WRITERS ON READING

I read what you read

                             you do not read what I read

which is right, I am the one with the curiosity

            you read for some mysterious reason

                                              I read simply because I am a writer

—Frank O’Hara, “St. Paul and All That”

I didn’t read nearly enough in 2020. Like the previous two years, I set up a GoodReads challenge to read fifty-two books in 2020—a mark I’d reached in both 2018 and 2019. But somehow in the weird-ass year of 2020, I clocked only thirty books read. I have no idea why, but in the spirit of the Year of Phil, I’ll do no more hand-wringing on that subject and move forward into my new fifty-two book GoodReads challenge for 2021. Of course when I say “reading” in this context, that doesn’t include the many books I read every year in my capacity as an editor. These are the books I read for my own pleasure (not that I don’t find immense pleasure in the books I edit!) or education (not that I don’t find valuable education in the books I edit!).

I love reading, I love books, and I hope you do too. In fact, I insist on it. Writers have to read, plain and simple. We just have to. And this week let’s look to some working authors, living and dead, who agree with me, though at least one author actually bemoaned people reading—at least reading what he thought of as writing unworthy of attention:

[Samuel Taylor] Coleridge’s horror over the involuntary, seemingly autonomous reactions of readers to mass-produced, widely circulating printed texts is well documented. This distaste is perhaps best expressed in his famous footnote to Biographia Literaria, where he writes that “devotees of the circulating libraries” actually engage in “kill-time, with the name of reading”. Coleridge explains this “kill-time” as a “dose… supplied ab extra by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects, and transmits the moving phantasms of one man’s delirium, so as to people the barrenness of a hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose”. Through mechanical means that Coleridge associates directly with visibility (a “camera obscura manufactured at the printing office”), print can spread authorial distemper, when “one man’s delirium” spreads and propagates (or “people[s]”) itself, rendering “a hundred other brains afflicted.” Reading is offered as a healthful “dose” but gives instead mental disease.

This is from the fascinating book Reading Contagion, by Annika Mann, among the thirty books I read and learned from in 2020. In fact, this quote has been sitting in a Word file I call “Random Writing Quotes and Examples.” Anything and everything I read is in danger of having some bit of wisdom copied into that file, to be dragged out for things like this. When I’m reading, I’m paying attention to how this might make me a better writer, editor, and/or person.

Still, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s elitism aside, I think you’ll find that most authors read, and read voraciously. For instance, Truman Capote, when asked in a Paris Review interview if he reads, answered:

Too much. And anything, including labels and recipes and advertisements. I have a passion for newspapers—read all the New York dailies every day, and the Sunday editions, and several foreign magazines too. The ones I don’t buy I read standing at news stands. I average about five books a week—the normal-length novel takes me about two hours. I enjoy thrillers and would like someday to write one. Though I prefer first-rate fiction, for the last few years my reading seems to have been concentrated on letters and journals and biographies. It doesn’t bother me to read while I am writing—I mean, I don’t suddenly find another writer’s style seeping out of my pen. Though once, during a lengthy spell of James, my own sentences did get awfully long.

This William Faulkner quote is all over the Internet, including “40 Famous Authors on Reading”:

Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.

A few weeks ago, I posted this tweet:

Published novels are the best fiction writing courses we can take. Read recent novels from major publishers and break down what they look like—how the words fit on the page, punctuation, grammar and usage… anything and everything you can pull out of them.

…and I’m delighted to report that one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, quoted in “Famous Writers on the Love of Reading” by Jessica Manuel, clearly feels the same way:

I think the first task for the aspiring novelist is to read tons of novels. Sorry to start with such a commonplace observation, but no training is more crucial. To write a novel, you must first understand at a physical level how one is put together…

[Read everything] you can get your hands on—great novels, not-so-great novels, crappy novels, it doesn’t matter (at all!) as long as you keep reading. Absorb as many stories as you physically can. Introduce yourself to lots of great writing. To lots of mediocre writing too. This is your most important task.

And the same sentiment from an author I’ve never read, lest you think this is in some way limited to the world of literary authors:

Reading has been a precious part of my life since my first memories of my mother reading to us before bed each night. Now I have at least one book I’m reading at any time. I’ve been on a cozy mystery kick, but in the past week or so, I’ve been feeling the need to get back to reading romances. Fortunately I have a nice big stack of Love Inspired books in my TBR pile. And I love reading nonfiction—particularly if it’s associated with something I’m researching for a manuscript. I try not to let what I read influence my writing by picking up phrases and imagery that other writers use, but I love to see how my favorite authors use description and dialogue. I use their techniques as a learning tool as I read, thinking, ‘How did they do that? And how could I do it in my own voice?’

…said Jo Ann Brown, author of An Amish Christmas Promise in “5 Reasons Why Readers Make the Best Writers

I have no doubt that for many of us it was the experience of reading that nudged us in the direction of wanting to write ourselves. This was certainly true for me, a voracious reader as soon as I was literate, and for a young Samuel R. Delany as well (from a Paris Review interview):

When I was thirteen, I read War and Peace—the first two hundred pages over two or three days, then I stayed up for thirty-six hours straight to read the rest, with my father coming in every few hours during the night to tell me to put the light out and go to sleep. Interruptions aside, it was a wonderful experience—though I slept all Sunday. That’s the point I decided novels were where it was at.

And one last reminder: Don’t let someone tell you what you have to read! Read anything and everything, inside and out of your genre. I’ve even suggested picking a book from the library shelves with your eyes closed and, whatever it is, reading it. Bertrand Russell, in “New Hopes for a Changing World,” warned against reading as forced labor, and please never think I’m suggesting that for any of us:

Children are made to learn bits of Shakespeare by heart, with the result that ever after they associate him with pedantic boredom. If they could meet him in the flesh, full of jollity and ale, they would be astonished, and if they had never heard of him before they might be led by his jollity to see what he had written. But if at school they had been inoculated against him, they will never be able to enjoy him.

