HI, TALL GIRL, MY NAME IS EYE PATCH, PLEASED TO MEET YOU

Bear with me this week while I vent my frustrations with the vile horror of descriptive placeholder semi-nicknames to differentiate thugs and other tertiary characters who don’t seem worthy of a name, but Eye Patch or Tall Girl may as well be names, so you just fucking named them.

This comes up, usually, in fight scenes in which the hero is confronted by cultists, thugs, goons, or other agents of the villain. These are people the hero doesn’t know, and usually end up dead or otherwise dealt with. Their value to the story is in the fight scene itself and no farther. So the easy thing to do—and what really worries me is that authors feel it’s the clever thing to do—is have the POV hero give them little descriptive nicknames so the guy with a sword becomes Sword, the guy wearing sunglasses is Sunglasses, the woman with red hair is Redhead, and so on and so on. This might seem like a good way around the one scene, one POV dilemma we all eventually find ourselves in: How do I show this properly so it makes sense when the POV character is missing information?

My advice, rather than fall back on this—and I’m gonna say it out loud people—hackneyed cliché from Hell, is find a way to write about them without naming them at all.

Here’s a paragraph from the Conan novel The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard, as he wrote it:

Conan’s action was as quick as theirs. As the voice shouted he sprang for the hut door. But they were closer to him than he was to the door, and with one foot on the sill he had to wheel and parry the swipe of a yard-long blade. He split the man’s skull—ducked another swinging knife and gutted the wielder—felled a man with his left fist and stabbed another in the belly—and heaved back mightily against the closed door with his shoulders. Hacking blades were nicking chips out of the jambs about his ears, but the door flew open under the impact of his shoulders, and he went stumbling backward into the room. A bearded tribesman, thrusting with all his fury as Conan sprang back, overreached and pitched head-first through the doorway. Conan stopped, grasped the slack of his garments and hauled him clear, and slammed the door in the faces of the men who came surging into it. Bones snapped under the impact, and the next instant Conan slammed the bolts into place and whirled with desperate haste to meet the man who sprang from the floor and tore into action like a madman.

There we see him simply writing around the fact that Conan has no idea what these anonymous tribesmen’s’ names are—and he’s Conan so we know he doesn’t care. That last bit is important: we know Conan doesn’t care what their names are.

But what if, because he prided himself on his detailed worldbuilding, Robert E. Howard, if not Conan, cared what their names were? It might sound like this:

Conan’s action was as quick as theirs. As X’Changa shouted he sprang for the hut door. But they were closer to Conan than he was to the door, and with one foot on the sill he had to wheel and parry the swipe of K’Jungo’s yard-long blade. He split K’Jungo’s skull—ducked B’Loonga’s swinging knife and gutted the wielder—felled Z’Namo with his left fist and stabbed T’Allgirl in the belly—and heaved back mightily against the closed door with his shoulders. Hacking blades were nicking chips out of the jambs about his ears, but the door flew open under the impact of his shoulders, and he went stumbling backward into the room. E’Nuff, thrusting with all his fury as Conan sprang back, overreached and pitched head-first through the doorway. Conan stopped, grasped the slack of E’Nuff’s garments and hauled him clear, and slammed the door in the faces of the men who came surging into it. Bones snapped under the impact, and the next instant Conan slammed the bolts into place and whirled with desperate haste to meet E’Nuff, who sprang from the floor and tore into action like a madman.

Now, reading this, I’m being told that their names matter, that these are characters I need to “track” for the rest of the book. This goes back to what I’ve said before about the concept of Chekhov’s Gun and the Mental Inventory. You’re asking your readers to take mental inventories of people, places, things, etc. as they read your story. The weight you give certain things will be picked up on, and your readers will expect those things to pay off in some way. Even if I hadn’t given up and gone to obviously silly joke names (maybe the worst cliché of all) this would still be unnecessarily confusing for what it actually means in the context of the whole novel.

So then, is it made better with super-obvious placeholder names?

Conan’s action was as quick as theirs. As Shouter shouted he sprang for the hut door. But they were closer to him than he was to the door, and with one foot on the sill he had to wheel and parry the swipe of Sword’s yard-long blade. He split Sword’s skull—ducked Knife’s swinging knife and gutted the wielder—felled Eye Patch with his left fist and stabbed Tall Girl in the belly—and heaved back mightily against the closed door with his shoulders. Hacking blades were nicking chips out of the jambs about his ears, but the door flew open under the impact of his shoulders, and he went stumbling backward into the room. Beard, thrusting with all his fury as Conan sprang back, overreached and pitched head-first through the doorway. Conan stopped, grasped the slack of Beard’s garments and hauled him clear, and slammed the door in the faces of the men who came surging into it. Bones snapped under the impact, and the next instant Conan slammed the bolts into place and whirled with desperate haste to meet Beard, who sprang from the floor and tore into action like a madman.

I’ll answer for you. It isn’t made better, it’s made silly, and maybe if you’re going for silly, okay, but I bet you, like Robert E. Howard, aren’t going for silly in a scene like this.

Still, I will admit that there are times when this device might be useful, but if you feel it is—and you’re the only one who can know that, at least until a decent editor comes along—go ahead, but at least create nicknames for those unnamed characters. Nicknames, as opposed to what I’ve called placeholder names or descriptors like Tall Girl, say something about how the POV character sees those unnamed characters, and in so doing, says something about the POV character himself, as in this example from the short story “A&P” from a very different author, John Updike:

The girls, and who’d blame them, are in a hurry to get out, so I say “I quit” to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they’ll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero. They keep right on going, into the electric eye; the door flies open and they flicker across the lot to their car, Queenie and Plaid and Big Tall Goony-Goony (not that as raw material she was so bad), leaving me with Lengel and a kink in his eyebrow.

Here the fact that the POV character, a teenage boy who is reacting on an almost primate level to three teenage girls he doesn’t know but who he wants to be seen as defending, informs the nicknames he chooses for them. We know more about him as a character because of the nicknames, and may or may not feel more or less positively inclined toward him as a result.

