Time Magazine (or whoever) God is not dead, at least in the hearts of a very large portion of humanity.

A quick question, then: Why?

Why, when we know so much more about the universe around us, do we still have this alternate explanation for things like where the world came from and what happens to us after we die?

Was H.P. Lovecraft right when, in his masterpiece “The Call of Cthulhu” he wrote:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

That pretty much nails it.*

According to science: We are of no consequence, and neither is our planet, and the black seas of infinity can and will randomly destroy us for no reason with shit like gamma ray bursts and coronal mass ejections, and even if all goes well the sun will eventually swell up and swallow Earth whole and that’ll be that, so…

After a season of Space’s Deepest Secrets even I want to believe that all dogs go to Heaven.

Sure, astronomy will scare the shit out of you with no happy ending whatsoever, but just as science isn’t all a drag, religion isn’t always terribly comforting, either. In the Variety article “Guillermo del Toro on the Catholic Church, his Holy Trinity and Boris Karloff Epiphany” the great monster filmmaker said:

“There was a Christ in my church with an exposed bone fracture, and it was kind of green and purple, but his face looked like he was coming. And then they said, ‘The body of Christ,’ and I said, ‘No thank you.’

“The biblical myths read in church were “so fucking gory,” he added, pointing out that to give a kid that “mixture of virtue and violence is fucked up.”

In his amazing book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker begins with a rundown of just how spectacularly awful we used to be, and how that’s reflected in some of the earliest religious writings:

Though historical accounts in the Old Testament are fictitious (or at best artistic reconstructions, like Shakespeare’s historical dramas), they offer a window into the lives and values of Near Eastern civilizations in the mid-1st millennium BCE. Whether or not the Israelites actually engaged in genocide, they certainly thought it was a good idea. The possibility that a woman had a legitimate interest in not being raped or acquired as sexual property did not seem to register in anyone’s mind. The writers of the Bible saw nothing wrong with slavery or cruel punishments like blinding, stoning, and hacking someone to pieces. Human life held no value in comparison with unthinking obedience to custom and authority.

That seems to match up with Guillermo del Toro’s experience in what I guess we can call an Old School church. Pinker goes on to point out that the overwhelming majority of contemporary Jews and Christians in no way suborn slavery, rape, and stoning. In his words:

Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic. In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discretely ignored.

But what if your church doesn’t “spin” the older, gorier stuff—or at least not all of it? I found it fascinating that, in del Toro’s mind, it was this violent, frightening religion that drove him to fantasy. From that same Variety interview:

Del Toro ultimately found his salvation in classic movie monsters. “I started seeing in the monsters a more sincere form of religion because the priests were not that great, but Frankenstein was great,” he recalled.

He added: “The creature of Frankenstein to me was a more beautiful martyr figure than Jesus with the exposed fracture. And I started adoring him.” For del Toro, the Holy Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—“was the creature of Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Wolf Man.”

“I started loving the monsters because, with the monsters, as a child, you don’t have to think. The adults that were supposed to be good with you were bad. The adults that were supposed to protect you, beat you. But the monsters, they did what they looked like [they would do]. You swim with the fucking Creature of the Black Lagoon and you’re gonna die.”

I won’t go so far as to say that fantasy and horror (much less science fiction) are in some way a new religion, and genre fiction certainly hasn’t superseded the Bible, but I think they can fill some of the same gaps in our worldview that religion was created to fill.

 

—Philip Athans

 

* What disturbs me more about that bit from “The Call of Cthulhu” is my physically painful writer jealousy. Let’s say I do have an immortal soul. If so, a billion years from now, I’m still going to be living with the fact that I wasn’t the guy who strung together the words: a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity. I’ll take oblivion.

 

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COMMANDER, COMMAND THYSELF

A couple weeks ago I made some New Years Resolutions, publically, here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook. So far—a whole nine days into 2018—of those three resolutions, I’ve totally nailed two.