And last of all, hey, guess what… this counts as reading!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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2021: THE YEAR OF PHIL

By the power vested in me by myself, I hereby proclaim 2021 to be the Year of Phil.

This replaces and in all way supersedes the previous attempt at the Year of Phil, which, due to circumstances beyond my control, became 2020 instead.

What does the Year of Phil have in store for us all?

Well, I’m so glad you asked.

In the Year of Phil I’m going to complete a bunch of projects, both personal and professional, that had been put off for various reasons, not started because of… 2020… and so on. A bunch of these things, you don’t necessarily care about, like home repair projects and stuff like that.

There are also a bunch of professional things I can’t talk about because of NDAs and other privacy issues, and so on. Let’s just say I’m going to streamline—and in fact have already started to streamline—a lot about how my little one-man-operation operates so I’m working smarter, more efficiently, and so on.

In 2019 I stepped away from Writer’s Digest University and the online courses I’d taught there for years, for reasons that had nothing to do with the work itself, which I loved. Let’s just say things didn’t go well in a difficult transition following the bankruptcy and dissolution of WD’s parent company, F+W Media. One of the great big plans for 2020 was to set up new courses via a new platform. Looking back, I can’t say exactly why this didn’t happen, but in retrospect 2020 might not have been, y’know, the best year to start a new business.

But now it’s 2021, the Year of Phil, and those online courses and tutorials are back on the to do list. It might take a few months to get all that in place—set up a new platform, create new content, and spread the word—but it will happen in 2021. This I swear by the old gods, and the new.

It’s also been a very long time since I’ve written anything—or really published anything—and that has more to do with a now happily resolved medical issue, some of the inefficiency in my editing and consulting business, and a weird COVID (etc.) ennui that settled in in mid-2020. Still, I have written some, and feel pretty good about writing in the months ahead. I will release one writing book in the first quarter of this year, for sure, then a revised print edition of Completely Broken. A second writing book that will dive into a specific part of writing fiction and offer hands-on advice is slated for the third quarter. Currently thinking that will be something like One Scene, One POV… but let’s tentatively hope for third quarter 2021 on that one, and in the fourth quarter maybe a collection of short fiction and poetry… I don’t know yet.

I will also finally make progress on a fantasy novel WIP that has been hanging unfinished for a very long time. I had a couple of creative breakthroughs on that—plot and motivation holes that had the idea penned up for ages finally filled—and I feel it coming together in my head in a big way.

These books might just be the leads in two new publishing imprints from me, Fantasy Author’s Handbook and Af&p… but not 100% sure on the business plan there yet.

I’ve already started exercising and eating better and in general at least trying to be more positive, more forward-thinking… all that good stuff. And I know that’s true of a lot of us in the first week of a new year. And even in years without a global pandemic it’s been difficult for me to hold to those resolutions. But I can make it through the rest of COVID—hell, I work from home anyway—and as long as there isn’t something worse on the horizon—just don’t think about it!—all these positive changes and goals are meeting me at a point where I’m physically healthier and therefor psychologically healthier, than I have been for… yikes… six years?

But that’s looking back. In the Year of Phil, I look forward.

It’s January 5th—a time to make goals and try to grab hold of our lives. I think it’s more important to at least try to point to a positive future full of new writing and editing and other creative projects after the year we’ve all just been through than whatever “normal” used to feel like.

Keep your eyes here and on Twitter (@PhilAthans) for further information on courses, tutorials, live events, and book launches… who knows what amazing stuff might come out of the Year of Phil.

And hey, listen:

It’s not just the Year of Phil.

Let’s proclaim, by the power vested in ourselves by ourselves, that this is the Year of [insert name here]. The Year of Everybody.

Write in 2021. Publish in 2021. Expand your horizons in any way that helps, pleases, or excites you in 2021.

We can do it!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXVI: STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy (and science fiction and horror and all other) 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.

Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules by Steven James is one of those writing books people kept recommending, in general, and specifically for me. I finally read it over the past few weeks and am glad I did. Though there is an undeniably contradictory message that runs throughout, there’s an wealth of specific advice that any genre author, in particular, will find of immense value.

First, let’s get through that contradictory message, which might be jarring to a lot of readers. I feel as though I can dispel it quickly and easy enough that anyone will be able to brush past it and get to the good stuff, which describes the overwhelming majority of the book.

Story Trumps Structure has been held up as something like the “Pantsers Bible.” If you aren’t familiar with the distinction between “pantsers”—authors who start writing with no plan and complete a full novel “by the seat of their pants,” and “planners”—authors who laboriously craft impeccably detailed outlines then slavishly adhere to them from beginning to end—well, good. It’s a goofball distinction that matters not at all to anyone.

Everyone who puts pen to paper to write a novel is some part “planner” and some part “pantser.” Maybe your outline resides in your head, making you a pantser who has planned without writing down the plan. Maybe your outline, like every outline I’ve ever written myself, is so heavily revised by the time I get to the end of a rough draft that to an outside observer I’m a pantser who jotted down some notes that were then largely ignored. Let’s call planner/pantser a spectrum and leave it at that.

Steven James calls pantsing “organic writing,” which introduces another theme running through the book, which is attaching slightly different words to describe, in some cases, elements of Fiction Writing 101. And for the record, there is nothing wrong with Fiction Writing 101! We all start somewhere, and again, the specific advice in Story Trumps Structure  provides great places to start.

