READ THIS INTERVIEW WITH RAY BRADBURY

This week, I’m just going to toss this over to The Paris Review and an interview with the great Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203. Read this interview while you still can—it might drop back behind their paywall. In any case, here are the bits I pulled out that I thought were valuable, and you’ll very likely see quoted in future posts and other of my writings about writing. Enjoy…

Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.

The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery.

If I’d found out that Norman Mailer liked me, I’d have killed myself. I think he was too hung up. I’m glad Kurt Vonnegut didn’t like me either. He had problems, terrible problems. He couldn’t see the world the way I see it.

It took a long time for people simply to allow us out in the open and stop making fun of us. When I was a young writer if you went to a party and told somebody you were a science-fiction writer you would be insulted. They would call you Flash Gordon all evening, or Buck Rogers. Of course sixty years ago hardly any books were being published in the field. Back in 1946, as I remember, there were only two science-fiction anthologies published. We couldn’t afford to buy them anyway, since we were all too poor. That’s how bereft we were, that’s how sparse the field was, that’s how unimportant it all was. And when the first books finally began to be published, lots of them in the early fifties, they weren’t reviewed by good literary magazines. We were all closet science-fiction writers.

I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual.

Style is truth. Once you nail down what you want to say about yourself and your fears and your life, then that becomes your style and you go to those writers who can teach you how to use words to fit your truth.

I just can’t imagine being in a world and not being fascinated with what ideas are doing to us.

If you’re not careful in tragedy, one extra rape, one extra incest, one extra murder and it’s hoo-haw time all of a sudden.

The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason whythe idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard. Don’t let people interfere with you. Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done. If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone.

My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.

Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out.

Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.

If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt.

I have three rules to live by. One, get your work done. If that doesn’t work, shut up and drink your gin. And when all else fails, run like hell!

What a smart, amazing genius. Who doesn’t love Ray Bradbury?

…maybe too much?

—Philip Athans

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DELETE NOTHING, AT LEAST NOT PERMANENTLY

It’s okay to cut bits of text from your work in progress as you’re revising, but let’s say you’ve written the beginning of a short story, and about a thousand words in it feels like it’s just not working for whatever reason. It’s okay to walk away from that, but it’s not okay to throw it in the trash.

Keep everything you write. Why? Because you never know.

What if, twenty years later, you experience some flash of inspiration that rescues that first attempt at a story and propels it to something new and great? But you’ve tossed the first stab at the text, so now you’re scrambling around trying to recreate it, and… why?

What if, instead, that was on your computer in a folder, or even printed out or handwritten and in a filing cabinet—whatever works? Now you have this thing you started and suddenly know how to finish and there it is: no words “wasted.”

“I feel like it’s all about, don’t be afraid to write lots of garbage, but also don’t throw any of it away,” wrote Susan Choi on “Powering Through a First Draft,” “Have a very large storage system for all that garbage, because it’s only garbage in context. It may turn out to be a treasure in some other context you haven’t discovered yet.”

At least now, in the Computer Age, can there be such a thing as wasted words, or even wasted time? When it’s possible to archive essentially everything—and in any case everything we write—even though there might not be any short-term financial return on investment, what about the impossible to predict long term? What about the experience we gain, as writers, from every single word we write? The act of writing literally anything has real value that goes beyond any future royalty payment or flat fee or per-word or honorarium.

Of course, if you have what you feel is a great idea and the writing is coming to you quickly, and everything is humming on all cylinders and you’re sure this is your next worldwide best seller, by all means, keep going—and save often in case of power failures or God knows what else can happen. Make sure you’re backing files up, keeping notebooks in a safe, dry place, and so on. Of course I’m not saying stop doing what’s working and instead write something terrible that might someday be made less terrible, but if you have written something terrible, yeah, people: save it because it might someday be made less terrible.

“Sometimes, you have to write the boring pages and then delete them, to do what the story requires,” Marcy Dermansky wrote in: “On Revising Without Losing Your Mind” “This, however, is not suffering. This is revision, and revision is also fun. While making a book better, new ideas keep coming in.”

Revising doesn’t necessarily come immediately after writing either—not for everything. Even a scene cut from a work in progress should be saved. What if that, heavily revised, becomes the start of new project, or a related short story, or… who knows what? I don’t know what it might turn in to, and neither do you. It might end up being nothing, but keep it anyway, just in case.

—Philip Athans

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BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXXI: IN PRAISE OF GOOD BOOKSTORES

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

Author Jeff Deutsch is the director of the Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago. In 2019 the Co-op was incorporated as the first not-for-profit bookstore whose sole purpose is bookselling. I’ve never been there, though it sounds fantastic, but then I’m an easy sell. For me, every bookstore is fantastic. One of my favorite things about living in the Seattle area is the wealth of great new and used bookstores scattered all over the city and suburbs. I can be found out there fairly often myself, browsing, if I can manage it, for hours at a time, and buying as many books as I can afford plus maybe 5-10% because if you have to over-spend on something, damn well better make it books. Anyway, Jeff Deutsch clearly shares that passion for bookstores and has taken a surprisingly deep dive into the book browser’s, reader’s, and bookseller’s lifestyle in what is actually a short little book.

Though you might not find much in terms of writing advice here, I hope that we all share a love of books. Can anyone write a book who doesn’t love books? I don’t think so… anyway, I don’t think they should. Authors need to be readers first, and stay readers along the way. You might like audiobooks… okay by me. You might have a Kindle or other device packed with e-books… also okay by me. But this book and this post are for people who love, most of all, the physical object, found in the physical place.

I collect books, but even before that I bought books—lots of books—and if there’s a bookstore nearby you will find me there, so this was a book definitely meant for me.

