CAN I CALL THIS A “QUALIFIED WIN”?

I didn’t get to the 50,000-word mark at the end of November, and you know what? I feel no guilt at all, no sense of failure, no feeling of inadequacy.

And if you also started NaNoWriMo this year and didn’t get to the finish line, I would like to take this opportunity, by the power vested in me by no one in particular, to absolve you of all guilt, sense of failure, and feelings of inadequacy.

I might feel this way because though I didn’t get to the end of a 50,000 word rough draft of The Book of True Names, I got a start on it, and that’s huge.

This is a book that’s been percolating in my head, has existed as handwritten notes in a composition book, for, quite literally, years. Not a single word of actual story was written. I did some serious worldbuilding, I wrote a few outlines, I jotted down ideas for scenes, and I went through some of my own exercises for the creation of characters, making lists of groups and so on.

All that’s great. I have a feeling I will use the vast majority of it.

But I had not actually started writing the book itself. It wasn’t a story, but a collection of ideas pointed more or less in the direction of a story.

Until November, that is. Now it’s actually a work in progress. It is actually progressing. I am actually writing.

I think I might leave my 2017 writing goals for a bit later this month. This past, not terribly happy year, feels like the right time for a revisit of my old New Years Resolutions posts in another effort to change myself for the better in the coming year—and there are some essential changes that need to be made on my part, friends.

Writing is a huge part of that. I love what I do. I am an editor. But I don’t want to be one thing. I want to be an author/editor, and I am. But for the past couple years, really, the author part has taken too far a backseat to the editor part. I’m not going to slow down on the editing, but I will speed up on the writing—no, wait . . .

I actually really have started speeding up on the writing.

I’ve found it again—a voice absent for a period of time now so long that looking back on it freaks me out—and I mean: Freaks. Me. Out.

But now I’m writing again, and damn it, I’m going to keep going in 2017. A novel will be finished, so will short stories, more poetry, and of course, our little Tuesday get togethers. After all, if I can be religious about this blog, every Tuesday for this many years, surely I can establish a new Phil-only religion around writing The Book of True Names, of writing short stories, of continuing to write poetry, and . . . what else?

We’ll see!

Oh, and by the way, if you have finished your 50,000 words of NaNoWriMo, think about sending it to me for a review and advice on where to take it from there.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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RANDOM PLOTS & WRITING PROMPTS

This morning I ran across the article “Plot Devices: Help for Writing Your Yarn” by Edward J. Wood, which looks at, primarily, three sources for plot ideas: George Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations, Plotto by William Wallace Cook, and Wycliffe A. Hill’s Plot Genie series. Though I’ve sung the praises of Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, and even teach a four-week online Pulp Fiction workshop based on it, I’ve also warned away from formula, from too much “structure,” and so on. So what can we get out of randomly generated story ideas? Edward J. Wood asked the same question and offered an interesting answer from Wycliffe Hill:

You ask: Why use random numbers and prewritten lists? Why not fill in the blanks using your own imagination? Because your imagination will suggest the same tired old ideas that have already been done to death by countless other writers, Hill proposes. Picking elements at random lifts you out of your limited imagination, giving you directions and combinations that otherwise would never occur to you.

I bristle at the idea that my imagination is in any way “limited,” and I hope you do too. But once we get through that I think we can agree that there might . . . just might . . . be something to that. After all, I’m the sum total of my experiences, built on a foundation of genetic predispositions. That doesn’t mean there is a finite boundary to my imagination, but it could lead one to believe that I’ll have some list of “go to” ideas. Even if that’s a long list it’s still a finite one, and I’d rather stretch that than wallow in it.

If these random plot generators can add a few concepts and combinations to that list . . . why not?

Of course, now we live in the Internet Age, so though I would never stop you buying a book—and all three of the books described in that article are now on my Amazon Wish List—I went out in search of some faster, easier sources for random plot/story ideas. I found a crap-ton of them. Here are a few that might be worth a gander:

Springhole.net has a list of “Genre, Plot, & Story Prompt Generators” that get into some very specific categories like a plot generator specifically for Arabian Nights-like stories and a handy Prophecy Generator: “The kingdom of the south is taken from the man of the west. The goddess of deceit foretells peace. The palace of the plain is invaded by the army of the empire.”