I immediately stopped snacking, removed most meat and all processed sugar from my diet, and I have not looked back. Though I wish I could say I instantly felt better… well… it’s a process, but a process I’ve begun in earnest. I’ve also read, cover to cover, two whole books for pleasure so far in 2018, putting me a smidge ahead of schedule on my goal of reading, on average, a book a week. Okay, they were short books, and one of them I can’t say I particularly loved, but I read them. I am spending more time reading.

So then what of the third and at least equally important resolution?

I WILL GET BACK TO WRITING IN 2018

So, 2016 sucked. It was a tough year for my little business for a few reasons—and none of it had anything to do with the election, etc. It took me the lion’s share of 2017 to dig out of that, but it came at the expense of my own writing. And just like I fell into the easy lazy thing with reading, I’ve filled my flagging-due-to-ill-health workday energy with work, leaving no time or energy or the mental will for writing.

Well, okay, not no time, per se, but definitely not nearly enough time.

So back to writing—and writing a lot—for me.

A few changes to my business will help that along, but still, this is going to come down to a choice between TV I’m not really all that excited about or writing.

Advice for writers?

Write.

It’s the first principle.

How have I done in terms of writing more in the first week and a half of 2018?

Awful.

What the hell!

Most days—no writing at all.

Not acceptable!

So what to do?

How about taking some of my own advice?

That seems like a pretty good place to start, so I went back and found this post from August 15 of last year, my cap to a long series of posts examining Henry Miller’s advice to authors. Reading over these ten commandments again, I find I can still stand behind every last one, 100%. So then, what the hell am I doing not following them?

If I can bring ice cream, candy, and burgers to a complete halt from one day to the next, and say no to an hour of TV here and there to read more, why can’t I take another hour or so of TV off to write?

No reason. Of course I can.

So I’m going to do this: I’m going to use this space not to publically shame myself or anything—there’s no reason for that—but to gather support, even if only in my imagination, from the community of other writers out there, many of you also, maybe, struggling to get your own writing back on track—or on track in the first place.

Let’s make this an irregular series of posts, updating my work on this resolution to write more, taking each of my own “commandments” in order. That means this week, it’s:

PHIL’S TEN COMMANDMENTS OF WRITING (AFTER HENRY MILLER)

1. Work on one novel at a time until finished, while also writing the occasional poem, short story, article, and weekly blog post.

I know exactly what that novel is—the novel I’ve been ruminating over for, literally, years now. I’ve filled a full notebook with worldbuilding and character notes. I’ve already written a few scattered scenes, and the whole thing is at least semi-formed in my head. I know what the theme is. I know who the hero is, and who the villain is, what they want, and what they’re willing to spend to get it. I have just enough outline to get me started. There’s no reason not to dive in and write the damn thing.

So that’s the novel.

Blog posts, too? Check—you’re reading one right now!

Poetry? I promise to write on today!

Short stories? I owe Pro Se two more jungle pulp stories and at least one will be done this month.

This is it, Fantasy Author’s Handbookers… I’m writing again, damn it.

Hold me to that!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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IS THIS EARTH?

I really try not to be one of “those guys”—or worse, one of “those editors.” You know the ones—the people who crawl up a writer’s butt over the most minute detail, challenging every supposed cliché without an open concept of idiom or readability. I once heard of an editor who challenged a word in common usage because it was based on French roots, with the question: “Does the French language exist in this fantasy world?” The obvious answer to that was: “No, but neither does English—a language that has coopted words from dozens of other languages (at least the ones spoken close by like French, Spanish, Dutch, German, and the Scandinavian languages) and anyway English is mostly Latin and a good helping of Greek with a funny accent—and I need Americans to buy this book so I’ve taken the step of translating everything from (call it anything but the) Common Tongue in the first place.”

So it’s with that in mind, and as part of an ongoing discussion of worldbuilding and the art and craft of naming things, that I’m a little nervous about this post, but let’s dive in anyway with the question:

Is this Earth?

Meaning, is the planet your story is set on the planet Earth—either as “real” or as “fantasized” as you want? If you’re writing an urban fantasy like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series or if you’re writing a story set in a far future China then it’s still the planet Earth. Or maybe you’ve completely rethought a history that doesn’t exist like Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age—still Earth. In cases like these, all references to Earth the planet or earth as a synonym for dirt, etc. are perfectly in play—forget I said anything.