In Praise of Good Bookstores is made up of five chapters, covering what the author has identified as the principle components, or responsibilities of good bookstores:

Space

Here we’re treated to this bookseller’s categories of bookstore browsers, though he admits the list is “non-exhaustive.” I usually fall into the category of “the chef, who trusts their senses to help them identify the most delectable ingredients,” and am often, instead, “the general, who sees the stacks as a thing to be conquered,” but what I really want is to be “the idler, who just wants to while away the hours among books.” I’m sure you’ll find yourself in at least one of his categories.

Abundance

I love all bookstores, but big bookstores with lots of different books are always my favorites. This bit had me nodding along:

Of the 28,000 titles the Seminary Co-op sold in 2019, nearly 17,000 were single copies. In other words, each of those 17,000 books was sought by a unique reader. Emerson’s “extraordinary relative power of books to intoxicate us and no other is rendered visible by this number. Simply put, book discovery can’t be mass-produced; it is a highly individualized endeavor. As Shils points out, it is the availability of many slow-moving lines that makes a good bookshop. This means that, from a purely profit-driven perspective, the good bookstore is bound to stock books it shouldn’t. And that a good portion of those 17,000 books would not have been discovered that year if they weren’t on our shelves.

That would have been a shame.

Value

Here Deutsch gets into the distinction between something with a sort of utilitarian value and something, like a book, that contains within it an expansiveness far beyond the physical components used to construct it. What is the value of an idea? And especially an idea that travels to us, person-to-person, through potentially enormous expanses of geography, time, and culture?

I don’t continue to derive pleasure from—nor even recall—what I had for breakfast last week, much less last year, but I can tell you what I was reading when I took my first bookselling job in 1994: Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Goneby James Baldwin. The list price of the 1969 mass-market paperback edition, which my mother bought soon after it was published, was $1.25. In 1994, when I read her copy, the value would have been $5.23—or about the price of a couple of slices of pizza with a friend. As it turns out, Baldwin’s novel now costs $17, which, had I purchased it in 1994 for $17 would have been as valuable an expenditure as I made that year.

A whole other post, I think, unpacking the rising cost of books in adjusted dollars, but the value proposition remains strong. In the end, I absolutely agree with Deutsch when he writes, “The most important things in the world seem impossible to measure.”

Community

I’ll just leave this chapter with…

There is something solemn about mornings, when the world is quiet and the shop is calm. The books are illuminated by a dim natural light. When empty, the bookstore is filled with community—with aspiration both communal and individual—and when full, the bookstore often maintains a quiet usually obtainable only in solitude. The arguments and enthusiasms contained in the volumes on the shelves create their own communion with the individual reader, while also providing a mechanism for discourse. It is a public square, no less articulate for most often being mute.

And:

We readers have felt the companionship of books, and many of us have found ourselves at a loss to explain to the underliterate among us the power and nourishment we receive from our books.

…next to which, in the margin, I wrote: “oh hell, yeah!”

Time

In this chapter, Deutsch quotes Milan Kundera:

Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature?

For me, time slows down in a good bookstore, like orbiting too close to a black hole, and I wouldn’t be at all upset if I could never escape.

Finally, in the epilogue, Deutsch answers, at least to my satisfaction, the simple question, why books?

In some way, we are all wandering people, wandering in search of our communities, in search of ourselves. Books and the landscapes they create, both as objects and as mechanisms to deliver the hopes, dreams, moods, principles, and wisdom contained between their covers, are exceptional tools to cultivate our own interior landscape, which, after all, is our portable and permanent homeland. And so we may understand, shape, and immerse ourselves in the external world, creating what Robinson calls a sense of the possible, that we might become a more generous community.

Yes.

Now, go to a good bookstore and buy In Praise of Good Bookstores.

—Philip Athans

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The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction!

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WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL: PERRY RHODAN #1 ENTERPRISE STARDUST

This loose series of posts started out in response to my random science fiction (and fantasy and horror and now including other genres) paperback grab-bag box, but let’s expand that out to the series I’m collecting as well, which I talked about here a few weeks ago. When the random behavior prompt came up to read a Perry Rhodan novel, the next in line was actually the first in line…

Do you find it strange that I’ve collected almost the full run of a series passing the hundred book mark without actually having read any of them first? Well, y’know… not everyone gets it.

Anyway, what even is this whole Perry Rhodan business?

Perry Rhodan is the titular character of what has become, over 61 years, the longest-running science fiction series of all time. Begun in what was then West Germany in 1961 as weekly magazines, the series and its various spin-offs have sold more than two billion copies, half of that in Germany alone.

Back in 1969, enterprising editor/science fiction, fantasy, and horror super-fan Forrest J. Ackerman teamed up with Ace Books and his wife, Wendayne Ackerman (who handled the English translations) to bring Perry to an American audience. Obviously Perry resonated with at least a few American fans, since the Ace English series managed to bring out 126 Perry Rhodan books between 1969 and 1978.

The first of the Ace books, and the one I’ve just finished reading, is Enterprise Stardust, by K.H. Scheer & Walter Ernstling. The slim little 192-page book actually contains two Perry Rhodan novellas: Enterprise Stardust and The Third Power, so what we can assume were actually the first two issues of the German magazine.

Enterprise Stardust begins with a American mission to the Moon, commanded, of course, by steely-eyed American astronaut Perry Rhodan. Enterprise Stardust, named for the moon rocket Stardust, gets Perry and his crew to the Moon—the first to achieve that milestone, just ahead of the Asiatic Federation and the Eastern Bloc. I believe this was meant to be set in the near future, and one where, clearly, the Cold War continued to wage—even get much worse—seeing the world divided into two major powers: an alliance of the Eastern Bloc and the Asiatic Federation vs. the Western Bloc. I can see how someone living in West Germany in 1961 would see the world that way. But reading it in 2022 it feels less like near future SF than alternate history SF. What if, in 1969, the Western Bloc did land on the Moon, and also had a cure for leukemia, but nuclear war was an itchy trigger finger away?