There are all sorts of handy online tools at WritingExercises.co.uk, including a Random Plot Generator that presents as a log line, though I found it had little variety, especially in the way it describes characters. Still, these prompts give you a lot of room to move, leaving you to explore some basic concepts like:

A woman in her eighties, who is very decisive.

A woman in her late twenties, who is very timid.

The story begins in a desert.

Someone is lost.

It’s a story about stubbornness.

Your character has to resort to underhand methods to achieve results in whatever way you choose.

I’ll be honest, “a woman in her eighties” is not one of my go to protagonists. But why couldn’t she be? That’s what I meant by adding to that go to list!

I had some fun with another UK-based Plot Generator that lets you get genre specific. This one also suffers from some lack of variety, but here’s a random science fiction story it built for me, including a title:

Galactic Sunny Spoon Wars

A Science Fiction Plot

by John Doe

A long, long time ago in a sunny, sunny galaxy…

After leaving the wide planet Dune, a group of aliens fly toward a distant speck. The speck gradually resolves into a squidgy, space towers.

Civil war strikes the galaxy, which is ruled by Jack Williams, a false robot capable of burglary and even violence.

Terrified, a chilly ogre known as Sally Gobble flees the Empire, with her protector, Sally Jolie.

They head for Amsterdam on the planet Jupiter. When they finally arrive, a fight breaks out. Jolie uses her sunny spoon to defend Sally.

Jolie and Ogre Sally decide it’s time to leave Jupiter and steal a space rocket to shoot their way out.

They encounter a tribe of goblins. Jolie is attacked and the ogre is captured by the goblins and taken back to Amsterdam.

Jolie must fight to save Ogre Sally but when she accidentally unearths a brown teapot, the entire future of the sunny, wide galaxy is at stake.

All of their science fiction plots seem to start with that Star Wars homage, and really this is less a story generator than a sort of online Mad Libs (Jolie uses her sunny spoon to defend Sally.). Still, could it be of any use? I’m not going to write a story set on a planet called Dune. That’s somebody else’s playground. If I were to pursue this whacked out idea my first step would be to change all the specific names. This: false robot capable of burglary and even violence, actually got me thinking, though it didn’t add anything to the sort of stuff I’ve already written. Well . . . they can’t all be winners.

The Story Generator at Seventh Sanctum is also fun and easy to use. It keeps things rather more vague, also formatted more like a log line. Using the “Free-For-All” category can get you some genre recombinations that might be a real challenge to pull off like:

This is a drama/horror with a strong theme of hate and things man was not meant to know. The story is about a healthy corporate official who was once married to a cyborg. It starts in a village. The story ends with an engagement. A conflict between magical races plays an important role.

But then the challenge is the thing, right?

A wealth of one-sentence story prompts like: “A talking cat accidentally eats poisoned food in Cuba” can be found at Big Huge Thesaurus’s story plot generator. They boast “Over 5.1 million possible story plots!”

The Plot Generator at apolitical does much the same thing, but with genre-specific filters. What I like about this one is you can choose combinations of filters, so, for instance “cyberpunk” and “western” can get you to: “The heroes must assist a smuggler on the moon, but have to contend with war, and opposition from clones trying to build the railroad.”

And finally, Poets & Writers has its own section on writing prompts, which they put into perspective in a way I think is helpful and positive:

The advice we hear from agents, editors, and authors alike is always the same: Focus on the writing. However, finding the time and inspiration to write is not always easy. That’s where creative writing prompts and exercises can help. Writing prompts provide writers with a starting place, an entry point into their writing practice. Sometimes creative writing prompts and exercises result in a workable draft of a story or poem. Other times, they may lead to what can seem like a dead end. But having to generate ideas, being pushed in a direction where you wouldn’t normally go in your writing, and just plain putting pen to paper is often enough to provide that crucial dose of inspiration.

