GET IT OUT THERE!

As 2019 winds down, the time for resolutions approaches, and like a lot of people I end up taking stock of things as any year draws to a close. I review how business has been, start budgeting for the next year, try to figure out what worked and what didn’t, and all that good stuff—and it is good stuff. It’s important to check in on yourself and your business from time to time to make sure you aren’t stuck in various ruts or loops or other bad situations, but also to know what is  working so you can keep doing that, and so on and so on.

One of the things I’ve tried to climb on top of in the last year or so is my own writing, with the goal to reengage with writing for the joy of it rather than for the commerce of it. I’ve been writing (and publishing, I might add) poetry and short stories again. I’ve even been paid (a small amount of money) for a few of them—hurray for me.

In my December journey through year’s end I’ve looked at that writing with the fresh eyes and fresh enthusiasm of post-chronic pain Phil, and though my own inherent negativity meant I went in thinking I was going to be disappointed, I revised my tracking sheet and found that I currently have three short stories and nineteen poems out in circulation, sitting with editors, waiting for an acceptance or a rejection.

That feels pretty good, but back in my energetic twenties it was likely three times that many. I may not be as physically energetic now in my fifties, but I’ve been feeling creatively energetic lately—and I’m not going to stop at three stories and nineteen poems.

Backing up a bit, though… tracking sheet?

Yup, I have an Excel file that tracks short stories and poems by title, word count, genre, market (who I sent it to), the date I sent it and how (email, Submittable, etc.), the date I received a rejection or acceptance, and then a column for “notes,” because you always have to have a column for “notes.”

This might sound a bit incongruous, writing poetry then tracking its movements with a spreadsheet, but the art goes into the poem, the organization into the spreadsheet, and they’re comfortably separate. Because of that spreadsheet I know when I haven’t heard back on a poem for six months, after which I assume they don’t want it and send it to someone else. It also helps make sure I don’t embarrass myself by being rejected by some literary magazine then sending them the same poem a month later.

I have no idea how many short stories and/or poems you have and in what state of completion they’re in—or you think they’re in—but I know one thing for sure and that’s that no one will ever publish them if they’re secreted away on your hard drive.

Is the story done? Send it!

Is the poem done? Send it!

Did it get rejected? Immediately send it somewhere else!

I try to turn things around in less than forty-eight hours.

Or are you waiting for that short story to be “perfect”?

Well, it’ll never be perfect. This is creative writing. There is no perfect.

If it’s done and you feel like you’ve given it a good once over and you won’t overly embarrass yourself with zillions of typos—send it!

Even if you’re sure it’s not good enough, send it anyway. You have no idea what’s good enough. I’ve been in this game on both sides of the fence longer than a lot of you reading this have been alive and I have no idea what’s good enough. The only way to know if someone will publish it is to offer it for publication. Don’t be scared. Writing is meant to be read, and there really is a benefit from it being read first by an editor. Finish the thing, lightly revise the thing, proofread the thing, then for the love of all that’s holy send the thing!

Submission guidelines for short stories are available on each market’s web site. Read those guidelines, take them seriously, follow the easy instructions, and submit it! The only caution: do not pay a submission fee, ever. It’s becoming, unfortunately, more common, but just don’t do it.

The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of rejection. So what? Send it anyway. That’s what this whole thing is about. Write, submit, get rejected a bunch of times, get published, be read.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

Story/line/developmental editing at 3¢ per word.

Scheduling projects now for January!

Where Story Meets World™

 

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ARHL-A OF THE CAVES: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 26

Continuing what has come to seem like an endless exploration of the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales we arrive at “Arhl-a of the Caves” by C.M. Eddy, Jr, author of “the Ghost-Eater,” “With Weapons of Stone,” etc., or so I hear.

This time, let’s talk about beginning a short story in media res:

When Arhl-a opened her eyes, darkness had settled over the universe. the tough cords of reindeer sinews which bound her hands and feet cut deep into her flesh and her wrists and ankles were raw and bleeding from her futile struggles to free herself from the bonds. The flickering light of the fire at the entrance of the cavern caused the shadows to dance on the limestone walls in a ghostly, ever-changing glow. Silhouetted against the background of the fire loomed the huge body of Zurd, his eyes fastened intently upon her.