But just looking at a character and saying, “she’s tall, so I’ll call her Tall Girl,” or “he’s wearing an eye patch so his name is Eye Patch…” I’m going to have to ask for more thought than that, from you and from your POV characters.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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ROBOT IS THE NEW VAMPIRE

In July of 2010 I wrote this for the blog Grasping for the Wind. Let’s see how it holds up ten years later…

 

In the popular mythology of vampires, these undead creatures are difficult to kill, but it isn’t impossible. A wooden stake through the heart will do it. Sometimes the barest touch of a ray of sunlight will reduce them to ashes or even make them explode. If you want to get Old School, you can immerse them in running water. Then there’s always the old standby: decapitation. That seems to work on everything.

But in the mythology of the publishing business, there appears to be nothing anyone can do to stop them. Expose the clichés of one, and ten more crawl from the grave to take its place. Publish a vampire book that’s a little too gory or a little not gory enough, a little too sexually explicit or a little too chaste, and you’ll still sell more than any of your traditional fantasy titles, and leave science fiction so far in the dust it’s stopped even being worth discussing. This is the only necessary explanation for why there are so many vampire books out there.

But I belong to what appears to be a vanishing minority of both readers and writers. I don’t read vampire books, nor do I write them. Though in all honesty I have read some vampire books, including the original Dracula by Bram Stoker, but I can’t remember one I actually liked. I’ve seen vampire movies, and my favorite is The Hunger. I tried to watch True Blood, but wandered off when the vampire was disabled by a silver necklace. And I did write about a vampire in Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, but they made me do it.

Firing off more and more vampire books seems to still be working for publishers, but that’s just not good enough for me—and as the author of video game novelizations, please trust me that I’m not entering this argument as a pampered artiste who feels anything that’s fun and entertaining is beneath him. I won’t have fun writing about vampires, so I’d rather be one of the desperate few looking for the fad that will eventually replace them.

This is occupying the creative and marketing minds of an awful lot of people in publishing, believe me—enough so that it’s drawn the attention of The Onion in their hilarious article: “ ‘Minotaurs The New Vampires’ Says Publishing Executive Desperate To Find New Vampires”.

They’re kidding about minotaurs, but I’m not kidding when I offer up this alternative to the blood-sucker:

ROBOTS.

Yeah, you heard me. Robots are the New Vampire.

Stories of mechanical men date back into ancient times, from the myth of the golem and so on, but the word “robot” was first coined by Czech playwright Karel Čapek (1890-1938). Robots grew in prominence in the twenties and had a sort of peak in the 1950s then again following the global success of Star Wars. Though not every SF author has made use of them, they’re as popular a genre archetype, and take at least as many forms, as spaceships and other imagined technologies.

I’ve written at Fantasy Author’s Handbook of my fond memories of the young reader novel The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey, and I’ve enjoyed robot books from Isaac Asimov’s classic I, Robot to the shared-world series Isaac Asimov’s Robot City. Robots are appearing in newer books like Boilerplate by Paul Guinan and Anna Bennet, and Paul Collicutt’s Robot City Adventures graphic novel series for young readers, but so far they aren’t quite burning up the best sellers lists.

That being the case, you may be wondering how I came up with robots as the next vampires.

Here’s how:

I want them to be the next vampires.

And they have a lot going for them…

  • Like vampires, they come in endless varieties—in fact I think they come in potentially far more varieties than vampires.
  • They can be both hateful villains or loveable heroes.
  • You can dress up as a robot for Halloween. Okay, maybe not as easily as a you can a vampire, but nothing worthwhile is easy, right?
  • Robot toys are more fun. That’s just a fact.
  • If you’ve been keeping up with theories of the approaching singularity, you’ll have realized by now that you’re more likely to actually be a robot at some point in the future than you are to be a vampire.
  • Robots can have sex, just like vampires. I’ve seen Westworld. (and at this point I meant the original movie…)
  • You can have robot hunters, just like vampire hunters. Philip K. Dick called them Blade Runners.
  • Robots are Hollywood friendly. I’m thinking of recent movies like Terminator Salvation and Surrogates, not just classics like the Robby the Robot vehicles Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy. The first vampire movie is generally recognized to be F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), which is still among the best vampire movies ever made, and the first movie robot, Maria in Fritz Lang’s seminal Metropolis, shows up only five years later in 1927.
  • One of the things that publishing likes about vampires is they can be adapted for a wide audience from fairly young kids (A Practical Guide to Vampires) through the teen years (Twilight), and on into adulthood (Anita Blake). Kids love R2D2, surely there’s a teen robot out there somewhere, and I once had the misfortune of sitting through part of a bit of anime porn in which a guy has vigorous sex with an alien robot. It was awful, and I’m still scarred by the experience, but hey, someone took them there.

I could go on for days, but maybe if the community of authors got together behind robots we could, by sheer force of submission, make it happen for our mechanical brothers.

And if I’m the only one who votes for robots, okay, give me an alternative. Minotaurs? If you say so. Martians? Count me in. Harpies? Sure. Mummies? Wrap one up for me. Steampunk samurai? Why not?

Just please don’t try zombies again.

 

Okay, then, ten years later, how did I do? For what it’s worth I feel pretty prescient on this one, thanks to HBO’s Westworld reboot, Ex Machina, Blade Runner: 2049, and so on. TV and movies caught on, but let’s see more robots in print fiction! We can do it!

And yeah, they did try zombies again.

And again.

And again…

But the vampire craze does seem to have calmed a bit.

Progress marches on, I guess.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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And look: a robot story by lil ol’ me…

 

 

 

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I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT

A lot of people, I might even go so far as to say most people—including me—lead pretty boring lives, all things being equal. We have certain routines with kids and spouses and work and bills, and other things that add structure to a day. If you commute to an office every day, chances are that office is in the same place day after day, week after week, year after year. When I had a daily commute I used to sometimes drive in the direction of work even on weekends, my body following that prescribed route from muscle memory. I’ve now been working from home for a full decade so I no longer auto-pilot my way to Renton, but I have a new set of routines around when I do certain daily tasks. I have a pretty good idea what tomorrow is going to look like, and there’s very little surprising about what’s happening today. It’s Tuesday, Fantasy Author’s Handbook blog post day, so, ah, look, here I am Tuesday morning, writing this. This is how days can bleed into each other so that, as Virginia Woolf wrote in “The Death of the Moth,” “One is apt to forget all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity.”