A key concept in James’s organic writing is to ignore anything resembling a formula. This isn’t terrible advice, and I’m equally wary of any true formula, as he describes them, that would give you exact page numbers where this element must happen and are actually outlines with blanks for the characters’ names and so on. By all means, let’s leave that kind of stuff to Hollywood.

Bu I have to tag James with some real inconsistency in message here, since he rejects formulas outright, then goes on to rewrite some of the longest standing formulas as bullets points you must keep in mind while organically writing without a formula. For instance, James writes:

Rather than straightjacketing your story by forcing it into three acts or trying to make it “character-driven” or “plot-driven,” ask if it has an orientation, a crisis or a calling that disrupts normal life, relentless escalation, and a satisfying ending.

Which is a perfect definition of the classic three-act structure:

Act One: an orientation, a crisis or a calling that disrupts normal life

Act Two: relentless escalation

Act Three: a satisfying ending.

Okay, fine. Then he ends the section entitled “Let narrative forces, rather than formulas, drive your story forward” with a one-page formula that certainly doesn’t get into hyper-proscriptive detail, but maps quite nicely with most if not all of the formulas I’ve seen for novels and short stories. See how three questions he advises you to ask in Chapter 8: Emergence, maps to the Lester Dent Master Plot Formula I’ve featured here and in online courses for years:

James: What would this character naturally do in this situation?

Dent: The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.) Does everything happen logically?

James: How can I make things worse?

Dent: Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)

James: How can I end this in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable?

Dent: The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn. The mysteries remaining—one big one held over to this point will help grip interest—are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.

For me, the obvious takeaway is to learn this stuff—basic plot structure like my own “the villain starts the story, the hero ends it;” Aristotle’s three acts; and the rising tension, increasing difficulty, and logical next scene that Dent and many, many others have written about—then forget where you learned it and proceed without referring back. Again, okay. I don’t think Steven James is being hypocritical, it’s more indicative of how he got there himself. It’s interesting that agent Donald Maass touches on this in his foreword to the book:

You see, there are big chunks of the craft that most writers do without thinking. They’re good at explaining what they’re conscious of but unaware of what they do intuitively. They avoid mistakes and add flourishes as they write because it just feels wrong—or right. A draft passage on the page smells bad or looks good in the way food does as soon as you open the refrigerator door. Before you’ve picked it up, taken a look, peeled off the plastic cover, and sniffed… well, you just know. Either it’s good to eat, or it will make you sick.

James got there, learned to feel/smell his way through his books, and is now telling you how to get there too. Great! That having been swept aside, I’ll reiterate that I am recommending you read and study and think about this book. I’ll end with a few selections of great advice then let you read Story Trumps Structure for yourself:

Stories are transformations unveiled—either the transformation of a character or a situation, or, more commonly, both. If nothing is altered, you do not have a story, you simply have a series of images or a chronicle of events.

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

In each scene the protagonist will move forward from goal to setback(s) to a decision that drives things forward. Your character will seek something, fail in a way that makes things worse, process what just happened, and then proceed into the next scene of the story. Four steps: seek, fail, process, proceed.

Don’t ask yourself, “Should I include a subplot?” but, “How best does this story need to be told?” If you can even identify a subplot, it’s likely it hasn’t been woven into the story well enough.

A character without an attitude, without a spine, without convictions, is one who’ll be hard for readers to cheer for and easy for them to forget. So to create an intriguing character who faces meaningful and difficult choices, give her two equally strong convictions that can be placed in opposition to each other.

Easy choices make for weak fiction.

Read this book!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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

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REVISION SEARCH PATTERNS

When someone or something is missing, authorities will set up a search pattern or search grid in an effort to systematically comb an area for that missing person or thing, clues to their whereabouts, and so on. You can and should do the same with your first draft.

I’ve made a list of words or phrases to look for, and before you start to panic, realizing this is going to take a long time, I urge you not to panic, and reinforce that, yes, this might take a long time. If you’ve written a short story, it will be much less time than if you’ve written a 250,000-word epic fantasy novel, but this once again falls under the header of “no one told you this was going to be easy.” This is as important a step in your own revision process as anything else.

It starts simple. Just search for the word or words from the list below. When (if) you find that word in your manuscript, stop and read around it so you can see it in context. Next, think about it. Is it okay? It very well may be. Or maybe you groan and say, “Ugh, I can’t believe I did that.” Next, think about how to change it for the better.

But in any case, do not set up a search-and-replace routine. This is not a blind, fast process, this is an eyes-wide-open, careful process that requires your attention, creativity, and honesty.

And when I say honesty, I mean, be honest with yourself about your own “tweaks” as I call them. We all have words we over-use, things that drop in without our being conscious of them. I’ll share a few of my own here. If you’ve heard from an editor or beta reader that you tend to use, like me, “just” over and over again, just (see what I did there?) add it to your list, search for it, and force yourself to see the word in the sentence. If you’re reading through, you probably won’t notice it at all, any more than you noticed it while you were writing in the first place. The point of this is to confront yourself with over-used words, passive constructs, lazy writing, and so on.