In each of the three parts of the world, a man was sitting in a room deep underground, in front of giant control panels and electronic computers. He was connected to the command posts by video screens. His hand rested quietly on the table, close to a red button.

This button seemed to wink ironically and say, “Well,, go on! Why don’t you push me? Are you afraid someone else will do it too? Or do you fear that the end of the world will come if you push me?”

These red buttons, each an invitation to Inferno!

With this simplified but dangerous world set up, Perry is off to the Moon, where he almost crashes, then discovers a strange mystery he first assumes is the wily Asiatics (there’s some terminology that reads as, let’s say… insensitive by today’s standards—be prepared for that in any fiction written in the 60s or earlier) but instead they discover a crashed alien starship.

Perry makes an uneasy contact with the alien Arkonides and quickly cooks up a deal with their captain, Khrest. The Arkonides, an older, much more advanced species, and one once at the head of an interstellar empire, has fallen into decadence… 

Khrest turned his head painfully. “They are engaged in the usual simulator game. It has contributed much to the collapse of will and spirit among my people. Billions of Arkonides stand vigil by those screens daily while games are created by different masters of the medium. Highly complex. It is the audio-visual representation of elements in the subjective psyche. My people would waste their lives in this fashion. The situation is gradually worsening. For example, there are only fifty persons on board. Rarely do I get to see them, but when I do, they are seated, trance-like, before the fictif screens. Our degeneration is not to be found in the realm of normal attitudes or ethics but rather in total relaxation and surrender of will.

Goddamn video games… every time. But please note that this was written in 1961, and do with that as you will.

Whatever the cause, this cultural malaise has gotten so bad that when their starship crashed on the Moon, none of them knew how to repair it, or even particularly cared if it was fixed. And it’s even started to affect them physically. Khrest, and maybe the rest of his crew, is dying of leukemia. So Perry offers him the Western Bloc’s leukemia cure in exchange for the Arkonides’ advanced technology, which then leads into the second novella, The Third Power.

Perry, being our hero and therefore smarter and better than anyone—he is that broadly drawn at least in this first installment, but let’s keep an eye on that—decides that the advanced technology of the Arkonides will tip the fragile balance of power in the world and bring on nuclear war. So Perry decides to establish a “Third Power,” which is, basically, himself, and a few of his crewmen who decide to stay with him. He lands the Stardust in the Gobi Desert and proceeds to hold the world hostage… for its own good…

Someone had prevented the war. A single individual had been greater than all the great powers. He had opposed them and had forcibly wrung peace from them.

Perry Rhodan!

…in case you were wondering who the hero of the story was.

Are Perry’s impulses messianic or fascistic?

Again, let’s see how that plays out.

So then, what we have here is definitely quickly written space opera, translated sans finesse, with plenty of action and an overt but interesting political message. Imagine Dune if it was written over the course of a couple weeks then translated over a few days into German. The Germans might not have bought a billion copies of that series, and accounts for the series slipping into obscurity at least here in the States. But as an editor, I have built up an ability to look past the technique and into the story, and the story here is solid, with some interesting, if dated, political ideas.

Now, having established that Perry Rhodan is awesome and has a friend in Khrest though an uneasy alliance with the Arkonides in general (Khrest’s sister has a problem with him…) that’s granted him access to some wild tech… where do we go from here?

I’m in at least as far as…

 

And I’ll let you know if it was worth collecting all these crazy books one random behavior modification prompt at a time.

—Philip Athans

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In Writing Monsters, best-selling author Philip Athans uses classic examples from books, films, and the world around us to explore what makes monsters memorable—and terrifying.

You’ll learn what monsters can (and should) represent in your story and how to create monsters from the ground up.

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NOT EVERYONE IS THE HERO OF THEIR OWN STORY

Sometimes villains know full well they’re being villainous, that they’re hurting people, that what they’re doing is wrong and so must be done in secret, and so live in fear of being caught. When they are caught, they might at least be remorseful for the mistakes they made that led them to being caught, admit that what they did was harmful to others, struggle with why they did what they did—often having no grander explanation for their terrible behavior than it felt good, or felt like something they had to do, that it somehow “scratched an itch” or satisfied some curiosity. Or they just wanted the money. And though some of that remorse may well be faked—sociopaths can get good at that—these villains do not think of themselves as heroes in any way.

Who are these people?

  • Every single serial killer you can name.
  • Internet trolls who signal boost for the craziest possible crap and make open threats of violence against anyone they come cross, just to bathe in the negative reactions.
  • Certain critics who want to prove they can close a play in the first week.
  • Everyone involved in the international drug trade.
  • Everyone involved in sex trafficking.

People do all sorts of insane shit all the while knowing full well there’s no greater good at the end of it. But that goes against a lot of fiction writing advice, doesn’t it. Don’t people like me—and me, too, literally, I’m sure—tell you to craft your villains as the heroes of their own stories?

For instance: “Stacey D’Erasmo on the Fun of Writing Cryptic Characters”:

If, however, you choose to take the risk of spending a lot of time with a character who roams unsettlingly among moral, ethical, or political ambiguities, there is one thing that is not blurry at all to me: everyone is the hero of their own life. Everyone walks around thinking, on some level, If you only knew. True, accountable confessions with a view to making amends are rare. Much more common are explanations, defenses, rationalizations, and self-mythologizing. Not far underneath many an apology is a much sulkier, more stubborn, sotto voce You don’t understand what really happened.

That can be true. I really think Adolf Hitler saw himself as the savior of Germany and sincerely put himself forward as such. If it’s true that every serial killer doesn’t think of himself as a hero, then every fascist dictator does think of himself as a hero: Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, etc.