Roughly translated from the Latin, in media res  means “in the middle of things.” And more than once I’ve advised—especially for short stories, which have precious little time to build to the essential action of the tale—that you start in the middle of some kind of action. How you define “action” in that moment, well… that can take on what might be infinite (or let’s say, effectively infinite) forms. That does not have to mean literally in the middle of a fistfight or gunfight or other sort of violent confrontation, but in the middle of something that’s happening to or as the result of the direct participation of one or more people.

Here, C.M. Eddy began in the middle of an abduction/kidnapping. Arhl-a wakes up, bound, in darkness, confronted by Zurd, who we’re give every reason to believe is the villain of the story. This is a fantastic example of beginning a story in media res for the sake of its simplicity alone. There isn’t anything particularly nuanced about it. It’s a straightforward “woman in danger” pulp setup, but there’s left no doubt that the story is now on.

Who is Arhl-a and why has she been tied up? Who is Zurd and what are his intentions? How will she get out of this? It’s questions like that that keep your readers reading, at least into the next paragraph.

So keep this in mind for the all-important opening of not just short stories but novels as well. Ask yourself: How deep into the action can I start? Find your answer, then start a few minutes after that!

If you’re sure you have to “set the scene,” go ahead and do that in your rough draft if it helps you think through it, but then cut all that and let your first draft start when she wakes up in the cave, or when the bullet hits him in the chest, or when her fingers slip off the rope and she begins to fall, and so on. You can go back and cover why she’s tied up, where the cave is, who Zurd is, why his name rhymes with turd, and all the rest of it as you go. But grab your readers first. I once called it punch, push, explain, and I’d recommend going back and reading that, too.

I also hope that you’ll actually read this frankly goofy stone age love triangle thing. Spoiler alert: Arhl-a kicks ass. It’s got some amazingly purple prose and a general silliness that’s hard not to both love and dismiss at the same time. But in the end, reading old pulp fiction like this isn’t about learning how to write dialog like:

“Then Arhl-a must needs remain hungry and Zurd will feast alone. For bound she must remain until the fire dies out of her heart and she is tamed—until she will give herself to mate with Zurd.”

I used to use that line in college and never got anywhere with it except, y’know… jail.

What we’re looking at here are the pieces of each of these stories that work, and the opening paragraph works. Your language, your voice, will be different in any case. The fact that it isn’t 1925 will mean pretty much all of our voices will be vastly different from this, will start from a contemporary rhythm to the language, contemporary word choice, and so on, riding the waves of the massive social and political changes that have occurred over the last almost ninety-five years. But structurally, this story has a lot to teach us about how to build a skeleton upon which to hang entertaining, engaging short fiction.

 

—Philip Athans

And for more on your opening paragraph…

 

First, the Dragon Attacks:

Writing Gripping Opening Scenes in Science Fiction & Fantasy

You have one chance to make a first impression—make that opening paragraph count!

 

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WHAT I’M THANKFUL FOR, 2019: BOOKS

I skipped last Thanksgiving but thought this year I’d address the holiday again and think about what there was, for me, to be thankful for in 2019. This was another year of ups and downs, like literally every year of my entire life—who has only ups? Only downs? And though it started on a bit of a shaky footing it ended well enough for me. Surgery in September did away with the chronic pain that had taken a much greater toll on me over the past few years than I had even realized. Thankful for that, for sure. The $4000+ in bills (so far) that soon followed, not so much. But I can be thankful that a couple of presidential candidates (Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, in case you’re that out of it) are at least talking about fixing the ever-unfolding horror of the American for-profit healthcare “system”—so maybe we’ll have even more to be thankful for next year.

But let’s set all that aside: politics, my health, and all that.

This year I’d like to focus on one thing, and it’s a thing I’ve been thankful for every year—every day, even—for as long as I can remember.

I am thankful for books.

I’ve advised authors that, in the twenty-first century, we should think of ourselves as “content providers” and let the technology publishers and readers adopt to access that content sort itself out. I stand behind that. If you like ebooks and read ebooks you’re a reader. If you like audio books and listen to audio books, we’ll be friends for life.

But for me there’s nothing like the book as a physical artifact.

The content might be the same, at least from paper book to ebook, but the feeling of the paper, the pages themselves, the cover, the act of flipping through actual, not simulated pages, and the smell… oh my God, the smell… of a printed paper book is just Heaven to me.