This isn’t about actually trying to make “A bumbling woman steals a clown suit by finding a monster from under the bed” (courtesy of Really Random Plot-o-Tron) into the next runaway international best-seller, but then . . . who’s to say? It’s not so much the idea as it is the execution.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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WHAT I’M THANKFUL FOR, 2016

For the first time in 108 years, my old hometown baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, won the World Series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The rest of 2016 can go fuck itself.

—Philip Athans

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LESSONS FROM THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE: NUMBERS

I wanted to get to learn the technique of the theater so well that I could then forget about it. I always feel it’s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.

T.S. Eliot

There are a few major style guides, but most are highly specialized. For long-form fiction the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition), which is a book every author must own, is pretty much our only guide, and warts and all it’s all the style guide you’ll ever need.

It can be a dense book—intimidating for anyone—and as such it’s most useful if you’re honest with yourself about the limitations of your own knowledge of the craft. If you’re “pretty sure” something is correct, or “think you remember the rule,” go here and check. You might be right, or you might learn something. Either way it’s a win for your writing.

As an editor I see certain mistakes made so many times I’ve actually put together a “Common Comments” file so I can copy and paste in a description of the same edits I make in one manuscript after another. In this open-ended series of posts, we’ll look at some of those common mistakes and go to the Chicago Manual of Style for answers.

So here’s this week’s entry from my Common Comments file:

 

Spell out most whole numbers, especially anything under a hundred.

 

This is not, admittedly, a very good bit of advice, since it includes the unexplained word “most.” Though you would see this, if I were your editor, as a comment embedded in your manuscript referring to a specific edit, let’s get deeper into how to handle numbers in fiction . . . most of the time.

Here’s where I got that from, which the CMS calls “Chicago’s general rule—zero through one hundred. (9.2):

In nontechnical contexts, [read: fiction of any genre including science fiction] Chicago advises spelling out whole numbers from zero through one hundred and certain round multiples of those numbers. Most of the rest of this chapter deals with the exceptions to this rule and special cases.

Digging in deeper, we’ll start with this example:

Galen looked over the battlefield and among the thousands dead, only twenty-two of them were orcs. He never would have imagined that on his twentieth birthday he’d have survived sixty-three battles. This was the worst, though. The death toll was still being counted, but had already surpassed the Haven’s Ford Massacre of 1063. Fifty-nine thousand, eight-hundred and forty lay dead, not counting the elves.

Okay, so let’s break that down.

First of all that example was the correct form. This is how I often see the same thing rendered in manuscripts:

Galen looked over the battlefield and among the 1000’s dead, only 22 of them were orcs. He never would have imagined that on his 20th birthday he’d have survived 63 battles. This was the worst, though. The death toll was still being counted, but had already surpassed the Haven’s Ford Massacre of 1063. 59,840 lay dead, not counting the elves.

First of all, in that second, incorrect example, note the apostrophe in 1000’s. This is another shockingly common mistake. The apostrophe indicates possessive, so that sentence says that something belongs to 1000. The numerical form of thousands is 1000s. This is also true of years: 1980s, not 1980’s—the latter indicating that something belongs to 1980.

Breaking the example down by rule:

Galen looked over the battlefield and among the thousands dead,

This from rule 9.4, but honestly I think it’s just obvious. You’re not being specific here, just some number in the thousands, but using the arabic numerals tends to imply that accuracy matters. Especially when accuracy doesn’t matter, spell it out.

only twenty-two of them were orcs and he’d have survived sixty-three battles

For this, refer to the chart on page 376 under: number, spelled out, which shows the hyphen between twenty and two.

He never would have imagined that on his twentieth birthday

This from 9.6 Ordinals. This w follows the general rule of spelling out numbers between zero and a hundred, then reverting to arabic numbers for things like 217th.

The death toll was still being counted, but had already surpassed the Haven’s Ford Massacre of 1063.

One of the few places you’ll actually probably ever use arabic numerals is when you specify a year. That rule is found in:

9.3 The year alone. Years are expressed in numerals unless they stand at the beginning of a sentence, in which case rewording may be a better option.