I’ll separate these into sections and refer back to previous posts that will get deeper into certain concepts, starting with my writing tweaks

actually

just

seemed to

sort of

Why do I use these words or phrases too much? I have no idea. And the “why” doesn’t even matter. They just seemed to show up and I just sort of have to actually find them and make them go away, or leave them when they’re correct and say what I want to say how I want to say it. Next: The Hobgoblins of Genre Writing:

abruptly

immediately

instantly

suddenly

These are perfectly “legal” words that still should be used sparingly if at all. Don’t believe me? Read this post and I hope you will. If you read this instantly you will immediately get it and suddenly you’ll want to abruptly stop using these words. These can often be handled by simply deleting the offending word, letting the relative suddenness of an action or event be conveyed by context. Another slightly less challenging search result will look for this passive construction:

was (-ing)

This will likely be a laborious search, especially if your novel is written in third person, but painful as it may be, do it anyway! What you’re looking for here is what I call “someone was verbing.” Though you’ll have to flip through a lot of perfectly correct instances of “was” to find these, once you get to “Galen was firing arrows into the ogre horde,” the change to “Galen fired arrows into the ogre horde,” is easy to complete. You might have a slightly more difficult time with the passive constructs:

could feel

could hear

could see

could smell

could taste

These are also perfectly correct phrases, but they often have a tendency to push your readers back from your story in that you are describing the POV character smelling something instead of showing him smell something. Not the easiest distinction to grab, but find more on that here. Like “was verbing,” once you find these, the edit is usually as easy as turning “Bronwyn could hear the banshee scream,” to “Bronwyn heard the banshee scream.” Voila!

The next one can be tough as well, which is the search for the word “that,” particularly:

that were

that was

But look at all instances of “that.” Like “was” you’ll find “that” all over the place and most of the time it will be exactly the right word in that context. But start by reading my full rant on “that”, then think about it in more or less the same terms as “something was verbing.” Can you say what you’re trying to say more directly, thereby showing this thing in the POV character’s direct experience rather than as an after-the-fact report of the POV character’s experience?

And lastly, a couple of bonus search items…

very

There are editors who will try to remove any and every instance of the word “very” from your manuscript and though I’m not one of those editors, more and more I’m starting to think they might be onto something. Have you described something as “very quiet”? Could that be “barely audible” instead? Chances are there is an existing adjective that means the “very” state of another adjective. Could “very large” turn into “huge”? 

And speaking of large:

large

Search for that. Take it out. I don’t know why but it just reads as awful to me. “There was a large door at the end of the hallway.” Okay, that’s fair, but read my anti-large diatribe and maybe join me as a member of the Anti-Large League of America.

And there are more. Please replace “nodded his head” with “nodded.” You’ll also have to search for “nodded her head,” and “maybe nodded their heads,” but really, what else but your head do you nod? What else but your eyes do you blink? And so on. This was actually the subject of one of the very first Fantasy Author’s Handbook posts.

I know this sounds like a lot of passes through—all of them as individual searches and none of them easily handled by the same replacement, but spend this time. Your writing deserves it, you deserve it, your editor and your readers deserve it. Do the work!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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APPEAL TO ALL FIVE SENSES—WITH EXAMPLES!

I’ve written before about how we want to try to appeal to all five sense in our writing. Not all five senses in one paragraph, mind you, and especially not in one sentence—that would be quite a challenge. But pick and choose from all five as you’re crafting a scene. What is the dominant sense this particular scene might most benefit from? What about the place in which you’ve set the scene demands the POV character first or primarily experience it through one sense or another?

This is one of those pieces of creative writing advice that can be easier said than done, so I thought an example of each, from an author of note, might be useful. Read these and think about how that one sense dominates each of these moments…

SEE

That others were wearing watches hardly surprised him. The water clock had demonstrated that a calibrated timepiece added another dimension to life, organized its energies, gave the countless activities of everyday existence a yardstick of significance. Conrad spent hours in the attic gazing at the small yellow dial, watching its minute hand revolve slowly, its hour hand press on imperceptibly, a compass charting his passage through the future. Without it he felt rudderless, adrift in a gray purposeless limbo of timeless events. His father began to seem idle and stupid, sitting around vacantly with no idea when anything was going to happen.

—J.G. Ballard, “Chronopolis

HEAR

The sound of the gun-fire from the front penetrates into our refuge. The glow of the fire lights up our faces, shadows dance on the wall. Sometimes a heavy crash and the lean-to shivers. Aeroplane bombs. Once we hear a stifled cry. A hut must have been hit.

Aeroplanes drone; the tack-tack of machineguns breaks out. But no light that could be observed shows from us.

We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don’t talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have.

—Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

SMELL

The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat- and snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burnt cooking fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.

Lingering odors of machine oil contrasted sharply with the taint of harness dressing and leather. Yet somehow, through all that reek of human beings and their associates—dogs, machines and cooking—came another taint. It was a queer, neck-ruffling thing, a faintest suggestion of an odor alien among the smells of industry and life. And it was a life-smell. But it came from the thing that lay bound with cord and tarpaulin on the table, dripping slowly, methodically onto the heavy planks, dank and gaunt under the unshielded glare of the electric light.

—John W. Campbell (writing as Don A. Stuart), “Who Goes There?

TOUCH

He wanted to say: no, Idabel, dear Idabel, I am your good true friend. And he wanted to touch her, to put his arms around her, for this seemed suddenly the only means of expressing all he felt. Pressing closer, he reached and, with breathtaking delicacy, kissed her cheek. There was a hush; tenuous moods of light and shade seem to pass between them like the leaf-shadow trembling on their bodies. Then Idabel tightened all over. She grabbed hold of his hair and started to pull, and when she did this a terrible, and puzzled rage went through Joel. This was the real betrayal. And so he fought back; tangled and wrestling, the sky turning, descending, revolving, they rolled over, over. The dark glasses fell off, and Joel, falling back, felt them crush beneath and cut his buttocks. “Stop,” he panted, “please stop, I’m bleeding.” Idabel was astride him, and her strong hands locked his wrists to the ground. She brought her red, angry face close to his: “Give up?”

—Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms

TASTE

The Negro in the checked suit came toward him in long, loose strides, pressed the gun against his chest, then reached under his coat. His hand came out with Pete Anglich’s gun. He dropped it behind him on the floor. He shifted his own gun casually and hit Pete Anglich on the side of the jaw with the flat of it.