But if your story is set on some entirely created world, or, dare I suggest, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” then does the planet Earth exist at all? And if it does, has anyone in your story ever heard of it?

Here’s why I ask:

I regularly see the word earth used in places that triggers that fantasy worldbuilding editor neuron, taking me, just for second, out of the story and into the dreaded territory of “Did she mean to do that?” If your readers ask that question, for any reason or with any pronoun, you’re in big trouble!

Here’s how the word earth works:

Earth, with the initial cap, or sometimes the Earth, is the proper name of the planet we live on. (At least I assume you live on Earth. If you’re reading this on another planet… um… hi.) This is the same rule for any place name: It’s France, not france; Mars, not mars; Chicago, not chicago. Right?

But of course this is English, a language that abhors a word with only one meaning, so we also have:

The lowercase earth, a synonym for dirt. This is the literal stuff you can hold in your hand, so if we say that a farmer has tilled the earth, we mean he’s scratched about in the dirt, not that he’s literally tilled the entire planet.

Then there’s the lowercase version with the article: the earth, which is the same as saying “the ground”—When his parachute failed to open he fell, screaming, to the earth below.

You can also toss in: earthward, which means in the direction of the ground, not necessarily the planet, since it’s kinda weird to say that if you’re still in the atmosphere and you fall you’re moving toward the planet (however technically correct) instead of “the ground,” which is the part of the whole planet that you will end up finding of concern.

Okay, then, so let’s say you’re standing on the planet Tatooine, which is in a galaxy far, far away from the planet Earth, a planet you’ve never heard of. Would you still write:

Luke’s X-wing exploded, sending him hurtling earthward?

Or would that be better as:

Luke’s X-wing exploded, sending him hurtling to the ground?

As an editor, I would change the former to the latter.

Likewise, would Cersei Lannister ever say:

“What on Earth is going on around here?”

That, I’d change to:

“What in the world is going on around here?”

Though you know it would actually end up as:

“What the fuck is going on around here, you bastards?”

I do think you can still get away with some of the sort of common idiomatic stuff like: “The earth was black and fertile before the plague monsters appeared.” In this case “the earth” is still just another name for dirt—or the name of a common element, if, say, your magic system depends on earth, air, fire, and water.

But if your story is set on a world that is not now, has never been, and never will be the planet we know as Earth, what do your people call their world? Maybe just “the world”?

The idea of Earth as a planet among many other planets is a relatively new concept, which accounts for a lot of the confusion between the name of the planet and the concept of “the world.” If you have no concept of what a planet is, what’s under your feet now is all of the possible “ground” there is, so maybe people used to say “the earth” to mean “the ground” then extended that out to a default name for the planet when they realized that all of the ground is the surface of a sphere made up of “earth.”

Now I’m confused.

Gary Gygax went with Oerth for the World of Greyhawk setting, but there’s reason to believe that really is Earth, way in the distant future. For Old School TSR fans it went: Boot Hill, Gangbusters, Star Frontiers, Gamma World/Metamorphosis Alpha, World of Greyhawk, and I added Greyhawk: 2000 in some old issues of Dragon and Dungeon.

Or… maybe not? Depends on who you ask.

Likewise, the Forgotten Realms is the name of the property, but the planet itself is Abeir-Toril (often just Toril). Dragonlance is set on the planet Krynn.

People who live in the continent of Faerûn might say, “What on Toril is going on here?” but I hope none of the books I edited had “What on Earth is going on here?” in a world where no one has ever heard of Earth.

That kind of thing—replacing a common idiom with an invented word—can sometimes come off as hokey, and should be used with care. If it looks weird to you, just in any way kinda reads funny, “What in the world is going on here?” is a perfectly good fallback measure.