I agree with the latter sentiment there, so as to avoid: Ten sixty-three had the highest death toll, in the Haven’s Ford Massacre.

And that leads to the last bit:

Fifty-nine thousand, eight-hundred and forty lay dead, not counting the elves.

Though we just saw that numbers larger than one hundred should be rendered in arabic numerals, there’s a rule that trumps that:

9.5 Number beginning a sentence. When a number begins a sentence, it is always spelled out.

And then let me add one extra bit of warning. In a science fiction novel, in which the technology likely exists to get an accurate count of the dead, that exact number (59,840) might be appropriate. But still, stating it like that in description feels too journalistic for me. I’d recommend something like “maybe sixty thousand” (spelled out in accordance with 9.2: “and certain round multiples of those numbers”). In fantasy, where we’re expecting people to have a sort of medieval level of science and mathematics and statistics, that precise number tends to come off as anachronistic.

Anyway . . . Numbers in creative writing? Terrible!

I know, but there it is.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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LEAVE ME OUT OF IT, PLEASE

Election Day is upon us.

Well, finally.

I guess.

I’m staying off of social media today. I know you don’t want to hear my opinion of any of the candidates, and to be frank I have not the slightest interest in yours either. Here in the State of Washington we vote by mail, so my ballot has been cast. I have done all I can do. Let the chips fall where they may. What will be done, will be done.

Though I readily admit that I have dropped the occasional political, or semi-political post here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, for today I’ll refer you back to just one in particular, then leave it at that.

So much for reality, then. But what about fantasy?

In my online Worldbuilding course we spend a whole week on governments and religions—combining the two things some wise person in your life has probably long ago advised you not to discuss with strangers. But rather than argue over secure vs. unsecure email servers and what a famous man can and can’t get away with grabbing, in that course—and as science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors in general—we’re free to deal with those subjects in the abstract.

I think the overtly political fantasy novel, in particular, is a fairly rare animal. Even science fiction novels, which are often more grounded in the here and now, tend to make a few political assumptions then get on with tales of honor, loyalty, love, family, and so on. That’s probably why I always end up falling back on Dune and 1984 as my examples of overtly political science fiction novels and pretty much nothing as my go-to political fantasy. As for horror—politics seems almost never to rear it’s ugly head.

But is that really the case?

It could be—mostly like is—due to the fact that I’m not a terribly political-minded person that I don’t tend to pick up on the more subtle political cues in SF, fantasy, and horror. After all, I am the guy who wrote a fantasy take on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead having no idea there was this weird Libertarian movement gathering around a misinterpretation of her later work. But in my writing and teaching on the subject of worldbuilding politics has come up—and it should.

I’ve pondered whether the elves of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are substitutes for the post-imperial British. Are they?

I wrote about the political aspects of a very, very old book by Homer Eon Flint to show how science fiction, even close to a hundred years ago, was more a comment on the day in which it was written than any attempt to guess at the future or describe the unknowable.

I’ve been re-reading some Stephen King in preparation for my Horror Intensive course, the first round of which I’m finishing up now. The story collection we’re using for that course, Skeleton Crew, features more than a few nods to the politics of the day, especially the story “Cain Rose Up.” And King makes numerous references to Cold War politics in particular in Danse Macabre. The Stand had some overtly political ideas in it, too, didn’t it?

And then of course there’s Starship Troopers, The Man in the High Castle, Metropolis, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Gateway, and on and on and on.

But may I please ask one favor on this worst of Election Days?

If you’ve started outlining your science fiction, fantasy, or, let’s face it, more likely horror novel loosely inspired by Trump vs. Clinton . . . don’t. Just please don’t.

Maybe it’s too soon.

Let it simmer at least a few months, then disguise the ever loving shit out of it.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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THE TWO-COMMA RULE

You know me, I’m not a huge believer in rules, except for most of the time. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: There’s a big difference between knowing the rule and breaking it intentionally for creative effect and not knowing the rule in the first place and just making a mistake. In that spirit, I’m going to throw a rule at you but leave the same caveat open for all. Follow this rule, at least consider this rule, but break it as necessary to tell your story the way you want that story to be told.