And I don’t believe in Heaven, in the religious sense, as a place someone let’s you into only if you’ve followed their rules.

Heaven is something we have to find on our own, and I find mine in books.

I write books, I edit books, and even before I was literate I read books. I also buy and collect books. I once told a writing conference crowd that when it comes to buying books I basically run a no-kill book shelter. I can’t pass by discount “last chance” books in a super market or other unlikely venue. If there’s a book for sale for 99¢ I buy it. I just… buy it. What will happen to it if I don’t? Will it be thrown away?!

No, you do not throw that away. I’ll take it. I’ll protect it. I’ll keep it safe.

An entire wall of my living room is filled with shelves full of books. An entire wall of my office is filled with shelves full of books. A box next to my desk is full of books. In my closet is a box marked “Overflow Books” that is—that’s right, you guessed it—full of books.

Books contain entire universes. Books contain facts. Books contain detailed messages from the distant past. Books contain the lives of people I will never meet “in real life” but thanks to their books I know better than members of my own family. Books contain truth and lies and information and misinformation and tall tales and crimes and pleasures and imagination, made real by combinations of twenty-six characters, chosen with great care by someone who might have died two thousand years ago or may be alive and well and living only a few miles away.

And then there’s the smell. Have I mentioned the smell?

The smell of old books is my favorite smell in the world.

I’ve managed to build my entire life around books. This wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t the family business I inherited. It wasn’t forced upon me by some committee of the International Soviet. I might even have given up things for books. I might have gotten rich, fast, if I could stomach the concept of selling stocks or real estate. Instead, I went with books. Always books. Forever books. And I never looked back and I never will.

So, in honor of Thanksgiving, 2019, I’d like to say thank you to books, and everyone who’s ever written one, edited one, published one, designed and typeset one, sold one, shelved one in a library, recorded an audio book of one, bought one, read one, gave or received one as a gift, or otherwise helped bring a book into the world and into my hands.

It’s all about the books.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

—Philip Athans

 

Where Story Meets World™

Contact me at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting for story/line/developmental editing at 3¢ per word.

Now scheduling projects for December and January!

 

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BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXV: HORROR OF PHILOSOPHY

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.

 

As has been the case with many of my favorite books, I came across In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, Volume 1, by Eugene Thacker entirely by accident while browsing in one of my favorite bookstores. I was a little unsure of it at first—can’t say I was ever a particular fan of reading philosophy, per se. I blame my impenetrable college freshman textbook for beating that urge out of me. But freshman year of college was, for me, a rather long time ago now and I had actually begun teaching a course on horror writing by then… so the book looked, actually, right up my alley. Would there be some added wisdom within that I could pass on to my students? Would it give me a wider perspective on the genre? Would it just be… interesting?

It proved to be all of those things and more. Enough so that I then bought the second and third volumes, and read them in what is for me fairly rapid succession.

Each of the three volumes: In the Dust of This Planet, Starry Speculative Corpse, and Tentacles Longer Than Night, are slim little books—the longest is the third at only 204 pages—but all three are densely packed with ideas that weave together the Western philosophical tradition and genre horror in fascinating ways.

The first two books focus on philosophy, essentially using horror as a lens through which to examine the work of a handful of major philosophers. The third is much more tied to the horror genre, examining the interesting ways in which genre horror expresses similar, if not identical ideas, how it presents a philosophy of its own, and how it challenges some long held philosophical beliefs. Though the third volume may sound more of use to horror authors, I would recommend reading all three, and reading them in order.

And I would further recommend reading them with a smartphone or computer nearby, and a pen in one hand. I made extensive notes in all three of my copies, highlighting whole passages, underlining books, articles, and other sources mentioned so I could find them elsewhere—and a computer to translate some “lingo” that will be unfamiliar to anyone who hasn’t studied philosophy, or (like me) hasn’t studied philosophy recently.

By way of random examples, here are a few things I made note of in In the Dust of This Planet:

Let us consider a hagiography of life in the relation between theology and horror: the living dead, the undead, the demon, and the phantasm. In each case, there is an exemplary figure, an allegorical mode, a mode of manifestation, and a metaphysical principle that is the link between philosophy and horror.

Next to this:

A long-standing foundation of Western philosophical thought, the principle of sufficient reason states simply that everything that exists has a reason for existing. It is the very bedrock, the very ground of philosophy.