But this blanket, one-sided character advice gets at the heart of why many stories suffer from what I call “villain confusion.” Authors struggle so valiantly to make the villain a sort of misguided hero that they end up with a villain that isn’t a villain at all, and we’re left wondering who to root for. You can see villain confusion play out in all its glory in the Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Now, if that’s actually what you’re going for, I’m all in. There is no requirement that you have a perfectly good hero and a perfectly evil villain. But make me wonder who to root for and who, if anyone, to root against on purpose, not because you’re feeling under some pressure to redeem a bad guy.

Sometimes, a bad guy is just a bad guy.

—Philip Athans

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AUTHORS ON THE WRITING PROCESS

Maybe the most unanswerable question people like me are asked—other than “where do you get your ideas?” which is an eternal mystery everyone, not just writers, should be familiar with—is any version of:

Okay, but how do I actually do it?

How do I put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, and make words happen? How many words a day should I write? How many hours a day or a week or a month or a year should I spend writing? How many drafts should I write? How do I know when I’m done? When do I stop writing and start revising? Can I write and revise at the same time? Do I need a desk? Do I need to have a dedicated office or writing nook or shed or something? Can I write longhand?

The questions go on and on, but let’s call these process questions, and start with what a few authors you may have heard of have said on the matter…

Kazuo Ishiguro on Can I write and revise at the same time? and Can I write longhand?

I prefer to work by pen on my writing slope for the initial drafts. I want it to be more or less illegible to anyone apart from myself. The rough draft is a big mess. I pay no attention to anything to do with style or coherence. I just need to get everything down on paper. If I’m suddenly struck by a new idea that doesn’t fit with what’s gone before, I’ll still put it in. I just make a note to go back and sort it all out later. Then I plan the whole thing out from that. I number sections and move them around. By the time I write my next draft, I have a clearer idea of where I’m going. This time round, I write much more carefully.

Italo Calvino also answers Can I write longhand? and When do I stop writing and start revising?

I write by hand, making many, many corrections. I would say I cross out more than I write. I have to hunt for words when I speak, and I have the same difficulty when writing. Then I make a number of additions, interpolations, that I write in a very tiny hand. There comes a moment when I myself can’t read my handwriting, so I use a magnifying glass to figure out what I’ve written. I have two different handwritings. One is large with fairly big letters—the os and as have a big hole in the center. This is the hand I use when I’m copying or when I’m rather sure of what I’m writing. My other hand corresponds to a less confident mental state and is very small—the os are like dots. This is very hard to decipher, even for me.

My pages are always covered with canceling lines and revisions. There was a time when I made a number of handwritten drafts. Now, after the first draft, written by hand and completely scrawled over, I start typing it out, deciphering as I go. When I finally reread the typescript, I discover an entirely different text that I often revise further. Then I make more corrections. On each page I try first to make my corrections with a typewriter; I then correct some more by hand. Often the page becomes so unreadable that I type it over a second time. I envy those writers who can proceed without correcting. 

D.Z. Stone answers Do I need a desk? Do I need to have a dedicated office or writing nook or shed or something?

It took me years to realize that to create and craft a publishable piece of fiction, you don’t need peer approval or criticism, or for that matter a fancy room where you can feel writerly. What you need is to be honest with yourself.

Grace Paley, on How many drafts should I write?

I never understand what people mean when they say they’ve done twenty drafts or something. Does that mean they’ve typed it twenty times, or what? I’m always changing things as I go. It’s always substantially different by the time I’ve finished. I do it till it’s done.

Haruki Murakami helps with How do I put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, and make words happen?

[Killing Commendatore is] a big book, you know, and it took a year and half or so for me to write, but it started with just one or two paragraphs. I wrote those paragraphs down and put them in the drawer of my desk and forgot about them. Then, maybe three months or six months later, I got the idea that I could turn those one or two paragraphs into a novel, and I started to write. I had no plans, I had no schedule, I had no story line: I just started from that paragraph or two and kept on writing. The story led me to the end. If you have a plan—if you know the end when you start—it’s no fun to write that novel. You know, a painter may draw sketches before he starts painting, but I don’t. There is a white canvas, I have this paintbrush, and I just paint the picture.

Jack Kerouac was a bit more, shall we say, “blue collar” on the whole series of questions…

You think out what actually happened, you tell friends long stories about it, you mull it over in your mind, you connect it together at leisure, then when the time comes to pay the rent again you force yourself to sit at the typewriter, or at the writing notebook, and get it over with as fast as you can… and there’s no harm in that because you’ve got the whole story lined up.

I really hate to write. I get no fun out of it because I can’t get up and say I’m working, close my door, have coffee brought to me, and sit there camping like a “man of letters” “doing his eight hour day of work” and thereby incidentally filling the printing world with a lot of dreary self-imposed cant and bombast,  bombast  being Scottish for pillow stuffing. Haven’t you heard a politician use fifteen hundred words to say something he could have said in exactly three words? So I get it out of the way so as not to bore myself either.

It should come as no surprise that Hunter S. Thompson had a similar outlook…

My theory for years has been to write fast and get through it. I usually write five pages a night and leave them out for my assistant to type in the morning.

Susan Sontag is simultaneously a bit more methodical and more than a bit more unsure of her own process.

I write chapter by chapter and I don’t go on to the next chapter until the one I’m working on is in final form. That was frustrating at first because from the beginning I knew much of what I wanted the characters to say in the final monologues, but I feared that if I wrote them early on I wouldn’t be able to go back to the middle. I was also afraid that maybe by the time I got to it I would have forgotten some of the ideas or no longer be connected to those feelings. The first chapter [of The Volcano Lover], which is about fourteen typewritten pages, took me four months to write. The last five chapters, some one hundred typewritten pages, took me two weeks.