Enough equivocating, let’s get to the rule:

Allow no more than two commas in any one sentence.

There is an author who shall remain nameless who is a brilliant storyteller, but the process of editing his manuscripts is akin to working in an old fashioned prison chain gang. The editor’s job, like the convict in a stone quarry, is to make big ones into little ones. Big rocks into little rocks, or big sentences into little sentences.

I teach an online Pulp Fiction Workshop and have long indulged here in my love of pulp writing, of hardboiled detectives and sword and sorcery. One of the hallmarks of mid-century American genre fiction was a lean writing style. Though there were some authors, like H.P. Lovecraft, who went in the opposite direction, I think you’ll find this true of authors like Chandler, Hammett, Dent, and most others.

And yes, I did notice that the previous sentence has six commas in it. It contains a list, and I’ll get to that in a bit.

I’ve also taught online courses in pacing, especially in terms of horror fiction, where I’ve described the occasional necessity for the abnormally long sentence. They deny your readers a chance to take a short breath, which the period at the end of a sentence calls for. But unless you’re going for that effect once you get to the third comma seriously consider simplifying the sentence.

For instance, the following paragraph is grammatically correct:

She lifted her head and listened intently, but the halls of Xuchotl were as silent as if it were in reality a dead city, and the green jewels bathed the chamber in a nightmare glow, in which the eyes of the woman on the floor glittered eerily up at her, while a thrill of panic throbbed through Valeria, driving the last vestige of mercy from her fierce soul.

Okay, maybe not perfectly grammatically correct, but I see this more often than you might think. Or at the very least:

She lifted her head and listened intently, but the halls of Xuchotl were as silent as if it were in reality a dead city. The green jewels bathed the chamber in a nightmare glow, in which the eyes of the woman on the floor glittered eerily up at her, and a thrill of panic throbbed through Valeria, driving the last vestige of mercy from her fierce soul.

That’s a smidge better, but still what you see there are sentences that contain multiple ideas. There’s no particular reason for those sentences to do that, or to be long—to stop you from catching your breath. Honestly, it’s just lazy writing that if anything undercuts the surprise of each story element, especially the eerily glittering eyes of the woman and their emotional effect on Valeria.

Here’s how Robert E. Howard actually wrote it, in his classic Red Nails:

She lifted her head and listened intently. The halls of Xuchotl were as silent as if it were in reality a dead city. The green jewels bathed the chamber in a nightmare glow, in which the eyes of the woman on the floor glittered eerily up at her. A thrill of panic throbbed through Valeria, driving the last vestige of mercy from her fierce soul.

weirdtales-1936-07

Looking at each sentence separately:

She lifted her head and listened intently.

Lifting her head shows Valeria (she) in the act of listening intently—it’s really just one idea, and zero commas.

The halls of Xuchotl were as silent as if it were in reality a dead city.

Some people would set off “in reality” between commas but I wouldn’t. This is zero commas and one idea: We had reason to believe Xuchotl is a dead city.

The green jewels bathed the chamber in a nightmare glow, in which the eyes of the woman on the floor glittered eerily up at her.

Here the comma separates a description of the chamber and a description of the woman on the floor. Those two elements are related: the glow is part of what’s interesting about the room and the woman’s eyes.

A thrill of panic throbbed through Valeria, driving the last vestige of mercy from her fierce soul.

Same thing here, with the comma separating the feeling Valeria is having and the effect on her of that feeling. This is happening, so the other thing immediately follows.

As I hinted above, the obvious exception to this rule would be lists. This is perfectly fine:

The head, bigger than that of a crocodile, was further extended on a long scaled neck on which stood up rows of serrated spikes, and after it, crushing down the briars and saplings, waddled the body of a titan, a gigantic, barrel-bellied torso on absurdly short legs.

That seven-comma sentence also comes from Red Nails. It is a slightly complicated list, and lists demand commas. This also comes at a point in the story where the action demands a longer sentence to deny you the space to take a short breath. You’re holding your breath—literally—waiting to see what happens next as this monster reveals itself.