That all might sound boring and predictable, and certainly doesn’t do much to inspire a great fantasy, science fiction, or horror story idea. Stories are, really by definition, the exact opposite of that. They may start with an entirely ordinary person going on about their entirely ordinary daily routine but then Gandalf shows up, or Dad says we’re moving to Arrakis, or that fog bank has… something in it. Stories are about the stable world suddenly being destabilized in some way. Sophie Haigney touched on this in “An Elegy for the Landline in Literature”:

Uncertainty is invaluable in fiction. It is often what makes reading a novel so pleasurable: the instability of the world that we enter; the sense that something is going to happen, though we do not know what; the promise that what we imagine might, in fact, unfold. The mechanics of this uncertainty have often required certain objects: the broken-down car, the doorbell, the unopened package.

Okay, then COVID-19. That upset some daily routines, and for a lot of people, didn’t it?

It’s Tuesday, September 15, 2020 and the west coast of the United States is on fire. The air quality where I live is still in the “dangerous” zone. Over the weekend it was “hazardous.” We went out on Saturday and in the middle of the afternoon I could look up at the sun and stare directly at it, a pale mauve circle in the sky—that’s how thick the smoke was. I got a picture of it…

Issaquah, Washington, Saturday 9/12/20, about noon. See that tiny little dot almost dead center?

That’s not normal.

Is this the start of a horror story? Or the third act twist of a horror story? I hope it’s the third act—that means it’s almost over.

Is this me continuing to flail around in a desperate attempt to find something positive in what we’ve all come to know as, simply, “2020”?

Sure, maybe. And why not?

This year has given us all a lesson in the plot twist, whether or not we wanted it or particularly needed it. Some massive immovable force has lumped itself down in the middle of our lives, exposing us to literally life-threatening dangers, and we’re left to scramble around trying to make sense of it. COVID was an inciting incident, a plot device, a twist, a coincidence that started a billion stories.

That’s a billion stories by people who now have been granted a better understanding—whether we asked for it or not—of what it feels like to be a perfectly ordinary person in imperfectly extraordinary times.

And, maybe, sheltering from viruses and smoke, we’ve also been granted the alone time to turn that feeling of cosmic powerlessness into a few weird stories of our own, since, as Jean Cocteau wrote in The Eagles With Two Faces (L’Aigle à deux têtes): “Nothing worthwhile is created in the bustle of the world, so I shut myself off from it in my castles.”

 

—Philip Athans

 

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SIFTING THROUGH THE RUBBLE OF SIFTING THROUGH THE RUBBLE OF COVID

On April sixteenth of this year, I dropped a couple notes into a word file and named it “Sifting Through the Rubble of COVID”—a blog post for the near future, maybe around the first week of July or so, when “this whole pandemic thing” was finally over. The plan was to look at the state of writing and publishing in the wake of the pandemic and see if anything positive might have come out of it.

So…

Yeah.

Now it’s September and things are looking up in a few ways, sure, but most schools are still online, a lot of people are still working form home, we’re wearing masks everywhere we go—and still trying not to go too many places in any case, lots of businesses are still closed and many will never reopen, and an awful lot of people are still unemployed. It’s still pretty dismal out there.

I could easily write a post today about how goddamn over it I am. How sick I am of the masks. How desperately I want this country not just to “get back to work,” but learn from this disaster and move forward in a positive way, but… why would I do that?

You feel the same way—I get it.

I’ve puzzled over how little reading I’ve been doing, how little writing I’ve been doing, and how I managed to get terribly behind with work even though I’ve been working form home for a decade now. I’ve offered a little advice, tried to keep my mask-covered chin up, and all that stuff. And you have too, I’m sure. So instead of looking back on COVID, maybe let’s pause and take stock.

I think it’s a good thing that I’ve identified some problems in my own world. I get too easily distracted when my routine is interrupted. When my son came home from college and finished out last year remotely and wife and daughter stopped working, so did I. Why? No reason that makes any sense, even to me. I’ve gotten a handle on that now, and am still in the process of climbing on top of it. The fact that my wife is back to work, my son is back in school, and my daughter expects to be back to work this month helps a lot, but the same way the government needs to learn valuable lessons on managing pandemics across the country, so too do I have to learn how to better manage pandemics, or any other intrusions on my routine, here at home. I’m working full speed, reading more again, and have even been doing a little writing. I can fix myself, if not the world.

I wrote a little sci-fi flash fiction piece that obliquely deals with the pandemic, or life in pandemic times, but otherwise, fantasy and science fiction authors should be able to press on despite COVID. Like Charlie Jane Anders said in Never Say You Can’t Survive: “A light-hearted romance between an elk princess and a swamp god might not just be the only thing you feel like writing these days—it might also be the best way for you to deal with the problems we’re all facing.” But COVID has attacked authors of “realist” fiction in a big way, as Ben H. Winters identified in “The Coronavirus Is Upending the Plot of My Novel”:

Here’s something I probably always knew, deep down, but never thought about: Writing a novel presupposes the existence of a stable reality that will remain basically the same until you’re done working on the book.

I’ve been anxious in the past that a book I’m working on will be superseded by another book with a similar premise, or that a social or political issue central to the book’s themes will no longer be in the zeitgeist by pub day. It never occurred to me to worry that a massive crisis would so change the fabric of how we live that my work of realistic fiction would no longer seem remotely realistic.

The pandemic has taken a lot of things that occur in this book, things that were just the basics of human experience—people going to bars, seeing doctors, shaking hands—and recoded them, charged them with new meaning.

“A stable reality”? Hilarious!

Still, it does seem like there’s a light at the end of the COVID tunnel, and we can write and edit and work and play our way out of it, safely, and so as not to endanger ourselves or anyone else. And we can do that without going to the lengths Daniel Defoe described in Due Preparations for the Plague (1722):

His Letters were brought by the Post-Man, or Letter-Carrier to his Porter, where he causd the Porter to Smoke them with Brimstone, and with Gunpowder, then to open them, and then to sprinkle them with Vinegar; then he had them drawn up by Pulley, then smoak’d again with strong Perfumes, and taking them with a pair of Hair Gloves, the Hair outermost, he read them with a large reading Glass, which read at a great Distance, and as soon as they were read burn’d them in the Fire; and at last the Distemper raging more and more, he forbid his Friends writing him at all.