…I wrote: “And yet it’s not at all true—another example of human arrogance.” This is a book that invites that sort of critical read—at least, it invited me! Later, I wrote “interesting concept for competing magic systems” next to:

…the via negativa or path of negation as the way to divine union. Those in this tradition often utilize several modes of discourse to talk about the divine: that of negative theology, in which one makes use of language, logic, and philosophical argumentation to demonstrate the aporetic unknowability of the divine, and that of darkness mysticism, in which poetry and allegory are used to suggest the ways in which the divine remains forever beyond the pale of human thought and comprehension.

In Starry Speculative Corpse  this quote from Dionysus the Areopagite:

“The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing.”

…inspired me to ask: “True of cosmology, quantum physics, etc., too, yes?” And then I just like this quote:

In the depths of labyrinthine caves, embedded in gigantic rocks, buried in the hottest geothermal vents, and in the cold stellar dust of space, life is stealthily creeping.

Some of my marginalia was as long as the thought on which they commented, as when I wrote “And it turns out THIS ISTHE CASE—so it may render all—or most—philosophy not only moot but another example of human arrogance” in response to:

What if there is no reason for the world’s existence, either as phenomena or as noumena? What if the world-in-itself is not ordered, let alone ordered “for us”?

Call me a rationalist, but the world is clearly  not “ordered ‘for us,’ ” The question “Which came first, the planet or the humans that inhabit it,” has been answered unequivocally. Earth is comfortable for us because it was here first, and we evolved on it. Case closed. Our “special place in the universe” is the chemical nursery that birthed us. This is not a mystery.

Then in Tentacles Longer Than Night, this passage made me think of my own blog post “The Persistence of the Logical” in so much as “I’m crazy” can make more sense than believing the “impossible”:

And yet, what is more terrifying [than] insanity is the possibility that “it” really happened. This is a crucial twist in both Poe’s and Lovecraft’s stories—what is horrific in not that one is insane, but that one is not insane. At least if one is insane, the strange, terrifying “it” can be explained in terms of madness, delirium, melancholia, or in terms of clinical psychopathology.

Is this a definition of the “weird tale”? Fear of fear itself?

In so far as stories like these are part of the horror genre, they present horror less as a stimulus-response system, in which a threat elicits an emotional response of fear, and more as a kind of freezing of all affect, resulting in a combined state of dread and fascination—what theologian Rudolf Otto once called the mysterium tremendum. In stories like these, horror is a state of frozen thought, reason’s dark cyclopean winter.

Along the same lines, a quote from Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (which is now on my Amazon list):

“In the literature of supernatural horror, a familiar storyline is that of a character who encounters a paradox in the flesh, so to speak, and must face down or collapse in horror before this ontological perversion—something which should not be, yet is.”

And this is far from the only book I’ve added to that list from my reading of the three books of Horror of Philosophy. I have a feeling you’ll have a list of your own when (not if!) you read them, too.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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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THE REMORSE OF PROFESSOR PANEBIANCO: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 25

Feeling a bit off-kilter this morning so I need a little fun pulp fiction. Let’s dive back into our read-through of the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales with “The Remorse of Professor Panebianco” by Greye La Spina.

I have to admit this is another author I’m unfamiliar with, and the name screamed “pseudonym” to me, but a quick Google search and there she is, Greye La Spina, who, according to Wikipedia “was an American writer who published more than one hundred short stories, serials, novelettes, and one-act plays.” Born in 1880, she was forty-five years old when this story was published, six years after her first publication. So if you’re in your late thirties and suffering over the fact that you haven’t been published yet—hang in here!

Greye La Spina is her actual (married) name, and I even found a photograph of her! You can read more about her at Weird Fiction Review.

Pulp authors often get more than their measure of grief from critics of their time and ours. And having read a lot of pulp fiction myself all I can say is that as much as I adore the whole wild and crazy mess, it can be a bit more of a mess than most readers circa 2019 are going to be prepared for. I’ve read full-length Doc Savage stories. I’ve witnessed how much a single sentence can be padded, then go right to the next shockingly padded sentence in a palpably desperate effort to get to the target word count. I’ve read stories that are flat out racist, absurdly sexist, and so on. But can we take a moment, please, to note that the pulp tradition also gave birth to the genres we know and love, some of our most important authors, and true gems of the written word like this:

We have seen the soul of a drowning mouse emerge from its body, in a spiral coil of vapor that wreathed its way out of the water to lose itself in the etheric spaces that include all life. We have watched the soul of a dying ape emerge in one long rush of fine, impalpable, smoke-like cloud that wound upward to become invisible as it, too, amalgamated with the invisible forces of the universe about us.