Eudora Welty

…found it possible to write almost anywhere I’ve happened to try. I like it at home better because it’s much more convenient for an early riser, which I am. And it’s the only place where you can really promise yourself time and keep out interruptions. My ideal way to write a short story is to write the whole first draft through in one sitting, then work as long as it takes on revisions, and then write the final version all in one, so that in the end the whole thing amounts to one long sustained effort. That’s not possible anywhere, but it comes nearest to being possible in your own home.

Kenzaburo Oe described himself as…

…the kind of writer who rewrites and rewrites. I am very eager to correct everything. If you look at one of my manuscripts, you can see I make many changes. So one of my main literary methods is “repetition with difference.” I begin a new work by first attempting a new approach toward a work that I’ve already written—I try to fight the same opponent one more time. Then I take the resulting draft and continue to elaborate upon it, and as I do so the traces of the old work disappear. I consider my literary work to be a totality of differences within repetition.

George Saunders advises us to just, maybe, try to calm down.

…a rough patch in a story is not an error or a defect or evidence of our lack of talent or proof that we are imposters, missing some essential frequency being broadcast from Story Central. It’s an indicator that our heroic, brilliant subconscious is working out a problem as it stumbles towards beauty, and is asking for our help, and what it needs for us to do, just now, is have faith. And wait. And, while we’re waiting (as an active form of waiting), keep revising (revising that bit and everything around it). Be O.K., for now, with its apparent imperfection (which is actually just a momentary lagging behind). Keep coming back to that place, with affection and hope, until it relents and pops into clarity.

And then in the end, the impossible question, Is it good enough? Said John Cheever

I have never completed anything in my life to my absolute and lasting satisfaction.

Maybe some parts of some parts of these words of wisdom will help you at least feel better about your lack of a clear sense of the writing process—if that’s even something you’re struggling with. If you’re satisfied with the words you’re writing, however you got there is the ideal process—for you—for now. If you’re struggling, try stuff. Change where and when and how you write. Revise as you go if you haven’t been, or stop revising and keep writing if, like Susan Sontag, you’re caught in a Chapter One death spiral. If these disparate quotes tell us anything it’s this:

There is no one way to write, and there is no best way to write. The writing is the thing.

Keep writing!

—Philip Athans

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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 the long-running weekly blog you’re reading right now.

 

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I COLLECT BOOKS, DAMN IT

There, I did it—I came out!

Well, not really. I’ve talked about my Ace Doubles collection and even my Star Trek shrine in the past, but this whole book collecting thing has been ramping up for me over the past several years in a way that not even I necessarily noticed was happening. I started collecting Ace Doubles years ago, and have been taking that pretty seriously all along. I’m still several volumes short of a complete collection of Ace Science Fiction Doubles, and have now started toying with the idea of also collecting the westerns and mysteries, both of which I have a few of already.

But then somewhere in there I started collecting the old Grosset & Dunlap Tarzan books, and realized I also had a few old Ace Books editions of other Edgar Rice Burroughs books, and so now I’m collecting those as well.

And as a very young kid I had a couple of the 1960s-70s Grosset & Dunlap library bound editions of the Tom Swift, Jr. series originally published in the mid-1950s, and in a flagrantly nostalgic move I’m not normally prone to, decided I needed all of them. This, by the way, is a need thing, not a want thing—but more on that later.

I taught a course in writing new pulp fiction based on Lester Dent’s master formula, and realized I hadn’t really read any of his writing. I found a few copies of the Bantam Books run of the Doc Savage series from the 70s and about a minute passed between, “Hmm, I should pick this up,” to “I will have them all, in order, though the Heavens may fall.” Which is pretty much how it works.

And when I was a kid I had a friend who’s father had a whole shelf of the old Ace Books Perry Rhodan series and I thought it was so cool, all those numbered sci-fi books all lined up in a row. Then, decades later, I happened upon a copy of the first two in the series in a used bookstore and figured I’d better buy them since I knew it wasn’t likely I’d run across them again, and then I was in a different used bookstore and there was a huge batch of them they were selling for $1.99 each. I asked one of the booksellers if she’d cut me a deal if I bought all of them and she said I could have them for a dollar each and $92 dollars later and I’m collecting the mid-70s Ace Books Perry Rhodan series, too. I ended up with a bunch of doubles which I’m letting go on eBay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Oh, and a couple years ago, at that same used bookstore, they had a hundred-year old complete set of the Harvard Classics Series for $50, which I gleefully paid, so that collection was one and done.

I mentioned the Star Trek shrine… I also have a collection of some of the Star Trek books and lately I’ve been wondering why I don’t have the complete Bantam Star Trek series, which were all conveniently numbered and many of which I’ve read over the years but haven’t held onto. I need to start that collection.

This thing can get out of hand. I read Berserker by Fred Saberhagen years ago and liked it and a few years ago decided I needed the whole series so I bought them all over the course of a year or so… but I’m honestly not that big a military SF fan, so when it was time to move back into my office after finally finishing the floors the Berserker books never went back on the shelves, and now they’re on eBay, at least for the next couple days, and will bring in some money to buy more Ace Doubles, Tom Swifts, Perry Rhodans, and Doc Savages.

And all those Star Trek books.

And there’s one other thing I’ve started doing… actually reading them.

I’ve added to my random behavior modifications these prompts:

Start reading an ACE Double

Start reading a random pb novel

Start reading a Tom Swift book

Start reading a Perry Rhodan book

Start reading a Doc Savage book

Start reading a Star Trek book

Start reading a Harvard Classic book

And guess what I’m reading right now…

[vance/rhodan]

That’s right an Ace Double: The Five Gold Bands and The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance in the later edition from 1972. I also have a copy of the 1962 edition of the same Ace Double, the first book printing of The Dragon Masters, but just happened to grab this one off the shelf at random. And I’ve taken the first dive into the Perry Rhodan universe with Enterprise Stardust—the two stories that started it all, and by “it” I mean a ridiculously robust series of SF stories that have been being published as weekly—yes, you read that right, weekly magazines for decades in Germany. Perry Rhodan: Germany’s #1 fictional American spaceman!