Pete Anglich staggered and the salt taste of blood came under his tongue. H blinked, said thickly: “I’ll remember you a long time, big boy.”

—Raymond Chandler, “Pickup on Noon Street

Did I have to reach a little to find an example for taste? I suppose so. Of our five senses it tends to be the last one we resort to. Let’s be honest, do you taste anything you haven’t already looked at, felt, smelled, and made sure wasn’t making any noises?

At least, not after the age of about three or so?

Anyway, remember that your POV characters are the vehicle for your readers’ experience of the story. The more you can do to make them exist as fully formed humans who do more than see and do, the more real they will become for your readers, and the more real your story will become as a result.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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WRITING OUR WAY OUT OF 2020

I was talking with an author this morning and as has become something of a rule for all conversations now, the subject of the pandemic and “2020” in general came up. In my efforts to move on, personally, from the challenges of the past year, not waiting for the calendar to flip over to 2021, we talked briefly about how 2020 and COVID dropped a lot of us out of our routines and maybe reminded us of how tenuous at least some aspects of our lives actually are, how easily some outside cause can come in and turn our little worlds upside down. But as survivors, at least so far, of this pandemic, what can we—what should we—pull out of this mess in order to make sense of it and force it to show some silver lining or positive outcome?

The author I was speaking with said that he was frustrated by a lack of new content on TV, and that drove him to sit down and write. This led me to wonder what new art is going to come of this?

What has time in quarantine, even if it’s the, maybe, hour a day gained from losing the daily commute time, so the work day is stripped down to only its essential functions, leaving an excess of leisure time while at the same time the plague itself is cutting off avenues of leisure—theaters and nightclubs and sporting events closed to audiences, and so on—generated out there that we haven’t yet seen? Will we see more writing, more art in general, released in 2021 than we would have if 2020 had been a “normal year”?

I hope so.

And this isn’t some way for me to make a weird and impossible case that an uncontrolled global pandemic was a good thing, but bad things happen, good things happen, and sometimes nothing in particular happens, and ultimately we’re only in control of our reaction to those things. And as authors of fiction, as artists in any medium, we need to be aware of those reactions.

Richard Russo, in “The Lives of Others,” wrote:

Like most authors, I unconsciously classify everything into two categories: what might one day be of use, and everything else. It’s an embarrassing habit, selfish in the extreme, but it’s also a kind of triage, necessary because you can’t pay equal attention to everything and be an artist. You learn, over time, to identify not so much what’s important as what’s important to you. What’s likely to bear fruit and what isn’t. 

Will extra writing time, and the filtered-through-2020 fiction (prose, filmed, and otherwise) that comes from it, help us pull away from some of the negativity that we were awash in even before COVID? “Identity politics divides us. Fiction connects,” Elif Shafak said in his TED Talk: The Politics of Fiction. “One is interested in sweeping generalizations. The other, in nuances. One draws boundaries. The other recognizes no frontiers. Identity politics is made of solid bricks. Fiction is flowing water.”

Or will the opposite be true? When times are difficult, will people concentrate on the solutions to immediate problems, setting aside the creation of art, which suddenly seems frivolous? Or if we’re all been feeling bad, has that made us less able to do something that makes us feel good, like writing? Has COVID and the election and so on turned a lot of us into tortured artists when we hadn’t been before? If so, I’m worried now that the hoped for mini-Renaissance post-2020 may be just a pipe dream. After all, as the brilliant James Baldwin said, “No one works better out of anguish at all; that’s an incredible literary conceit.”

Far be it from me to argue with the likes of James Baldwin, but maybe there is something to that literary conceit—at least I hope there is. And we should all keep in mind that 2020 wasn’t all bad—was it? I had some happy times, and did some work that was valuable to me in the past eleven and a half months, even after the start of the pandemic. The added time—if you were able to add time, and not everyone has been—might have given you the freedom not to wallow your anguished life but maybe that time was used to create something joyous and expansive and amazing? I hope so, and anyway, none of us should ever feel forced to write a “COVID novel,” whatever that might look like.

But hey, guys, 2020 happened, and it happened in various ways to all of us, and all of us can at least try to use it in some way. Tade Thompson, author of The Murders of Molly Southbourne, reminds us:

“I bring everything I know to whatever I write, and I believe the same of other writers. A person’s complete life experience forms the basis of authorial voice, in my opinion. To hold back any part makes a narrative feel contrived.”

I honestly can’t wait to see what amazing works of art are forced out of this past year. It will probably take a decade to really understand that, but if what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, I think we’ve all come out of 2020 with +1 Strength.

Hell, maybe even +2.

—Philip Athans

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Hey, I had a couple poem published in 2020—that was positive!

Here’s one:

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CHARACTERS SHOULD “MENACE” THEMSELVES

I’ve been reading Steven James’s book Story Trumps Structure, and that, combined with ongoing work with editing clients, has got me thinking about story structure, plot, and the driver behind all of those things: character motivation.

James starts his book by saying, literally on the second page of the text: “You do not have a story until something goes wrong.” I could not agree more. He then goes on to more or less eviscerate anything resembling a “formula” for fiction—and though I agree in spirit, I’ve found some versions of a formula to be useful tools to remind us of certain things that Steven James then goes in to remind us of himself. What’s clearly a major thrust of Story Trumps Structure is what he calls “complications”—obstacles thrown up in a character’s way that push a story forward.

In his “Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot,” pulp author Lester Dent offers really all of the same advice, jammed into a formula that on first read is a step-by-step guide to writing a 6000-word hardboiled detective story. And it is that, but in all the time I’ve conjured up Dent’s advice I’ve tried to reinforce that the formula itself is really a list of things to remember that all come down to essentially exactly what Steven James is saying: throw stuff in front of your characters that make them have to be better people in order to overcome it, or show themselves to be ordinary people by failing to do so.