I don’t know about you, but I find that beautiful.

In the past I’ve cautioned authors not to forget that the best fiction balances art and craft. I talk mostly about craft here, and that’s simply because craft can be taught, practiced, adopted… but art is what you bring to your writing from somewhere inside you, from a place no writing teacher or editor can access. All we can do is encourage its expression and applaud its presence when it makes itself known, and absolutely yes, including in a genre story—any genre story.

And don’t be an asshole and point out that she follows that up with the dialog attribution: asseverated the doctor, musingly.

No one’s perfect.

The pulps are also, mostly correctly, considered an all-boys club, and all white boys, at that, but there were a number of women writing for the pulps, and despite lurid covers and other stories that showed women as essentially lower life forms, Greye La Spina breathes considerable life into the long-suffering Elena:

Elena did not reply. She loved too deeply, too passionately, too irrevocably. And the only return her husband made was to permit her assistance in his laboratory work. Her eager mind had flown apace with his; not that she loved the work for itself, but that she longed to gain his approbation. To him the alluring loveliness of her splendid body was as nothing to the beauty of the wonderful intellect that gradually unfolded in his behalf.

Early 20th century gender roles mostly intact, Elena is still afforded a functioning mind, and motivations of her own, not the least of which is an effort to save her husband from working himself to death. Instead of another story in which the dashing white male hero saves the hysterical white girl from the clutches of the evil non-white male villain, here’s a story about a woman who is so determined to bring what we’d now call “work-life balance” to a man she loves that her own health suffers as a result. Meanwhile, the man in question holds firm to all the old saws of the day. Women are frivolous distractions that should never come between a man and his work.

“She’s very nervous, I know. She disturbs me inexcusably with silly demands for kisses and caresses, actually weeping when she thinks I don’t see her, because I refuse to humor her foolish whims. I’ve been obliged, more than once, to drive her away with cold looks and hard words, because she has tried to coax me to stop work, insisting upon my talking with her.”

Yes, definitely don’t kiss or talk to your wife. Keep working on trapping souls, because you’re clearly the hero of this story… or are you?

I love “The Remorse of Professor Panebianco” in particular as an example of how and why to put the personal above the procedural. On its surface this is another in a (very) long line of pulp-era mad scientist stories. We’ve already read more than one in this single issue of Weird Tales. But what sets this story apart is that the experiment may be the plot of the story, but the way the characters are personally involved with it is what makes it a story worth reading. This isn’t the story of an experiment in trapping souls, this is a story about a man who trades on the love of his wife, and a wife who sacrifices herself for the man she loves, using the experiment as a vehicle. If all you have is an experiment (or a murder mystery, or a war mission, or an artifact to recover, etc.) all you have is a list of plot points. Make those plot points matter to your characters, make it a matter of personal immediacy, so that there are no plot points without them. Then you’ll have a story.

Lesson learned, Mrs. La Spina.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

Finding the Personal in the Procedural

A deeper dive into show vs. tell, and making your story matter to your characters first!

 

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WHAT I’M READING RIGHT NOW AND WHY

If you’ve friended me on GoodReads, or follow me on Twitter, you know I’m working my way through another fifty-two book challenge: to read fifty-two books, an average of one a week, in the calendar year 2019. Right now, I’m sitting at forty-two books read so far this year, or one book behind schedule, which isn’t bad at all. And, of course, the books I read as part of my job don’t count. These are all books that have been published and that I’m reading for my own entertainment and education, and every book is part both.

One of the things I try to do is to read across a number of categories (fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, etc.) and genres (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, etc.). And I long ago realized that—maybe we can blame this on a form of attention deficit disorder—I can lose interest in a book for a few days or even a week along the way, just not be in the mood to read that particular book. But that meant it could sometimes take me weeks of even, believe it or not, months to get through a book. I was reading too few books in any given year. So I started reading a number of books interchangeably. That way, if I’m not in the mood for, say, some heavy complex non-fiction book, I have a “pulp” science fiction novel I can pick up instead, and so on. After a little experimentation I’ve more or less settled on four as the right number of books at a time. And I do put at least a little thought into the mix there, but sometimes end up with a couple very similar titles, or a very long book that takes me a while to get through while I whip through shorter books alongside it…

It’s not, nor does it need to be, and exact science. The important thing is that I’m setting aside time to read, and I’m exposing myself to a variety of experiences.