Do your best out there, and I’ll do my best in here, and maybe next September I’ll get to that “now that it’s all over” blog post. But only after I sprinkle my computer with Vinegar and smoak it in strong Perfumes.

I can’t afford to burn it after, though.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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SCHRÖDINGER’S IDEA

Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s 1935 thought experiment meant to describe the quantum physics concept of superpositioning posits that if you put a cat in a box with some poison and close the lid, the cat has both eaten the poison and died, or ignored the poison and lived, until you open the box. Only at the point when the cat is observed, is the cat fixed into one of the two positions, alive or dead. Here’s a fun TED animation that explains the concept in more detail:

 

 

Leaving aside that Schrödinger himself walked away from the idea later in life, let’s extend that concept to writing and posit that every story idea is both good and bad until you let it out of the box.

I’ve posted before about having some version of an “idea file.” Write down and save stray ideas and look back at them from time to time—but look back at them in their current superpositioned state. If all it is is an idea, that idea is by nature “a blur of probability.” It’s in a superpositioned state between good and bad, and will require an observer (you) to examine it, which is to say at least start writing it, in order to fix it in a specific instance of good or bad. This might be a novel way of thinking about it, but I’m far from the first person to say that an idea by itself is of no value until you do something about it. In Never Say You Can’t Survive, Charlie Jane Anders wrote:

So how can you tell if a story idea is worth your valuable time and attention? By trying to make it work and seeing what happens. There’s no diagnostic that works as well as just trying to do the thing, and seeing if it’ll happen—and being okay with deciding at some point that it’s not happening with this particular premise.

I bet you can tell if an idea has eaten the poison before you get all the way through a full rough draft, but honestly, that might not be the case. You might actually struggle all the way through it, thinking—as I’ve recommended myself—that it only has to be a short, bad book, and it will be made whole in the revision process… but then the revision process turns into a death march of painful realization that this idea was crap to begin with. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. It sucks, but learn from it and move on.

Most of the time, happily, you’ll encounter the dead cat fairly quickly. I know some of you reading this are committed “pantsers” who abhor the very idea of an outline, but this is where at least a basic plot outline can really come in handy. I’ve had “brilliant” ideas that didn’t survive the outline stage, and even dragged my poor Fantasy Author’s Handbook readers through one of them—a space opera book that never solidified for me, that never found its legs, and was never actually written.

Unlike a dead cat, story ideas can be brought back to life in some cases. So you find after making a couple attempts at an outline that the idea hits some impenetrable wall. It doesn’t make sense, there’s kind of a sort of plot or plot-like thing but no characters or there are characters who you want to get to a great idea for an ending but there’s no apparent way to get them to that ending because you have no idea where they’re starting from or why they’re going that direction… a million, a billion variations on “it’s not working.” Let it sit. Maybe, and maybe entirely out of the blue, a flash of inspiration will pop into your head that suddenly makes the whole thing make sense, and the cat struggles to life.

Fiction is our way of exploring the landscape of the imaginary, why not look at the process as an imaginary cat in an imaginary box with imaginary poison who either stays dead or is brought back to imaginary life by what might actually be a real miracle?

 

—Philip Athans

 

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Bella Lucky’s (so far) only appearance in print.

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A FANTASY WORD LIST

One thing I do, and have done, with every edit (at least of a fantasy or science fiction novel or story) since starting at TSR in 1995 is create a word list/style guide. I’ll share my basic template here and encourage everyone to create and maintain this resource. I guarantee it will be a valuable tool not just for you while you finish your story or book—or series, even more so!—but it’s something you not only can but should give to editors and others who will be working with your text.

You might be surprised how often, as an editor, I get manuscripts in which the spelling of even the primary characters’ names change subtly throughout the text. Rules for initial caps and other things can easily end up being more or less randomly applied, too. But a sense of plausibility is often signaled in the subtlest of ways, including the judicious application or careful revision of an exiting rule of grammar and usage that works on a subconscious level so your world just “feels real.” Believe me, you’ll really come to appreciate it when it prevents an editor like me from “fixing” a perceived “mistake” that was an intentional component of your worldbuilding. The word list will warn your editor ahead of time that this was intentional, and not a typo.

Starting at TSR and continuing on to Wizards of the Coast, we maintained a style guide that included world-specific word lists, and one that covered “fantasy” in general as well as D&D terms that were the same from world to world, and that defined our contemporary American style (it’s armor, not armour).

Below is the beginning of my novel or series-specific word list/style guide, with some basic stuff like what country you come from (and yes, it does matter) and how you want to deal with the difference between: I have a bad feeling about this, Galen thought and I have a bad feeling about this, Galen telepathically broadcasted to the rest of the party.

The words on the sample list are actually applicable to any and every fantasy world. You’ll find a lot of them in the dictionary, but you’d still be surprised how often I see authors not just using them improperly but even inconsistently with two or even more versions of the same thing coming up, like warcry, war cry, and war-cry.

But most of all this is the place to lock in the spelling of character names (it’s Galen, not Galan), place names (Hellmount, not Hell Mount), and any other invented words unique to your world (spirit-staff, not spirit staff). You might have a separate invented language, too, so the Martian word for spirit-staff is gliurbex, which you’ll want to italicize throughout, so it should be italicized on your list to indicate that.

Include plurals, too, especially if there’s something weird about them, like djinni (singular) / djinn (plural). Don’t be afraid to address ways you don’t want something spelled, too, like: dwarves (not dwarfs)—or for your book, the other way around!

Anyway, check this out, think about anything that might stand out to you, and by all means feel free to keep it as a guide for your last revision/polish. Some things, like second in command, will not be spotted by a spellcheck. Those are three perfectly fine words and your computer has no idea they should have hyphens in certain specific cases: Bronwyn only spent a second in command of the caravan before the fireball went off… is correct, and so is: Galen regretted agreeing to be Bronwyn’s second-in-command when his face melted off his skull.