Why am I doing this? Why am I collecting these books, and planning on collecting others? I saw a YouTube video of a guy who’s collecting all of the classic yellow-spine DAW books, which were sequentially numbered, and I was all like, Shit. I need those.

Then I started to realize how many of those DAW books I’ve bought, read, and sold back to used bookstores or given away over the years and then all the others just like that—the Del Rey John Carter series and the whole Elric saga with the great Michael Whelan covers… 

Do not get me started.

Above I said that I need these books. It’s not a want thing.

We all need air, water, food, shelter.

And at least one other thing.

This is a philosophy I have instituted just now.

On my list: books.

I need air, water, food, shelter, and books. Lots and lots of books, many of which have lots and lots of companions, siblings, extended families… and in Phil’s world, no book is left behind.

—Philip Athans

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WHY? THE HEART OF CHARACTER MOTIVATION

The truest anger or distress is conveyed by authors who actually feel anger or distress in their soul. Thus the best writers are those who are either highly gifted or insane.

—Aristotle, The Poetics

A good fiction author is at least one part psychologist, and a good psychologist doesn’t end with “I can’t stop…” or “I’m afraid of…” or “I have to…” A good psychiatrist will dig deeper, to get to the source of that feeling or compulsion, what that represents, what makes it better or worse, where and when it first manifested, and so on—what motivates that feeling or compulsion.

All fiction relies on well motivated characters. They are not only what drives a story, they’re also the primary emotional/psychological connection points for our readers. Motivation is, simply put, the reason a person does a thing. If you’re, say, a compulsive shopper and go to a therapist for help, a good therapist won’t just say, “Oh, just don’t buy so much stuff,” and leave it at that. A good therapist will want to help you uncover why you shop compulsively. What motivates that compulsion? What hole in your life are you filling with whatever it is you’re buying?

So then if a character is…? You tell me: Determined to seize control of the empire or the whole world—or the whole galaxy? Hell-bent on revenge against anyone? Trying to steal the thing or the stuff or the money? Whatever that character, hero or villain, wants or needs, ask:

What caused that, what reinforced it, and why?

The importance of the why behind the what goes equally for hero, villain, monster… anything with individual agency, anything that can think beyond: “Hungry. Bite.” In Writing Monsters, discussing the intersection between a monster and a villain or hero, I advised:

The creation of [a monstrous] villain—or hero, as the case may be—should begin with the character first. If this sentient monster is going to be your story’s villain, build the villain first. What does he/she/it want? What is the ultimate goal? What drives this character forward: why him, why here, why now? 

I tend to define story as “characters in conflict.” Every story is about people, even if those people aren’t actually human. The rabbits in Watership Down are people. Spock and Worf from Star Trek are people. 

Dracula is a person. 

Once you have a handle on your villain’s motivation, start building his or her monstrous side on that foundation. Ask yourself: How does this character’s monstrous qualities help move my story forward? How does the monster’s strengths complicate the hero’s efforts, and how can the hero exploit the monster’s weaknesses? 

You’ll have to forgive my admittedly old fashioned reliance on the terms “hero” and “villain.” Please feel free to substitute “protagonist” and “antagonist”… whatever makes sense for what you’re writing, but again, story is characters in conflict, so one way or another we have at least one character at odds with at least one other character—and all the variations on that theme imaginable including multiple characters residing in the same body, one, some or neither being something other than human… you tell me. Also from Writing Monsters:

So when crafting your own monsters, keep their motivations in mind, just as you would a human character, and think of the varied ways they can express those motivations. My dog can’t tell me in words how he feels, but he clearly conveys emotions, desires, and so on through nonverbal communication. Does your monster have an impulse to change? A desire for redemption? Is this monstrous agent of the villain only acting in that capacity because the villain is holding something over it? Is this monster attacking because it’s trying to protect its young, as does the horta in the classic Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark”? It could very well be that the way for your heroes to “defeat” the monster is by understanding it, helping it, rescuing it, sending it home… rather than simply killing it. 

But in any case, for a villain or antagonist, motivation distilled to: “because he’s crazy,” or maybe even worse: “because she’s evil,” is not going to be enough—not anymore, anyway. Ramsey Campbell wrote on the subject of evil in his On Writing Horror essay “Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death”:

Writing about evil is a moral act, and it won’t do to recycle definitions of evil—to take them on trust. Horror fiction frequently presents the idea of evil in such a shorthand form as to be essentially meaningless—something vague out there that causes folk to commit terrible acts, something other than ourselves, nothing to do with us. That sounds to me more like an excuse than a definition, and I hope it’s had its day. If we’re going to write about evil, then let’s define it and how it relates to ourselves.

Evil, like good, is specific to an individual and is something that comes from deep inside, from a mix of nature and nurture, and is visible in that individual’s speech and deeds. And often, the worst acts are perpetrated not by someone with “evil intent,” but by someone with perfectly benevolent intentions who somehow screws up, misinterprets, acts out of fear or some other personal weakness. Daniel Abraham, in “The Aspects of Epic,” put it this way:

We wind up imagining the world through a particular lens, and as writers we’re imagining a person and imagining those moments and trying to capture them, and trying to transcribe them in a way that other people will understand. That’s the fun part of the gig. There’s this universality of experience, right? Where you think, ‘Okay, well, she’s doing this thing; if I were not my best self, and I were in the same place, how would I fuck up?’ I look back at the earlier stages of my life, when I was inappropriately infatuated with somebody: what kind of asshole did that make me? What vulnerability did I have in that moment? What anger in that moment, and what resentment came out of that? How did my feelings present? As a writer, you mine all of that.

And for me it comes down to one word:

Why?

My hero wants this… but why?

My villain wants the other thing… but why?