See? Not scared at all!

Lester Dent uses words like “menace” and “grief,” and his advice assumes these various obstacles come from outside the hero: the villain knocks the hero out and ties him up, some innocent victim is kidnapped, some valuable thing is stolen, a booby trap has to be disarmed before the train arrives at the crossing… that sort of stuff.

Those external complications are essential to any genre story—at least to some degree—but this is where an author like Lester Dent shows the limitations of his time and the pulp magazine business model he worked under. As co-creator of Doc Savage, most of Dent’s writing (under the house name Kenneth Robeson) centers around a highly super-capable hero making his way through a monthly villain’s labyrinthine schemes—all exterior complications, all grief caused by some outside menace.

But it’s just as important—maybe even more important—to remember that whether you call them complications, obstacles, grief, or menace, your protagonists might very well be conjuring them up from within themselves. And even when they encounter the villain’s booby trap, their own internal limitations should add an extra layer of “menace” to the proceedings. If, once the booby trap is discovered, Doc Savage quickly and easily disables it, that’s not much of a complication—it’s a temporary delay, and doesn’t do much to ramp up your story’s dramatic tension. But if the booby trap is partially sprung because Doc had no idea it was there, then he goes through a period of panic because he has no idea what’s even happening at first, then figures out the trouble he’s in and has no idea how to get himself out if it, then tries something that makes it worse, and finally figures out how to get out of the trap but gets out having been injured, shaken, or otherwise affected by the trap—now you’re onto something.

This is the suspense that comes from uncertainty. Doc is uncertain as to whether or not he can survive this, your readers are uncertain as to how much worse this might get for him. And the result is dramatic tension.

Uncertainty comes from a character’s essential humanity. No one is perfect. Doc Savage might be a heck of a strong and smart guy, but the fact that he’s slipped into obscurity, especially compared to other super-capable characters like, say, Spider-man, is because he’s often barely recognizable as a person. He rarely, if ever, gets himself in trouble.

Sara Century’s article “In Defense of Bad Decisions in Horror” touches on this idea:

Critics of It Follows generally point out any number of terrible choices made by the teen protagonists of the film as their reason for disliking it, but we’re talking about teenagers here. How many bad choices did we make as teens? All of them. Every choice. Your teen years are nothing but the bad choices made by an underdeveloped personality. If that isn’t true of you, then congratulations. We’re so happy for you.

Characters need to be a product of their age, environment, upbringing, genetics, biases, traumas, desires, phobias, cultural blind-spots… all the things that make us people. I’ll let  the four authors of the Aeon article “The Value of Uncertainty” flesh this out for me:

Human experience, we believe, reflects nothing so much as the operation of predictions and uncertainty estimations along many dimensions and at many levels of processing. When all goes well, a wide range of predictions and estimations of their reliability (uncertainty) allow us to leverage everything we have been through, a whole life of experience and learning, to quickly detect those sensory patterns that matter to us, assess the reliability of our own expectations relative to the current sensory evidence, and (hence) to behave in ways that help bring about desired and beneficial patterns.

But there are dangers here too. Our predictions about the world can be mistaken or misled in various ways. Our hidden biases can sculpt how we perceive and behave in the world in ways that result in the world conforming to our mistaken view. In effect, making our mistake into a reality, which only reinforces our belief in that bias. Vicious cycles, such as these, in fact characterise many forms of functional (‘psychogenic’) illness and some forms of psychosis.

Hunger, homelessness, loneliness and chronic pain are all examples of situations and states that continually produce volatility (difficult-to-manage negative surprises). Sustained exposure to such volatile situations and environments—where the outcomes of actions appear inherently unpredictable—leads to an inevitable decrease in confidence in one’s ability to bring about the outcomes they expect. At that point, our predictive brains begin to infer an inability to exert successful control, and this then forms a damaging part of the model that guides our future actions.

Sometimes we see this in the simplest, most pulp fictioney form, like Indiana Jones’s crippling fear of snakes. We can be more subtle than that, but as authors of any genre of fiction, we have a responsibility to our characters to make them imperfect humans, whether they like it or not.

—Philip Athans

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DESCRIBE YOUR WRITING PROCESS

Do you even have one? Have you thought about it much, if at all?

First off, if you are writing—if you’re making words appear on a page, and they are pretty good words put into an interesting order… if you’re actually finishing things: a novel, a short story, a poem, an essay… whatever—that means your writing process is working.

If you’re feeling anything that might be described as writer’s block, if you’re struggling to get any words out at all, if you haven’t really finished anything in a while, or in any other way feel stagnant or disconnected from your muse, that could mean your writing process is not working.

So what do I mean by “process”? When that word comes up it’s often tied to the spurious distinction between “plotters” (people who write some form of an outline first) and “pantsers” (mythical creatures who just start writing and keep writing until they’ve finished a novel without thinking ahead), but please tell me that, by now, we’ve all moved past that to recognize that everyone does some degree of plotting and some degree of pantsting. Anyway, that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m asking is, what does the physical act of writing look like for you? Do you write longhandor always on a computer? Is that computer a laptop, sitting on a comfy chair, or at a desk? Do you have a private space or office you go to to write in? Do you listen to music while you’re writing? Do you (at least pre-COVID) sit in a Starbucks and write, or at some other remote locale? If you write by hand or dictate into some recording app, when and how does that eventually get into a Word document? What do you do with your rough draft? Do you revise the last chapter you wrote then write the next? I tend to do that, and it’s worked for me. I’ve tried some version of all these things, too, by the way, except dictating, and I should try that, too.