Right?

 

Title

Word List/Style Guide

Any word that appears on this list in italics, should always be in italics.

Any word that appears on this list with an Initial Cap or in ALL CAPS, should always have an Initial Cap or be in ALL CAPS.

Direct character thoughts in [roman or italics].

Psychic/magical (etc.) communication in [define style].

English (US, UK, CAN, or AUS).

 

WORD LIST

antimagic

axe (not ax)

aye aye (not aye-aye, which is a kind of monkey)

battle cry

battle magic

battle-axe

battle-mage

battle-shield

battlehammer

bloodlust

bowstring

breastplate

broadsword

Bronwyn

chain mail

demonspawn / demonspawned

djinni (singular) / djinn (plural)

dragonkind

dwarves (not dwarfs)

extradimensional

extraplanar

eyestalk

fireball

Galen

giant-kin

godsforsaken (in a world with multiple gods!)

greataxe

greatsword

guildhouse

hellforged

Hellmount

hellspawn / hellspawned

lady-in-waiting / ladies-in-waiting

life force

long sword (not longsword)

longbow / longbowman (pl. longbowmen)

lorekeeper

magecraft

magelight

magesight

magic-user

man-at-arms / men-at-arms

nock (place an arrow to a bowstring)

plate mail

poleaxe

rearguard

scry, scried, scrying, scries, scryer, scryers

second-in-command

sellsword

shapeshift / shapeshifter / shapeshifting

shock wave

short bow

short sword

spell duel

spellbook

spellcaster / spellcasting

spellcraft

spirit-staff / gliurbex

sword arm

sword belt

sword blade

sword fight

sword point

swordplay

swordsman / swordsmen / swordsmanship

swordsmith

trapdoor

war cry

warhorse

weaponsmith

wineskin

Your word list is most important where it varies from obvious sources like the dictionary or the Chicago Manual of Style. Consistency is king in pretty much all things, and is a big part of what will make your fantasy world seem plausible. It says to your readers: I care about this thing I’ve created, and I’ve worked to make it feel real.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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TOO MANY BOOKS?

Maybe we can “blame” COVID-19 and my shiny new Amazon Prime membership but I’ve started buying books again in greater numbers than the past few years or so, though not nearly to the degree of my $150-$200 in books a week (you read that right) around the turn of the century. Before the COVID quarantine I had started reading more, challenging myself, via GoodReads, to read fifty-two books a year. I’m currently running rather far behind on this year’s 52-book goal, something I also inexplicably blame on COVID. Weird that the less I read the more I buy? Is that true?

I’m going to pretend that’s not true because denial is a perfectly acceptable way to get through life.

Anyway, something prompted me to count up all of the unread books in my possession, something I haven’t done in a decade or so. I was able to count 1074 unread books, including 179 of my coveted ACE Doubles that I haven’t read yet, but then there’s the SF/Fantasy Paperback Grab-bag box in my closet that contains an uncountable number of mass market paperbacks that I’m conservatively estimating at two hundred, which leaves me with 1274 unread books currently in my possession.

And yes, I absolutely do intend to read every last one of them—I don’t buy books for decorative purposes. If I bought it (or got it for free in a few cases) it’s because it somehow struck my fancy, came highly recommended, etc. I do intend to read them all.

But then even if I can stick to my goal of reading fifty-two books every year that means I have exactly twenty-four years, six months worth of books stockpiled. That’s assuming I buy no more books during that time.

And oh, you know I’m going to buy more books.

I’ll be turning fifty-six in three weeks, so that means I have all the books I need to get me to the age of eighty.

I think reading fifty-two books a year is pretty good. I see a few people on GoodReads who at least say they read a hundred or more books in a year—and that’s possible if a lot of them are shorter books, or they have huge commutes and fly through audio books like I used to when I used to drive to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin every day (108 miles round trip). I suppose I could expand my goal next year to, say, one and half times the current goal, or 78 books? Doubling it doesn’t seem possible for me—I do have a fairly demanding job that, actually, means I read even more books, and I have a family and other interests. But could I read 104 books a year? That’s two a week. I bet I couldn’t hit that, though it would mean my supply of books runs out in only a little less than twelve years…

Whatever this might mean to you, the fact is that my 1274-book home library (not counting books I have read but have kept) comes to about 1/258th of the number of books published in the U.S. alone in one year (328,259 in 2010), and that was just one year, ten years ago. That means 3,282,590 books have been published in America since last time I counted how many books I own but haven’t read yet. And I’m not sure that number accounts at all for independent books, which continue to grow. According to Google, there are 129,864,880 books all together, so I only own about 1/101,000th of the books.

That’s a lot of books, 130 million…

Is that too many books?

In her brilliant book Reading Contagion, which I bought and read this year, Annika Mann shows that the idea of a “flooded marketplace” of books is essentially as old as commercial publishing itself:

(Alexander) Pope ’s own artistic production takes place over the period of print’s rapid acceleration, when, after the 1695 lapse of the Licensing Act (by which the Stationers’ Company restricted the book trade to particular printers), the number of printers in London and outside grew exponentially. This lapse led to a swift change in the conditions for authorship itself, which moved from a patronage system to a modern commercial arrangement, in part through the form of the subscription. These rapid and visible changes produced an era of vastly increased textual production and circulation, as well as a wide-ranging debate about that increase, as writers regularly and perhaps obsessively commented on textual overproduction.

Something tells me that there were far fewer books published in England in 1695 than anywhere near the 184,000 new and revised titles published in the UK in 2011.

So even though I own only a minute fraction of the books I am perfectly willing to concede that I might not live to read all the books I currently own, much less in addition to the many books I will absolutely buy in the next quarter century. If I had the money to buy every one of those 300,000+ books published in America every year, you bet your ass I would… though honestly I’d still pass on the political stuff.

But hey, buy books!

Read books!

Collect books!

Fill your life with books!

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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FOR THE LOVE OF PRETEND MAPS

Or, more accurately, for the love of maps of pretend places.