But in any case, be straight in your own head about the planet you’re on, and in any case, consistency is king!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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RESOLUTIONS, 2018

I don’t always make New Years resolutions—and I rarely actually follow up on them. If you’ve been following Fantasy Author’s Handbook for a while now you’ll likely see a few repeats—or, well, all of these are repeats—from previous years. But this year I feel a different sense of urgency—at least one is a bit more do or die this year. Most of all, though, in the past eighteen months I’ve proven to myself that I have some untapped reserves, that I can rise to the occasion in ways I don’t always have the self-confidence to imagine.

So let’s wipe the slate clean of previous resolutions, to do list schemes, and so on, and get to these three…

I WILL BE HEALTHIER IN 2018

I’m not going to get into too much detail about the current state of my health but, please forgive me, I’m going to use this blog to say, publically and without reservation, that (almost) everything that’s wrong with me, including some stuff that has seriously intruded into both my personal and professional lives in 2017 (and before) comes down to me just being way, way too fat.

For the record, I don’t give a crap how much I weigh, or what I look like. There will be no “weigh ins” or before and after photos. I simply need to eat better and exercise more so I can sit, stand, lay down, or walk without agonizing pain in my ankles, feet, and upper back. And that pain is often too severe to allow me to continue to do any work—sometimes it’s difficult to breathe.

This is not just whining—this is me drawing a line in the sand with myself. I made the problem, and I’m the only one who can fix it. But from the standpoint of advice for genre authors?

Look, I’ve been going to SF, fantasy, and gaming conventions for something like forty years now and I know I’m not alone in the Doritos and Mountain Dew “diet plan.” I hope that if you’re reading this and thinking, Yeah… me, too, I guess that you’re younger than fifty-three and will have a longer period of healthy, pain-free living than I’ve allowed myself once you make a move in the direction of good general health.

No one can read our epic fantasy masterpieces if we die before we’ve finished them. Let’s get and stay healthy—all of us!

I tend to eat (almost continuously) when I watch TV and not at all while reading or writing, so one road to health is the road that leads away from the TV. To that end…

I WILL READ 52 BOOKS IN 2018

That’s an average of a book a week, which I know is not at all weird for a lot of you, but strangely enough it has been for me. And keep in mind that this is 52 books “for pleasure,” and though I take enormous pleasure in my work as an editor, I mean that these are recreational books—books that have already been published, books that I’m not editing (though I do pull quotes and ideas out of them for other stuff, but that’s me), and that I’m not being paid to read but just the opposite. I’m going to read 52 books in 2018 just for fun and personal interest and growth.

To put that number, 52, in perspective, though, I’ll only be counting books I actually read all the way through. I started reading 42 books this year, gave up on 17, am still working my way through 2, and finished 23—that’s my best year since 2011’s 33, and 2010 (the year I basically took six months off) is still in the lead with 40.

If you’re interested, the best books I read in 2017 were The Haunting of Hill House and The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson, and The Dismal Science by Peter Mountford.

I’m still working on two huge books: Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert, book five in my slow (partially re-) read of the entire extended Dune series; and The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, a mammoth 800-page tome that I just can’t put down, and though I’m barely a third of the way in I’m already convinced this should be required reading in every school in the world—not just America, though it’s message is something every American needs to hear and understand before we do ourselves any more damage in the cause of “homeland defense,” both public and private.

But anyway…

I’ll keep working my way through those bigger books, but to get to my goal of a book a week I’m definitely going to be looking for some shorter books to keep my total up. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with a good short book. I’m still going to occasionally draw a book from my random sci-fi/fantasy grab bag box—I read a couple of good ones from that box this year. I’ll still keep mixing up genres. I’ll be adding some books for younger readers, too, including my growing collection of the classic Tom Swift, Jr. series, as well as books about writing, biographies of authors and other artists, and general non-fiction of all stripes. You can follow along with that, if you like, via GoodReads.

When I consider that I can accomplish this goal simply by choosing to read a book I’ve never read (or haven’t read since I was a kid) instead of watching all of The Sopranos again while mashing my face full of fat and sugar… well, no disrespect to The Sopranos, but that’s an easy trade-off.

Good for me! But what does this have to do with advice for authors of science fiction, fantasy, and horror?