My two-comma rule is another one of those suggestions that are meant to get you searching your own work and pausing briefly to consider the writing. If you decide that your seven-comma sentence, like Robert E. Howard’s, works right there then leave it alone. But I have a feeling you’ll find yourself spending some valuable time turning big sentences into little ones having had a second to think.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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VOTE FOR MY NaNoWriMo IDEA

It’s that time of year again—the end of October, another Halloween, and another National Novel Writing Month all set to begin just one week from today.

I’ve tried it twice in the past. Got an okay start the first time, and totally didn’t even begin the actual writing the second time, last year in fact.

nanowrimo_2016_webbanner_participant

But it’s never too late for a clean start and for a million reasons I want to try it again and there’s certainly nothing stopping me. So then the question becomes, which idea?

Last year I was all set to write a space opera carrying forward my character from the Pro Se anthology Write to the Cover, Volume 1. I went through the various experiments in outlining with note cards, and so on, blogging all about it here, but then never actually, y’know, wrote the thing.

The previous failure was a science fiction/fantasy crossover about an attempt to build a series of teleportation gates around the “twilight zone” of a tidally locked planet (a planet with one hemisphere always facing the sun, the opposite always facing the cold darkness of outer space).

Listen, ideas are easy to come by. I’ve tried to put your feet to the fire on that subject before, and here I am current not working on a novel. Why would I not be working on a novel? That’s crazy. Is it that I’m too busy? Yeah, we talked about that last week.

There are no excuses, or as Stephen King says: “. . . a writer who only produces one book every seven years is simply dicking off.”

In an effort to stop dicking off, then, how about this . . .

Here are nine loglines, also known as “elevator pitches,” or twenty-five to fifty-word descriptions of a book. I’ll try, again based on my own advice, to keep these focused on three essential elements to any story: hero (aka protagonist), villain (aka antagonist), and conflict (aka story).

 

Bella Lucky and the Monsters of Methone (pulp space opera SF)

Saturnian police detective Bella Lucky investigates an accident at a remote research station only to find it was no accident. Something deadly now lurks in the depths of the airless moon, and the person responsible for releasing it may be a part of Bella’s team.

 

The Book of True Names (dark fantasy)

Jashiv has taught his only daughter one thing: If the demons come, stand still. But when a demon finally does come, it takes her, and sends Jashiv on an impossible journey to find his daughter and face the silent king who’s sleeping demon army is stirring awake.

 

Monster Planet (military SF)

A mercenary crew, summoned by one of their own to an uncharted world, is prepared to face a team of competing mercenaries, but they didn’t bargain for this strange planet’s local wildlife: monsters the size of skyscrapers that see these tiny creatures shooting at each other as tasty light snacks.

 

(SF/fantasy crossover)

The teleportation portals have to be set up every seven degrees of latitude around the twilight zone in order to unite a world already divided by teleportation technology itself. And the next team to travel through miles of unexplored jungle have a traitor in their midst.

 

Those four are the “I could start right now” ideas, but here are some bonus ideas if you really want to challenge me:

 

Chimp the Aviator (YA historical)

A family of depression era barnstormers add a chimpanzee to their act.

Sick House (horror)

A family buys a house that’s haunted by the sicknesses of the people who died there in the past.

The Cavern Club (light time travel SF/romance)

Time travelers go back to early 60s Liverpool to see the Beatles play live, and one local discovers their secret.

The Gun Said I’m Sorry (hardboiled thriller)

Rival gun collectors resort to murder over a rare pistol.

What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor? (a novel sans genre)

A sailor passes out in a bar and changes hands over the course of a single wild night.

 

Okay then, two questions:

Question 1: Which of these should I write in November?

Question 2: Do you have at least this many loglines/ideas in a file somewhere? If not, why not? If so, which one are you going to tackle starting Tuesday?

AND: You can also vote via Twitter. Just add a link and call me out: @PhilAthans

—Philip Athans

November 1 Update: The votes are in, and across all various social media sources, The Book of True Names beat out Bella Lucky by a single vote. I’m ready to start writing!

 

 

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