Maps have been appearing in fantasy literature going back—how long? I’m not even sure. At least to Tolkien, yes? Homer? Maybe—some editions, at least. There are ancient maps of Atlantis, which we’ll go ahead and assume is not a real place. Maps of Dante’s vision of Hell date back at least 540 years.

I love maps of fantasy and science fiction worlds and have happily included maps in books of my own. I’ve also hand-drawn rough little maps of parts of worlds, rooms or buildings, as I’m writing to help me visualize the place, to help choreograph how characters move through those spaces and to prevent myself from getting confused as to how far they’ve gone or how many right turns they’ve taken, and so on.

I’ve written about the importance of consistent travel times and distances between places in your story, calling into question that now infamous episode of Game of Thrones, but I’m far from the first person to wrestle with this question, as we can see from Samuel Johnson, writing in the mid-18th century:

The objection arising from the impossibility of passing the first hour at Alexandria, and the next at Rome, supposes, that when the play opens the spectator really imagines himself at Alexandria, and believes that his walk to the theatre has been a voyage to Egypt, and that he lives in the days of Antony and Cleopatra. Surely he that imagines this, may imagine more. He that can take the stage at one time for the palace of the Ptolemies, may take it in half an hour for the promontory of Actium. Delusion, if delusion be admitted, has no certain limitation; if the spectator can be once persuaded, that his old acquaintance are Alexander and Caesar, that a room illuminated with candles is the plain of Pharsalia, or the bank of Granicus, he is in a state of elevation above the reach of reason, or of truth, and from the heights of empyrean poetry, may despise the circumscriptions of terrestrial nature. There is no reason why a mind thus wandering in extasy should count the clock, or why an hour should not be a century in that calenture of the brains that can make the stage a field.

My love of maps might have something to do with so very many hours spent playing Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller,and other role-playing games—all known for their maps. I particularly love the poster maps of the classic Judges Guild world. I adore them all out of proportion. In this detail of the Elphand Lands from Fantastic Wilderlands Beyond (Judges Guild #67, 1978) we see this part of the world broken down into hexagons each five miles across.

The Elphand Lands

With this map we can get fairly precise measurements of the distance between the villages of Quickstep and Sekhet (about fifteen miles) and their relationship to the adjacent Sidhe Hills to the north and east and the Folkvangir Forest curving along west to south.

Though this was incredibly useful for players and their dungeon masters in determining how long it took to get from one of those villages to another and what sort of terrain was found in between and so which wandering monster table to use, and so on… how “realistic” was that?

Keeping in mind that maps, especially the ones we sketch out for our own use while writing, should follow the same concepts of realism vs. plausibility that I’ve talked about ad infinitum, what did real medieval maps look like, and for that matter, how “medieval” is a medieval fantasy world?

Jessica Hines, interviewed in “Why Game of Thrones & Fantasy Literature Get Medieval,” said:

We study maps of Westeros, examine the title credits, and talk about the role of maps in the series: why, for example, does each episode begin by panning across a map? We use this as a spring board for discussing the long cultural history of mapping, particularly as tools for delineating between “civilized” spaces and “non-civilized.”

Studying maps like the amazingly detailed 14th-century Mappa Mundi, we can see how medieval mapmakers imagined themselves at the center of the world and populated the outer edges of the map with the fantastic, strange, and other, often the racialized other. This made maps important tools for crafting social identities. This lets us then circle back to GOT: what kind of world-building and even social and racial marginalizing might those maps be doing?

Mappa Mundi

Good question, that. But even more so, how has the concept of the map—the expectations of its usability—developed over the centuries? In The Book of Legendary Lands author Umberto Eco pointed out that:

…medieval journeys were imaginary. The Middle Ages produced encyclopedias, imagines mundi that mainly sought to satisfy a taste for the marvelous, telling of distant and inaccessible countries, and these books were all written by people who had never seen the places they talked about, because in those days the power of tradition counted for more than experience. A map was not intended to represent the shape of the Earth but to list the cities and the peoples you could come across.

This tends to make things like the Tabula Peutingiana, seen below, make more sense.

Tabula Peutingiana

Like these flattened, oblique medieval maps, some more modern maps of fictional spaces make use of some of the same concepts, like the map of the Spinward Marches from the Traveller RPG.

The Spinward Marches

Here, three-dimensional space is rendered in two dimensions, with hexes equaling one parsec so we know we’ll need a Jump-2 drive to get from Pedase to Leander and if our ship is capable of Jump-4, starting at Pedase we’re within one jump of Traltha or Fen’s Gren. It makes sense “in game,” but not some much in “real life”—whatever that is. That in no way stops the Traveller universe from being awesome, or monumentally expansive, as you’ll see if you click over to an interactive version of the whole Traveller universe.

I love maps in books. I think they add something beyond their “educational” value. They’re a part of the experience of the artifact of the book (or game) itself. In a Locus guest post, “Forging Literary Artifacts,” Justin T. Call wrote:

…when an author adds a map or other extra-textual ephemera to their books,  they are making a promise to the reader. For better or worse, they are foreshadowing the scope of their story and promising that, if you stick with them long enough, you’ll explore many of the locales on that map. In that context, a map isn’t a crutch—it’s a promise; and, much like the cover of your novel or book blurb on the cover jacket, it sets the tone for your book and suggests what kind of story that reader is about to experience.

As guides so we’re all (player, DM or reader, author) on the same page when it comes to the distance between things, what’s west of Westeros, or how many jumps it will take to get to Persephone, maps are great, but for authors like us, maps are not enough. The places that appear on that map never come properly to life until you put characters in them. And J.R.R. Tolkien said as much in “On Fairy Stories”:

If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below,” the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.

So by all means, map away—before, during, and/or after bringing those places to life with the direct experiences of your characters.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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A COUPLE DIFFERENT KINDS OF EVIL

When I talk about monsters in Writing Monsters and elsewhere I tend to start by first explaining that when I say “monster” I mean some kind of non-human creature, some kind of unknown animal or other force, usually not terribly intelligent, and one that as often as not thinks of your human characters as prey in one for or another. In various courses I’ve taught before and since writing Writing Monsters I invariably encounter an author who has no interest in those kinds of monsters—the things that show up in D&D or Lovecraft—and instead see the scariest monster as a human with evil intentions.