They can’t possibly avoid coming into conflict with each other because… why?

And though I suppose it’s possible to craft too complex an answer to that seemingly simple question, I’d say the more complex—the more human, the more vulnerable, the more relatable—you make that why, the better.

—Philip Athans

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HOW MUCH IS YOUR NOVEL WORTH?

I know. Nobody likes talking about money, especially in the publishing business, which can be impenetrable on a good day, and as recent merger issues have confirmed, dishonest on a bad one. I’ve always found that in the absence of accurate information, the worst case scenario prevails, so even if the news isn’t great but you’re just not sure how much money might be waiting for you at the end of a long process of writing a novel, here’s the best I can do this week in terms of tracking down some numbers.

I started at PublishersMarketplace, which among other things tracks deals across the publishing business. I filtered for science fiction and fantasy deals made since the beginning of 2022, and looked through the listings for ones that specify a deal category—and not all of them do. So the scientific accuracy of the following data is at least that suspect, but it’s good enough at least to identify some trends and set some basic expectations.

PublishersMarketplace divides deals, which is to say the advance given to an author by a publisher, into five categories ranging from “nice” to “major.” Here’s what I found reported for 2022 so far:

There were twenty “nice” deals (advance of $1000-$49,000), which is 45% of the total of 44 deals specified since the start of 2022.

There were eight “very nice” deals ($50,000-$99,000), or 18% of the total.

Ten “good” deals ($100,000-$250,000) made up 23% of the total.

And the last 14% came from six “major” deals ($500,000 and up). Most of these were multiple book deals (three or four books) by T.J. KluneOlivie Blake, Thea Guanzon (the only debut), Pierce BrownA.K. Mulford, and Danielle C. Jensen.

There was nothing in the “significant” deal category ($251,000-$499,000).

What does that mean?

Just playing the odds, you have the best chance of scoring the lowest deal tier level, of course, but second place jumps up two categories to “good” deals, leaving only two more “very nice” deals than “major” deals.

In all honestly, don’t expect, as a new author with no proven sales record, more than that $49,000 “nice” deal limit. In my experience I think it’s lots more likely that “nice” advance is $10,000 from bigger publishers and $5000 from smaller publishers.

But just for the sake of argument let’s say we average the “nice” deal out to $25,000 and take out 15% for your agent—because you’re not getting even a “nice” deal without an agent. That nets you (pre-tax) $21,250, which isn’t terrible, but certainly doesn’t make you rich.

If instead you put your book up on Kindle Direct for $2.99, which is the minimum for their 70% royalty, you’ll be getting back about $2 for each ebook you sell, meaning you’ll have to move 10,625 $2.99 eBooks to match that up-front advance from, say, Del Rey or Tor. Make that eBook cost $4.99 and you “only” have to sell 6250 of them to make that $21,250.

Unfortunately, according to WORDSRATED, the average self-published book sells 250 copies, which is a full 6000 fewer copies than we’re targeting, for $500 or $850 at those two price points.

Lots less money.

The bigger publishers will expect to ship about 5000 copies, more or less, and will have based your advance on what they think that initial order will be. It will probably be less than that. So what, then, if you end up only selling 250 of your traditionally published book? You keep the $21,250 and the publisher eats the rest.

Now, I do know, and have worked with, indie fantasy and science fiction authors who have sold thousands of copies of their books in both eBook and POD (Print On Demand) through Amazon and other outlets like Ingram, Nook, Smashwords, etc. But that’s pretty rare. Only 1600 self-published authors (across all categories, not just genre fiction) earn more than $25,000 a year and “more than 1000” have earned $100,000 in the past year. Those last figures feel super hopeful for all of us indie authors… sort of. But when you consider that 300,000,000 self-published books are sold every year, those 1000 or 1600 authors really start to look like the exception to the rule.

What does this mean? Should we all just get demoralized, give up, and get our real estate licenses instead?

I’d advise you to do both, actually. Have a “day job” like almost everyone else, and write as much as you can, learning to write as well as you can, and when you’ve finished your novel, take a year, maybe two, to laboriously hunt down an agent who might jump you past the “nice” deal—or at least into it. If you do decide to go the indie route, either be content with a few hundred books sold over five or ten years and feel good that you at least put something out there—and I’ve worked with authors who see this as a win, and plan for that going in. Otherwise, understand that if you are publishing your own work you are now taking on a separate role as a publisher. The authors I’ve worked with who have succeeded in the indie sphere have approached it as a business, because that’s precisely what it is. This requires investment of up-front money, lots more time than you might have bargained for, strenuous efforts on marketing and public relations, and all the other things that go into first launching then running a small business.

And once again, with feeling, if you see writing as a get rich quick scheme, you’ve been tragically, hopelessly misinformed. Yes, it has happened—or it has seemed to happen—but wow, people, is that rare. That’s essentially MegaMillions lottery rare.

Please take this as good news, though: All of the rest of us have given over our lives to this thing, and a few of us have figured out, by hook or by crook, how to make a living doing it.

Go in with your eyes and ears open, be smart enough to know when you’re not smart enough then start learning, and most of all keep writing, and you might just end up, like me, at age fifty-eight, having spent the majority of your adult life making a full-time living in the business of books.

Which is pretty fucking cool.

THIS JUST IN: Notice how I kept qualifying everything here with versions of “as far as I know” or “as far as I can tell” or “based on the limited data I managed to collect”? Public Books asks “Where is All the Book Data?” READ THIS!

—Philip Athans

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Here’s a book I published myself that I hope to one day sell more than 250 copies of!

 
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10/80/10

“Ninety percent of everything is crap.”

Sturgeon’s Revelation

Science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon meant that about fiction in particular, but since then (and not to take anything away from Mr. Sturgeon, before then) it’s become a sort of rule or assumption that’s been applied across the board. This would then assume that 90% of books, movies, paintings, songs, toaster ovens, underpants, and flea collars are crap (or the more family-friendly “crud”).