Have you thought about it?

In an interview with the Paris Review, Truman Capote succinctly described his writing process in one paragraph:

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand… Then I type a third draft on yellow paper, a very special certain kind of yellow paper. No, I don’t get out of bed to do this. I balance the machine on my knees. Sure, it works fine; I can manage a hundred words a minute. Well, when the yellow draft is finished, I put the manuscript away for a while, a week, a month, sometimes longer. When I take it out again, I read it as coldly as possible, then read it aloud to a friend or two, and decide what changes I want to make and whether or not I want to publish it. I’ve thrown away rather a few short stories, an entire novel, and half of another. But if all goes well, I type the final version on white paper and that’s that.

How would you describe your writing process in one paragraph? Can you?

This exercise might feel pointless—and probably is—if you’re generating text that pleases you in both quantity and quality. If that’s true, then yeah, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But even if you aren’t “struggling” with your writing, per se, but feel you could be writing more and/or better, think about how you’re actually making words appear. The process of thinking through that and trying to write it down might just reveal the problem.

Maybe only writing on weekends isn’t enough time. Maybe having to be alone in complete silence in your special writing nook has stopped being possible with your kids home all day every day while distance learning through the pandemic. Maybe you get some great stuff down in your notebook then balk at the tiresome process of typing that into your computer. We can all easily put up stumbling blocks between ourselves and even things we love to do, and it’s even easier to put a stumbling block between ourselves and a part of something we love that we don’t love as much, that feels like work just to get from good part (the flow state of a rough draft) to good part (the rewarding sense of finishing a polished draft).

Every author’s writing process will be different—at least a little different. Don’t think I’m trying to tell you you have to do exactly what Truman Capote did. That’s just an example of one author’s writing process. And sometimes those things change. After the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote essentially stopped writing, and didn’t publish much of note after that. Did his process, described here, fail him? Did his life, his psyche, his situation change so that what worked for him for so long didn’t anymore? If he had shaken up this process, would he have gone back to writing, just taking a different road to get there?

I have no idea, but in any case I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that what worked once will always work, for anyone, across any pursuit. We change, the world around us changes, our circumstances change… all sorts of things intrude on our best laid plans, or our firmly engineered processes. It certainly doesn’t hurt to peek under the hood every once in a while and see if anything needs to be adjusted.

—Philip Athans

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WHY WAIT TILL 2021?

I know 2020 has been challenging for, well… pretty much everyone, and I’m sure we’re all looking forward to 2021 to at least be better, less miserable, less divisive, less deadly. I have no superstitious or metaphysical component to my life but I’ll admit that, this year especially, I’ve been drawn into the “let’s blame 2020” thing, a sort of uber-meme that assigns, usually sarcastically, some evil agency on the part of a year. It was a presidential election year but there’s one of those every four years. The COVID pandemic was the real big event—a still-unfolding disaster. But a virus has no way of understanding human constructs like years—or any other human constructs beyond our oh so tasty lungs. And anyway, COVID-19 was a creation of 2019. So let’s blame 2019 for that.

Or better yet, let’s not “blame” any year at all.

I went through some stuff this year, and again, I’m as ready to blame that on 2020 as the next guy. My little work-from-home bubble was intruded upon by my family—three adults who were sent home from work or school to suddenly be the unwanted “associates” in Athans & Associates. They didn’t do anything wrong, being quarantined, furloughed form work, relegated to online university… I let distractions distract me. I more or less stopped writing—why? I went from breezing through two consecutive 52-book GoodReads challenges to now be sitting at only 28 books read (for pleasure that is) so far in 2020—running seventeen books behind schedule—why? I love writing and I love reading, but I set both aside to… what? I can’t even remember.

Blame it on 2020—or myself.

I think the latter is the real culprit, at least one very real crisis aside.

So now here I am in the middle of November having made some promises to myself to turn some things around in 2021. I’ve tweeted a few of those things—whatever that does. And I’ve set calendar reminders and thought of another New Years Resolutions post here but… why? If the coronavirus doesn’t know or care what year it is, why should I/?Okay, maybe for tax accounting, but deciding to read more? To write more? To involve myself in things? To restart long-dormant hobbies? All these things were, over the course of the summer and early fall, planned for the mythical utopia of 2021, leaving me apparently deciding to wait another month and a half before I live my life, as though I’m now somehow committed to staying miserable to finish off 2020 at maximum miserableness?

Nonsense. I have control over at least some aspects of my life—we all do. I can’t cure COVID or rebuild the economy, or any of those big things, but there are still the same twenty-four hours in a day, and I have a larger measure of control on how I parse those hours out than most people do, so let’s get on with it. That said, here are my November 17 Resolutions.

I’m going to write at least a little bit every day—not because I have to but because I want to.

I’m going to read more, at least at the pace I was running with my previous GoodReads challenges, because I love reading and it’s fun to have those community goals with other readers.

I’m going to “get out there” even as we go back into a COVID quarantine period. How? By doing what I know a whole bunch of people have been doing for at least the last year or so: virtually.

Sticking with this one… I thought about this and decided to add it to my “starting in 2021 list,” then when I realized why wait, I started at Eventbrite, which hosted the Chicago Screenwriters seminar on writing monsters I did last month, set the filter to “free,” and started signing up for stuff. Not in 2021, but right now. The first event is tomorrow (November 18): the Los Angeles Times Virtual Book Club: The Worlds of Octavia Butler. I love Octavia Butler—why would I not want to do this? 

Then, instead of vacuously binge watching TV shows (or whatever) this Saturday I’ll be online for four and a half hours for TEDx Seattle. I’m gonna get smarter—I can feel it already!