Okay, I tend to respond, but in that case you’re actually using—and we all tend to do this from time to time—the word “monster” to dehumanize a particularly terrible person. By calling a serial murder or other aberrant fellow human a “monster” we carve that person out of the rest of civilized society, we cleave ourselves off from them. I am a human, he is a monster. But for me, the proper term there, at least in terms of talking about fiction in general and genre fiction in particular, is “villain.”

Trust me, I understand perfectly well that I am indeed mincing words here, but stick with me.

A villain is a person, or a non-human creature with the human traits of consciousness and individual agency, that does evil, that does the wrong thing on purpose, for any of an infinite number of reasons up to and including pure madness. A monster is a predatory animal (often rather loosely defining the word “animal”) we’ve never seen before. This makes Dracula, even though he’s a vampire, not a monster but a villain. Zombies that have no other thought in mind but to shamble around looking for someone to eat are monsters because though they might have once been human now they’ve lost their individual agency, their consciousness, souls… what have you. This is true even though both vampires and zombies share the human form and are both humans transformed into something unhuman or post-human in behavior, abilities, and so on.

Stephen King hit on this in his book Danse Macabre, in which he wrote: “All tales of horror can be divided into two groups: those in which the horror results from an act of free and conscious will—a conscious decision to do evil—and those in which the horror is predestinate, coming from outside like a stroke of lightning.”

For me, this is the difference between a villain and a monster. And don’t get me wrong, both can be terrifying. Here are examples of both, starting with a “monster,” or an evil that comes “from outside like a stroke of lightning.” For this, who better than H.P. Lovecraft to present a truly bizarre monster, an otherworldly evil of epic proportions, from his story “The Colour Out of Space”:

When they looked back toward the valley and the distant Gardner place at the bottom they saw a fearsome sight. All the farm was shining with the hideous unknown blend of colour; trees, buildings, and even such grass and herbage as had not been wholly changed to lethal grey brittleness. The boughs were all straining skyward, tipped with tongues of foul flame, and lambent tricklings of the same monstrous fire were creeping about the ridgepoles of the house, barn, and sheds. It was a scene from a vision of Fuseli, and over all the rest reigned that riot of luminous amorphousness, that alien and undimensioned rainbow of cryptic poison from the well—seething, feeling, lapping, reaching, scintillating, straining, and malignly bubbling in its cosmic and unrecognisable chromaticism.

Then without warning the hideous thing shot vertically up toward the sky like a rocket or meteor, leaving behind no trail and disappearing through a round and curiously regular hole in the clouds before any man could gasp or cry out. No watcher can ever forget that sight, and Ammi stared blankly at the stars of Cygnus, Deneb twinkling above the others, where the unknown colour had melted into the Milky Way. But his gaze was the next moment called swiftly to earth by the crackling in the valley. It was just that. Only a wooden ripping and crackling, and not an explosion, as so many others of the party vowed. Yet the outcome was the same, for in one feverish, kaleidoscopic instant there burst up from that doomed and accursed farm a gleamingly eruptive cataclysm of unnatural sparks and substance; blurring the glance of the few who saw it, and sending forth to the zenith a bombarding cloudburst of such coloured and fantastic fragments as our universe must needs disown. Through quickly re-closing vapours they followed the great morbidity that had vanished, and in another second they had vanished too. Behind and below was only a darkness to which the men dared not return, and all about was a mounting wind which seemed to sweep down in black, frore gusts from interstellar space. It shrieked and howled, and lashed the fields and distorted woods in a mad cosmic frenzy, till soon the trembling party realised it would be no use waiting for the moon to shew what was left down there at Nahum’s.

Looking for examples as far to the ends of this spectrum between villain and monster, here’s the internal or personal evil from one of the most terrifying novels ever written, and one that features no supernatural elements at all. Patrick Bateman, Bret Easton Ellis’s perfectly-drawn psychopath from American Psycho, is all too real, all too human:

I take the Wayfarers off and hand them to him. Maybe I really did kill Solly, though I’m positive that any cabdrivers I’ve killed lately were not American. I probably did. There probably is a wanted poster of me at… where, the taxi—the place where all the taxis congregate? What’s it called? The driver tries the sunglasses on, looks at himself in the rearview mirror and then takes them off. He folds the glasses and puts them in his jacket pocket.

You’re a dead man.” I smile grimly at him.

“And you’re a yuppie scumbag,” he says.

“You’re a dead man, Abdullah,” I repeat, no joke. “Count on it.”

“Yeah? And you’re a yuppie scumbag. Which is worse?”

He starts the cab up and pulls away from me.

While walking back to the highway I stop, choke back a sob, my throat tightens. “I just want to…” Facing the skyline, through all the baby talk, I murmur, “keep the game going.” As I stand, frozen in position, an old woman emerges behind a Threepenny Opera poster at a deserted bus stop and she’s homeless and begging, hobbling over, her face covered with sores that look like bugs, holding out a shaking red hand. “Oh will you please go away?” I sigh. She tells me to get a haircut.

What made American Psycho such a terrifying masterpiece, and why I described Patrick Bateman as a perfectly-drawn psychopath can be seen in the equal weight given to any particular random detail in the mind of a man unable to experience empathy or real human connection. He’s only sort of upset when he feels he’s being dismissed, but surrounding that are the otherwise unnecessary details of the brand of sunglasses, his frustration at not knowing what you call the places taxis are dispatched from, or the specific show being advertised on the poster. Did he kill this particular cabdriver? That doesn’t register in any way more significant than that the homeless woman tells him to get a haircut.

Now that’s a villain.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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WHY FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION

Why not?

Isn’t that a good enough answer?

It is for me, but let’s look at this subject again, and bring in some experts.

I love fantasy and science fiction and I have all my life. I have refused to “grow out of it” on any level and I never will—I’m fifty-five years old, guys, and if I’m still in, I’ll always be in. Plain and simple.

Still, there continues to be a thread of the culture, even in these times of almost over-saturation of science fiction and fantasy in movies, TV, gaming… everywhere. And fantasy continues to be one of the three biggest genres in publishing (with romance and thrillers), including and maybe even especially in the YA sphere, which means younger people are getting into fantasy and science fiction, and in a climate that’s more welcoming to it than it was even when I was a kid.