Stephen King said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.

And he’s right!

Which brings me to…

I WILL GET BACK TO WRITING IN 2018

So, 2016 sucked. It was a tough year for my little business for a few reasons—and none of it had anything to do with the election, etc. It took me the lion’s share of 2017 to dig out of that, but it came at the expense of my own writing. And just like I fell into the easy lazy thing with reading, I’ve filled my flagging-due-to-ill-health workday energy with work, leaving no time or energy or the mental will for writing.

Well, okay, not no time, per se, but definitely not nearly enough time.

So back to writing—and writing a lot.

A few changes to my business will help that along, but still, this is going to come down to a choice between TV I’m not really all that excited about and that causes me to get fatter or writing I’m really excited about and actually prevents me from eating. No contest.

Advice for writers?

Write.

It’s the first principle.

And I honestly find it perplexing that it’s so obvious I’d rather be writing, but haven’t been.

That ends now.

Again, sorry The Sopranos.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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DO I REALLY HAVE TO WRITE ANOTHER CHRISTMAS POST?

I don’t want to, and I honestly don’t have to. If I feel some pressure to do so, that’s coming from me, not from the outside. But anyway, what do I say about Christmas?

I don’t know… if you celebrate Christmas then Merry Christmas from all of us here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook. And by “all of us,” I mean me, since there’s only one of us here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook.

I’ve written a post about holidays in fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding.

I’ll save New Years Resolutions for next week.

I don’t really have much more to say in terms of a year-end wrap up that wasn’t covered, more or less, in my obligatory Thanksgiving post.

So…

Um.

Santa is weird, isn’t he?

There’s a public domain fantasy character that gets a lot of mileage every year around this time.

Is he an elf?

’Twas the Night Before Christmas says he is.

Is he a saint?

Do you have to be Catholic to believe in St. Nicholas, so Protestant faiths that don’t recognize saints just ignore that bit?

Who’s this Kris Kringle guy? Is he named after the pastry, or vice versa? I like the pastry—they sell them at Trader Joe’s now, which is good for us people who’ve managed to escape from Wisconsin.

And, uh…

Shopping happens.

Then there’s some other stuff about Christmas.

Ooh! Here’s a weird one:

Have you noticed the huge array of made-for-TV Christmas movies out there? I flipped through the two Hallmark channels and it’s literally twenty-four hours of back to back Christmas movies—one after another after another. They seem to have made at least half a dozen new ones for just this year. That seems like a writing opportunity, doesn’t it?

Should we all be working on our Christmas screenplays along with our Syfy Channel Original Movies? Maybe you could even combine those.

I call Santanado!

Anyway…

Happy/Merry Whatever Makes You Happy.

Either way, be excellent to each other.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

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HOW CHARACTERS SEE THEMSELVES IN RELATION TO OTHER CHARACTERS

In Joe M. McDermott’s novel The Fortress at the End of Time, Ensign Aldo has just come to a remote space station. The commanding officer is a bit of a fallen tyrant, but still, young Aldo thinks:

I felt alone, torn between obligations, waiting for someone to do something, confused and uncertain about the true path of my devotion. Call it idolatry, but at the time, I favored the admiral, because I saw, in him, my service oath and the path to other colonies.

Later, that belief is shaken:

“Don’t give him false hope, Wong. The admiral is pissed. You’re under Article 32 now.”

The quartermaster looked in at me. “Obasanjo has volunteered to be your advocate. Do you object?”

“No offense to Obasanjo, but I will decline. If the admiral is pissed at me, I would prefer an advocate that doesn’t cause any more friction. Who else you got?”

“NetSec says he could do it, in a pinch. He doesn’t like you, though.”

“Well, at least the admiral likes him, right? It is actually not a criminal proceeding or a court martial. It is just an Article 32 trial—a big show because the admiral is pissed. I did my duty. Sergeant Anderson was very sick. He will be back. Corporal Jensen deserted on her own, likely with help from Wong. Let’s try and make the old man happy, okay? What is his goal here? Am I an example to others to maintain order, or am I actually under investigation? I have nothing to hide. My reports are honest. I did the right thing with Anderson, and I failed to capture Jensen, who was in collusion with Wong and the monastery. I am a pilot, not a security officer. I have limited hand-to-hand, no investigation training.”