Here’s what I’m reading right now…

The Castaways of Tanagar by Brian Stableford

I have the first edition, first printing, of the original DAW Books edition (No. 428) from 1981. I bought this at a used bookstore, probably paid $1.25 for it… and I have a lot of books just like it. In the past twenty years or so I’ve been on a more or less continuous used book buying spree. My massive personal library has long ago grown beyond reasonable expectations that I’ll ever read them all, though part of this fifty-two book challenge is designed to at least make a little headway. Still, my library have become more a no-kill book shelter than a collection or a “to read” shelf. When I see a book that looks at all interesting or that, basically, is science fiction and I haven’t read it and it’s old and it has cool cover art… and it’s cheap… I buy it.

This got “bad” enough that I eventually put them—some of them, anyway—in a box I occasionally draw from at random. The Castaways of Tanagar is exactly this. I must have thought it looked cool so i bought it, I put it in that box, then a random behavior prompt told me to draw a random science fiction/fantasy paperback from my box, and voila! I’m only fifty-six pages in and I’m digging it. This one is for the love of science fiction. I love science fiction. I read science fiction.

Yes?

Next is…

Tentacles Longer Than Night by Eugene Thacker

I’ve read the first two of Thacker’s three volume Horror of Philosophy, loved the first, liked the second, and so far am loving the third. The first two look at the horror elements of the Western philosophical tradition, and I found that fascinating. This final volume examines the philosophy of horror, how horror authors have used the genre to put forward or explore certain philosophical concepts. Though they’re slim little volumes they can be a intellectually dense, but while The Castaways of Tanagar satisfies my love of straight-up science fiction, Tentacles Longer Than Night satisfies my curiosity about the horror genre, and helps inform things like this blog, the two online horror courses I teach for Writer’s Digest, and my own writing, which has recently been going back to horror.

I almost never re-read books, but made the decision a few years ago to read the entire Dune series, including the new, expanded series, so I started by re-reading Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune, then the final three books Frank Herbert wrote, only one of which I had started reading when it was new, but don’t remember finishing. I then moved on to the new series, or series of series, by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. I loved the first three and have made my way to:

Dune: The Butlerian Jihad by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

I’m only barely into it and it’s good—I’m hanging in with it—but it begins with one thing I have advised anyone and everyone who’ll listen not to do. It opens with a three-page backstory info dump so clunky it sent me scrambling to the Internet to make sure I hadn’t gotten the order of the series wrong—had I just read a three-page spoiler of a book I was meant to read before this?

But no, this was just plopped in there… not good. Please never do this. I’m unable to understand how an author as experienced as Kevin Anderson, and people as experienced at those included in the acknowledgments, would ever allow this…

Let the book stand on it’s own!

Then last, but not least…

Showcase Presents Aquaman, Volume One

Do I just like to root for the underdog?

Do I feel some empathic bond for anyone who seems marginalized?

I hate the hate that Aquaman gets. As a kid, I always thought Aquaman was pretty cool. I’ve always loved undersea science fiction… What could possibly be so bad about Aquaman? He talks to fish—that’s awesome! His mother was a queen of Atlantis—that’s amazing!

I’m more than halfway through this huge collection of the original Aquaman stories from 1959-1962 and okay, sure, they’re… light entertainment pieces. But I’m finding them so charming, so much fun… just delightful. Sometimes you want to read for the pure joy of it, and this is pure joy.

Aquaman rules!

Okay… so there you have it. What are you reading, and why?

 

—Philip Athans

 

NOW SCHEDULING PROJECTS FOR DECEMBER 2019

Look to Athans & Associates Creative Consulting for story/line/developmental editing at 3¢ per word.

Where Story Meets World

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THE VALLEY OF TEEHEEMEN: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 24

We’re getting close to the end of our long read-through of the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales, and I have to be honest. This next story has me almost (well… no… not really…) regretting this whole thing. Is it wrong that I don’t want to read the second half of a novel having not read the first half? I don’t think I’m wrong or alone in that.