It has been gratifying to see science fiction being taken more seriously than it was when I was a kid, when people like Philip K. Dick had to work so hard to defend it:

If SF becomes annexed to the academic world it will buy into its own death… Professor Warrick’s pound-and-a-half book with its expensive binding, paper, and dust jacket staggers you with its physical impression, but it has no soul and it will take our soul in what really seems to me to be brutal greed. Let us alone, Dr. Warrick; let us read our paperback novels with their peeled eyeball covers. Don’t dignify us. Our power to stimulate human imagination and to delight is intrinsic to us already. Quite frankly, we were doing fine before you came along.

(Quoted by Christian De Cock in “Of Philip K. Dick, Reflexivity, and Shifting Realities: Organising (Writing) in Our Post-Industrial Society”)

Then fast forward to just this year and Berci Meskó writing in “Science Fiction Prepares You For Dream Worlds And Ethical Apocalypses”:

Science fiction is a form of conversation between technology and society about the future.

It is a vivid conversation. It makes us think, debate and learn. And it’s not a one-way street, but rather a strong interaction—while science fiction feeds on the ground that technology offers, it also gives ideas about how to build a better world for our children. Science and science fiction walk forward hand in hand.

Science fiction doesn’t just provide fun entertainment—though the best SF still does that. It has been at least partly responsible for the careers of a number of actual scientists, continues to inspire them, and inspire readers and viewers of SF to dig deeper into the continuing scientific golden age that also continues to go largely unnoticed. It makes us smarter.

In their report “Who Reads Science Fiction and Fantasy, and How Do They Feel About Science? Preliminary Findings From an Online Survey,” Christopher Benjamin Menadue and Susan Jacups wrote:

Contrary to declining reading habits, the science fiction and fantasy audience read consistently high volumes of books, as well as watching genre TV and film. We discovered that reading science fiction and fantasy may have a role in sustained, and cognitively beneficial, adoption of reading by young people and is complementary to other forms of consumption, rather than competitive. Science fiction was also found to be an important influence on the perception and acceptance of science by the public. Implications of this are that science fiction and fantasy are now a normal part of life for a wide range of people, and science fiction has a positive influence on popular interpretation, acceptance, and support of scientific endeavors. These results support earlier work that suggests science fiction is a valuable research tool for public engagement with science.

And the same study finds that SF fans aren’t just watching TV or playing video games, but reading as well:

In the survey, reading was in addition to interest in science fiction in TV and film, and this suggests that the reading of science fiction is complementary to other forms of genre consumption, rather than competitive. These findings indicate a population that is not following a more recent trend of declining reading that is particularly concerning to some educationists, as Sandra Stotsky has described in “What American Kids Are Reading Now” (Stotsky, 2016), and the significant impact of literacy upon quality of life has been discussed elsewhere…

A method for increasing literacy among young people might be simply to encourage them to read science fiction and fantasy, perhaps as an alternative to employing more complex and time-consuming behavioral interventions to the same ends (Cockroft & Atkinson, 2017). One approach to addressing declines in reading has been to recommend a more popular, public investigation of reading characteristics to identify the issues that exist (Albalawi, 2015). As a contribution to this effort, this survey seems to identify one reading group that is not in decline.

Yes! Please assign science fiction and fantasy novels in English classes! Yes, please! And not just Brave New World.

And not just science fiction. Fantasy belongs in schools, too. It may not engender an interest in science, but what else could fantasy lead to? I’ve said before that I learned more math in my high school years from playing Traveller than I did from all the math teachers combined. I learned more history, languages and vocabulary, creative problem solving, anthropology, philosophy, and more—too many fields in the humanities to name here—playing Dungeons & Dragonsthan from any social studies, English, or history teacher. In “Fantasy Literature: Through the Facade,” Allison O’Neil may have conjured an explanation for that:

While other forms of literature are hampered by the desire or need to mimic reality, fantasy and sci-fi largely abandon this aim. That is not to say the observations and criticisms of social structures or patterns aren’t real—quite the opposite. By eliminating the imitative components of other literature forms, fantasy becomes more universal. Through artifice we see what is real.

Role-playing games and fantasy and SF novels made me want to learn stuff, made me curious about where these ideas came from, and engaged me in an expansive education in ways that “sit down, shut up, and listen” traditional education couldn’t.

These genres are not—and I know I’m preaching to the choir here—simply “escapist entertainment,” even though I maintain there’s nothing wrong with escapist entertainment. Genre fiction can have quite a lot to contribute, not in spite of the fact that it’s divorced from “reality,” but because it’s divorced from reality, or as Robert Scholes wrote in Structural Fabulation:

Fantasy has claimed with considerable vigor a special status in literature. It has insisted that it is capable of non-realism, of an imaginative divorce between fictional models it constructs and the world we all experience. This claim, too, has proved unfounded. No man has succeeded in imagining a world free of connection to our experiential world, with characters and situations that cannot be seen as mere inversions or distortions of that all too recognizable cosmos. Thus, if we must acknowledge that reality inevitably eludes our human languages, we must admit as well that these languages can never conduct the human imagination to a point beyond this reality. If we cannot reach it, neither can we escape it. And for the same reason: because we are in it. All fiction contributes to cognition, then, by providing us with models that reveal the nature of reality by their very failure to coincide with it.

I’ve always found it funny to me that some of the genres’ most vocal critics have come, from time to time, from the Christian right. In Dear Bertrand Russel, Bertrand Russel wrote: “My own preference is to look upon theological writings as the slightly historical fantasy world of primitive tribesmen, often savage and sometimes of interest.” And Julius Kagarlitski took that a few steps farther:

Fantasy, a child of the new age, came into being only with the destruction of syncretic thought, wherein the real and the imaginary, the rational and the spiritual are inseparable. Fantasy begins to take shape only from the moment when the original unity is destroyed and disintegrates into a mosaic of the probable and the improbable. A myth is believed in too much for it to be fantasy. When disbelief arises side by side with belief, fantasy comes into being.

I guess it takes a fantasist to hate a fantasist.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

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

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

 

 

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