Q put his hand on my shoulder. “The admiral hates you. The best thing to do is take whatever he gives you and prepare for the next phase, after service. I will alert Lieutenant Commander Obasanjo and Captain Nguyen.”

I said nothing else. What was there to say?

Notice that most of this is about Aldo’s sense of who’s with him and who’s against him, who might be trustworthy and who might make his bad situation worse: If the admiral is pissed at me, I would prefer an advocate that doesn’t cause any more friction. He even gets into what Aldo thinks other characters think of a particular character: Well, at least the admiral likes him, right? A subject of great concern is what another character is thinking, what might be motivating him: What is his goal here? Am I an example to others to maintain order, or am I actually under investigation? And relationships are defined in a sometimes categorical, perfectly direct manner: The admiral hates you.

Like it or not, we often see ourselves in terms of how we relate to other people around us. There are people we admire and seek, at least in part, to emulate, and people we see in a negative light for some reason or another, and from whom we hope to differentiate ourselves. This goes back to my purposely reductive definitions of a hero and a villain from The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction:

If a villain is someone whose motivations we understand but whose methods we find abhorrent, a hero is someone whose motivations we understand and whose methods we find inspirational.

The point there being that, either way, we understand why that person is doing that thing, even if we’re not a fan of the means or the end.

Though we spend a certain amount of energy trying to make sure that our heroes are “likeable” and our villains are well motivated from the point of view of our readers, do we spend the same energy making sure that the hero is likeable to the other characters in the story, and that the villain’s motivations are understood by other characters in the story? In fact, the best way to show your hero being likeable and your villain being plausibly motivated is in their reactions to others.

I’m a lifelong Trekkie, and a particular fan of what I call the “thinking person’s Star Trek”: Deep Space Nine. Years ago—when the series was still on the air—I picked up a copy of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Writers/Directors Guide at a convention. Written by Rick Berman and Michael Piller, this slim little document is only nineteen double-spaced pages long, and serves as a quick rundown of the basic concepts of the series, with sections entitled THE BAJORAN WORMHOLE, THE BACK STORY, and DEEP SPACE NINE (which described the station itself). But it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the lion’s share of the document, pages 7-19, is all about the characters. Each one of the show’s outstanding ensemble cast gets at least a short write up, but what I found interesting when I first read it were the short sections at the end of many of the character write ups in which the series creators called out important relationships.

Kira, for instance, has three key relationships called out:

KIRA AND DAX: Dax and Kira have formed a very strong friendship, though Dax’s free-wheeling attitude toward life has yet to rub off on the Major.

KIRA AND ODO: Next to Dax, Odo is Kira’s closest confidante on the station. Kira trusts Odo. Ironically, his stoic demeanor gives her the security to reveal her more vulnerable side.

KIRA AND QUARK: Kira has no tolerance for Quark’s shenanigans. She feels he is a corrupting influence on the station and believes they would be better off without him. Perhaps this is why Quark finds her only the second most desirable woman on the station.

O’Brien only one:

O’BRIEN AND BASHIR: It’s not that O’Brien doesn’t like the young, enthusiastic Doctor, it’s just that he… prefers not to be around him. For some reason, everything Bashir does annoys him. They’re just two very different people and O’Brien can’t understand why Bashir wants to be his friend.

Some characters, including Quark and Dr. Bashir, have none, but are more or less covered in the sections for other characters.

This was a real lesson for me, and I’ve carried through something similar in my own writing. When thinking about characters, writing up notes like this, I actually write these sections—at least for a handful of key relationships.

Of course it’s still important to get into each major character’s inner experience, and of course it’s important to consider how those characters might appear to your readers, but add this layer, too. How do they appear to each other?

After all, that’s really how most of us live our lives—much more concerned with what a few key individuals in our lives think of us, rather than how me might be remembered by history.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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