Next week, on the 25th, something called Humpday Comedy that just seems to be standup comedy? Okay—why not?

And I kept going into December, starting on the 5th with a big one—this might test my resolve—the 27th Barnard College Medieval and Renaissance Conference, which, because we’re on opposite coasts, starts at 6:00 in the morning—but I get up early. Why not spend the day doing that, at least coming in and out of it, until 3:30 in the afternoon? And why this? Well, I have always had an interest in medieval history and have spent my life in medieval fantasy in one form or another, and am still there. Will this make me at least an incrementally better author and editor of fantasy fiction? I bet it will!

I’m also signed up for the Virtual Writing Hour with the National Portrait Gallery on December 15—in which I will get my writing on. And I’ll get it back on on the 28th with Feeling Fiction: Feeling Your Way to Short Fiction because if I decide I know everything about writing fiction, that’s when it’s all over for me. I’m alive, so I’m learning.

So… want to sign up for some of those with me? Already signed up for other stuff like this? Have one coming up that you can recommend? Please do!

The last two things on my list of November 17 Resolutions are to get back to having some kind of hobby or hobbies, and reintroducing myself to friends. I’ll try not to let those two wait another month and a half either.

So then how does all this stuff help you be a better fantasy author? Well, all of us struggle with fallow periods, and all of us have had to deal with things that have been thrown at us in the past year or so, but all of us also have the capacity to say in some form or another, “Well, that sucked, now let’s walk it off.” Like me, has your writing suffered? Decide it suffers no more. Are you lonely and homebound like almost everyone right now? There are ways to get “out there” and write with people, share your work, share in other authors’ work, and learn something through various online courses or conferences that can help inform your writing.

I can be a bit of an old dog, and if I can learn new tricks, anyone can. Let’s get writing, let’s get reading, let’s get some version of “out there” now, and not wait for the arbitrary flip of a calendar.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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A CASE FOR LITERARY FANTASY

…and science fiction and horror and… every other genre has been made before, and now it’s my turn. I have turned to this subject in the past, including my suggestion that we not forget that fiction—of any genre—is also an art form in “Lest We Forget the Art,” but something caught my eye that got me thinking on that subject again.

In “Reading literary versus popular fiction promotes different socio-cognitive processes, study suggests,” Beth Ellwood reports on a study by Emanuele Castano of the University of Trento and the National Research Council in Italy in which a comparison is made of the cognitive effects of reading either “literary” or “popular” fiction. Though their conclusions aren’t anti-genre, per se, and I obviously haven’t made any effort to repeat their research, what struck me as a trouble spot in this is the often loose, even personal definition of “literary” and “popular.” Their definitions, at least according to Ellwood, pulls out authors as examples: “literary (e.g. Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munroe) and popular fiction (e.g. Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Jackie Collins).” I can see where they’re going with that and will certainly not try to make a case for Brown, Clancy, or Collins as serious literary authors, but the danger I see is that allgenre authors—and we’ve all seen this happen in the past—then get tossed into the “popular” category.

Before I get deeper into that, Let’s look at the conclusions of the study itself. The authors of the study said literary fiction “paints a more complex picture of human affairs, and of the human psyche, than popular fiction . . . we should find that readers of literary fiction develop more complex schemas about others, their behavior, and about the social world they inhabit.”

So this is what they went looking for, even while carefully trying to side-step the “this is good,” this is bad” categorization we still see in the discussion of literary vs. genre fiction. According to Castano:

We are not saying that literary fiction is better than popular fiction. As human beings, we need the two types of thinking that are trained by these two types of fiction. The literary type pushes us to assess others as unique individuals, to withhold judgment, to think deeply. It is important, but it can paralyze us in our attempt to navigate the social world. The popular type reinforces our socially-learned and culturally-shared schemas; a mode of thinking that roughly corresponds to what Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman calls System 1: fast, automatic, well-practiced.

I submit that for a well functioning society a continuous tension between these two types of thinking styles—and thus both types of cultural products that, among other factors, promote them. Too much literary, and we disintegrate as a society. Too much popular, and we ossify. Neither scenario is auspicable.

Okay, so it doesn’t hurt us as individuals or as a society to read popular fiction. I like that. And, again, it makes some sense to me that Alice Munroe and Tom Clancy might work toward different parts of our psyches. But then what about the many, many books and authors that can be and have been classified as both literary and genre fiction? I would put Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Mark Z. Daniele ski, Octavia Butler, Haruki Murakami, and George Orwell firmly in a third category of “literary genre.” And obviously that’s not the full list—not even close. I’ve read Philip K Dick and he “paints a more complex picture of human affairs, and of the human psyche,” doesn’t he? Doesn’t Margaret Atwood? Of course she does. And Ernest Hemingway at least sometimes “reinforces our socially-learned and culturally-shared schemas,” doesn’t he? Doesn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald?

Look, nobody loves a good hack-and-slash sword and sorcery fantasy yarn, alien-crunching space opera, or tentacley supernatural horror gore fest as much as me, but not all “popular” authors and “popular” books fall into those categories. If you’re writing to entertain, fantastic. By all means keep doing that. If you’re writing to educate or elucidate, that’s fantastic, too. If, like most genre authors you’re finding some balance between both—better yet. After all, maybe the definition of the “perfect novel” is one that paints a more complex picture of human affairs, and of the human psyche, while at the same time reinforcing our socially-learned and culturally-shared schemas.

—Philip Athans

P.S.: If you would like to tackle the full study you can find it here:

The effect of exposure to fiction on attributional complexity, egocentric bias and accuracy in social perception” byEmanuele Castano, Alison Jane Martingano, and Pietro Perconti, published May 29, 2020

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I tried to make this book both literary and popular…

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