But there has to be something we can learn from part two of the two-part serial “The Valley of the Teeheemen” by Arthur Thatcher.

And maybe this is it: No one wants to read only the second half of your novel!

Well, sure, that’s sounds kinda “duh” when you say it like that. But it got me thinking about another piece of advice I often give to authors, and that’s to make sure your debut novel can accurately be described as a stand-alone with series potential.

The publishing business has recovered well from the disaster of the depression of a decade past, but hard lessons were learned when retail dried up, credit dried up, and people with jobs and disposable income dried up all at the same time. A lot of other stuff was drying up at the time.

It sucked!

One of the lessons the publishing business learned circa 2007-2011 was that investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in new, fresh talent was not a safe bet. That doesn’t mean they don’t still do it from time to time, but when they do they do it oh so very carefully, which means they do it oh so very rarely. So if you’ve written Book 1 of a planned (and I’ve actually seen authors promise as many as) twenty-book series… the first impulse of the people who have to put that money entirely at risk is to walk if not run away. And they run almost all of the time.

On the same token, every publisher (and every agent, and every book store) is looking for the next franchise author. They would love to find the next Terry Brooks, who reliably gets out the next series fantasy that then sells reliably. Everyone wants to settle into a series franchise that keeps them working, keeps the sales and royalties and commissions flowing, for years and years. Who wouldn’t? Trust me, I have some friends who have done quite well doing exactly that.

I have more friends who were not able to sustain it for more than a relatively few books.

I have even more friends who are still waiting for an offer to publish a sequel to a Book 1 they published years ago.

But what does this have to do with Weird Tales from 1925 and “The Valley of the Teeheemen”?

Well, look at where we are now. I bet I can find the previous issue of Weird Tales and read the first installment, but what if I can’t? Part two now sits there like a lump on a log, waiting for an interested reader to put forth some concerted effort to find part one.

Weird Tales sold some portion of their print run through subscriptions, so there was a reasonable expectation that people were getting and reading every issue. I bet some readers saw “Part one of a two-part serial” and set that issue aside until the next one came in and they could read it without having to wait for the next issue.

Now this question:

How many times have you stood in a bookstore and found something that looks interesting, but it’s Book >1 of a series and Book 1 is nowhere to be found? Now you have to do some work to get Book 1 before you buy Book 2… and if you’re like me, and I daresay most people, you decide not to do that work, or you put that work off and buy something else instead, vowing to get Book 1 from Amazon later—and maybe you do, but probably you don’t.

Now that bookstore is sitting with dead inventory—until someone who has read the previous books and needs exactly that one comes in, and what are the chances of that happening? Better if that store has The Two Towers but not The Fellowship of the Ring in stock, but for a mid-list series? That book has a much better chance of being returned by the retailer than being bought by a reader.

And this is why everyone is nervous about series. Agents have to work harder to sell a series because editors are afraid to publish Book 1 to less than stellar sales then either have to publish Book 2, which they know will sell even less, or kill the thing, leaving whoever did buy Book 1 hanging… And retailers worry about having some books in a series in stock, but not all of the books in the series, especially now that if you’re in a bookstore and it’s not there you’re much more likely to go to Amazon than wait for them to get a copy in stock for you. Now that retailer has to manage not one book that a few readers might be looking for, but a series of books in various combinations…

It’s either a huge win or a huge loss, and the odds are in favor of the huge loss, for everyone.

But if Book 1 sells like crazy and you’re ready, willing, and able to provide a Book 2, or you’ve already written Book 2, you’ll be your publisher’s hero author. Retailers will stock it, and Book 3, then want to see an omnibus edition so they can sell the trilogy only managing one SKU.

It is possible to sell a series—fantasy readers in particular still love them—and eBooks, online retailers, and print-on-demand has made series books more accessible, so I’m not in any way calling for or reporting on the death of the series. Not at all.

But the three-book deal for a previously unpublished author… that body’s been cold for a while.

Even in 1925, the editor of Weird Tales might have been better off keeping the whole “The Valley of Teeheemen” together in one issue, at least for the sake of readers of online scans in 2019. It’s as if Farnsworth Wright doesn’t even know we exist!

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

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

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction!

 

 

 

 

 

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