Well, I can’t speak for underpants and flea collars but I’ve read a lot of fiction, and a lot of unpublished fiction, from exceedingly rough rough drafts to long-published novels considered by various authorities to be “classics,” and I think Sturgeon was mistaken.

In my experience, it cuts 10/80/10.

Ten percent of fiction is amazing. It’s why we read, what started us reading, what keeps us reading. It’s work that sings to us in any of a limitless number of ways. These are our favorite books, which may be different from other people’s favorite books, but I bet if you really thought about your absolute favorite novels of all time, it would end up being about one in every ten you’ve read. Or if you look at any of the various lists of hundred “greatest” novels of all time you’d agree with at least ten of them.

Ten percent of fiction is terrible. I’ve read some. You’ve read some. We’ve all written some at one point or another, too. Sometimes it’s just rushed, padded, disconnected, not thought through. Sometimes we just rush to having written a novel before learning anything about writing fiction. Some would-be authors simply don’t have the talent for it—whatever that magic spark actually is that makes one person a storyteller, another person a basketball player, and another person a math whiz. This isn’t what we’re going for, but it happens. The good news? It only happens about ten percent of the time.

I refuse to call it the Athans Revelation, but you know what surprised me the minute I started reading from “the slush pile”? Not that there’s tons and tons of crap out there, as Sturgeon would have us believe—and had me prepared for, by the way—nor that almost everything is off the charts legendary, but how much of the writing I’ve read over literally decades of doing this is actually pretty good.

This middle eighty percent is where the entire publishing business lives. It used to be known as “the mid-list” but that’s fallen a bit out of style. But even then, a case could be made that most best sellers fall into this category. We’re talking about the ever-elusive “quality” here, not sales, which rarely have anything to do with each other. A book might have sold a gajillion copies and been really pretty terrible (my favorite examples: The Da Vinci Code and Twilight). Books firmly in the “actually pretty good” category are among the best selling novels of all time (the Harry Potter series, and the work of one of my favorite authors of all time: Edgar Rice Burroughs). And then there are spectacular, what should have been world-changing books like J.M. McDermott’s The Last Dragon, that essentially no one has read. So don’t follow the money here, follow the words, the stories, the reading experience.

It is simply impossible to mathematically quantify the quality of any work of art. We are, my friends, living entirely and forever in the subjective. In fact, you may have winced at my examples of books I thought were great, mediocre, or bad in the previous paragraph. That’s fine. I stopped going to war over personal preferences a long time ago. But then this is a blog abut writing advice, so it is fair for y’all to ask of me: How do I avoid ending up in the bottom ten percent? What puts me in the middle eighty? Is there a way to know I’ve made to the top ten percent?

Fast answers: learn to write, you probably already are, and that will only be determined after you’re dead.

By reading this blog you’re already on your way to avoiding being relegated to the ten percent crap pile. Stay with me, and stay with other people like me. You can hire me, even, to help you. Go to or stay in school. Take courses wherever you can—online or in real life. Invest in that education. Read books about how to write fiction, in and out of your genre. And read, read, read, and read. If you want to write a novel and you don’t read novels I beg you to move on to some other pursuit. Read novels across time and nation to learn storytelling, read novels published in the past few years by major publishers to learn the craft of writing fiction. The craft changes over time. Don’t adopt J.R.R. Tolkien’s style. That was his, and that was a long time ago already. Learn from his storytelling and worldbuilding, but not his already archaic English voice. We want your voice. We have J.R.R.’s already.

Do all that for a long time and you’ll make it into the middle eighty with almost everyone else. You’ll learn a bit about story structure, you’ll gain an ear for dialog, you’ll explore ideas that are your own, and you’ll finish complete works that have a discernible beginning, middle, and end. You might even sell a bunch of books and be rich and famous. Hollywood often snatches up the rights to middle-eighty books and turns them into middle-eighty movies and TV series. That might be cool. As to what a middle-eighty book sounds like, I thought David DeGusta got a handle on it in “I Read the Submissions Queue for a Literary Journal.”

Often there are no idiosyncrasies to speak of, at least in my experience reading submissions. The word choice and syntax are as expected. Descriptions, actions, and ideas are rendered using wording that, over time, has become standard: glances are shot, groans are stifled, whiffs are caught. At the extreme, it’s cliché, but what I’m talking about here is broader—it’s a reliance on the language that comes prepackaged with things. Such a voice is generic, like those of automated phone systems or smart speakers, suggesting to us that the prose comes from no particular individual (though of course it does). It doesn’t feel like the writer is describing, say, the ocean directly, but instead has reached for the words and phrases they have most often seen used to describe the ocean.

We’re all going to do this. Especially those of us who think of ourselves first and maybe only as storytellers rather than avant-garde wordsmiths. If William S. Burroughs heard this said of his writing he’d have been furious. If Edgar Rice Burroughs heard this said about his writing he’d probably say something to the effect of, “That’s what I was going for. I want people to understand the story, and yeah, I need to sell this stuff.”

From there, a whole bunch of perfect strangers that have no other connection to you at all except they’ve read and liked your book can but most likely won’t pull you up into the top ten percent of masterpieces. And again, this isn’t about achieving a sales goal. This is about some kind of entirely subjective and amorphous line between good and great that so many of us have tried for, but it’s not for us to decide. Strive for it, by all means. Is there an algorithm? Don’t make me laugh. A formula? Sure, because if there was only ten percent of authors would know about it. The top ten percent either is or isn’t, happens or doesn’t happen.

So then, yeah, keep reading and writing and bathe in the giant community of pretty good authors writing pretty good books and maybe making a pretty good living doing it. If your great-great-grandchildren are forced to read one of your books in high school…? Only time will tell.

—Philip Athans

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