OUTLINING WITH NOTE CARDS, PART 1: A WORK IN PROGRESS FOR MY WORK IN PROGRESS

In an effort to actually make some progress on a fantasy novel I’ve way too often and for way too long described as my “work in progress,” I’ve been experimenting with some outlining ideas I’ve never used before.

A lot of writers—sometimes it seems to be every writer but me—plots out stories using note cards. These used to be and sometimes still are actual physical note cards. In more and more cases they’re virtual note cards, which a lot of the various writing software packages provide. Still gun shy from my attempt to use at least one of those software packages, I went ahead and bought some old fashioned physical 3”x5” note cards then decided to get all fancy and bought a set of colored Sharpies, too, so I could color code stuff in service to my little dollop of OCD.

Weapons in hand, I pulled out my trusty composition book full of more or less random notes on characters, plot points, and assorted pieces of worldbuilding and started thinking about how to actually use those note cards.

Heaven forbid I Google it or anything and maybe find people that might have some good advice on how to best use these cards. Instead I went ahead and “developed” my very own “system.”

For what it’s worth, I’ve always loved creating “systems” for stuff. Getting myself to consistently use those systems . . . that’s another thing.

Anyway, I thought maybe we can go along on this quest together: The Quest for How to Use Note Cards to Outline a Novel.

Looking through my composition books, my notes seemed to easily break down into four categories:

 

Character Arc

Plot Point

Demon

Worldbuilding

 

You have to start with characters—I do, anyway—and I wanted to try to use these cards to map out certain points I wanted my characters to hit, all of these, by the way, starting in very broad strokes.

Plot Points are just that: events in the story. I had several of these in mind, some thought through in some detail, others just very top-level.

I have most of the character names already figured out…until I get a better idea, that is.

I have most of the character names already figured out…until I get a better idea, that is.

 

But as I started getting into it and writing cards I was having trouble divorcing the characters from the plot. After a couple failed attempts I realized:

Don’t separate characters from the plot!

After all, these should never be exclusive elements anyway, right? The plot of a novel is, essentially, all the stuff the characters in the novel actually do. For whatever reason, though, I kept calling these “plot points,” so now I have a bunch of Plot Point cards that really talk about what characters are doing, experiencing, etc. And that’s fine.

Yep, this is my whole “one demon per ten most popular phobias” idea!

Yep, this is my whole “one demon per ten most popular phobias” idea!

The story is about a world overrun by demons and maybe the most thought-through bit so far is a hierarchy of demons that range in relative power. I made a card for each of these types of demon—again, very sketchy, very top-level, knowing that I will work with them and flesh them out from these broad strokes.

Demons are attracted to the smell of blood…

Demons are attracted to the smell of blood…

Then the worldbuilding category includes important aspects of the setting I’m pretty sure I’m going to need to introduce to inform the characters and story. My hero starts off as a simple farmer, who knows a bit more about the world around him—is a bit more “worldly”—than the average peasant, but not much. He will experience the bigger world for the first time along with the readers.

Then I sat down and started writing on the cards—quickly realizing that I needed a new category:

 Setting

 I want this story to include a straight-line path from one part of the world to a distant point, with stops along the way that also increase the danger to my hero. He starts at home, in the (relatively) safest place in the world, going farther and farther from his comfort zone on his way to the most dangerous place in the world.

This one kinda got cut off in the scan. It says: The Ice Caves of Ymoin.

This one kinda got cut off in the scan. It says: The Ice Caves of Ymoin.

That last bit could describe just abut any fantasy story, couldn’t it?

And that’s the thing—at least in this first step—I kept everything very simple: the least amount of text necessary not to really properly outline the whole book, but just to set up signposts to remind me that I need to think about this, I need to get this character from here to there, and to remind me of certain significant moments in the character’s arc, etc., from an almost formulaic standpoint. For instance, I have cards that just say “Jashiv is injured,” then with varying degrees to remind me that I need this guy to suffer along the way. What the nature of these “injuries” are and even if they’re physical or emotional or psychological . . . all that’s to come. I just have cards to remind me to beat him up.

One of the things that surprised me along the way was that as I went I started to realize that the number nine was significant.

I have nine different types of demons.

I have nine separate settings.

Nine divides nicely into three, so now I see my three-act structure: the first three demons/settings are act one, the next three are act two, and the last three demons and settings are act three.

So really what I had was a Rule of Threes.

Then my closet numerologist burst from hiding and mapped out the whole thing as three parts, each consisting of three sets of three chapters each, corresponding to the nine demons/nine settings and mapping to the three act structure and . . .

Okay, getting ahead of myself. But I like this kind of stuff. It starts to make sense to me now. The book is taking a sort of physical shape inside my head.

What I need to remind myself of as I go will be that this three sets of three sets of three thing is a starting point, a jumping-off point, and I absolutely cannot allow the slavish adherence to that structure to force me to write a pointless chapter, keep a boring character, jam in a useless scene, etc.

Likewise, that structure can’t force me to keep out a great new idea—a new scene, a new character, a new angle on something.

This is just how I’m going to start, not how I’m going to finish.

I’ll check back in here as I go and add some more details, and work through some things that seemed to work, and some that didn’t, all the while hoping to keep this relatively spoiler free. After all, eventually I’m going to want you to buy this book!

And I might even go out and see if someone else has some note card outlining wisdom to share, too.

Stay tuned.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

 

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WRITE IN ECSTASY, EDIT WITH INTENT

In a recent posts I’ve offered some advice that seemed pretty strict: banning a few words, sending you out in search of passive voice, telling you how to punctuate a line of dialog, and so on. In those posts, and others like them, I try to make sure that that advice is tempered by a simple, indisputable fact:

 

Fiction is a creative act, an art form that no one can possibly “perfect,” and as such rules are made to be broken, bent, redefined, summarily ignored, or applied piecemeal as you feel is necessary to express yourself in the unique way you so choose.

 

And I stand by that.

So if at any point I use words like never or always, please assume that those sentences end with “unless you want to.” I’m a professional editor with creeping up on thirty years of experience, almost entirely in fiction and mostly in SF and fantasy, but who the hell am I to tell you how to write? I can and try to nudge you in this direction or that, pass on the wisdom gained from my own mistakes and others’, but in the end, your story is your story. Write what you want to write in the way you want to write.

There is an important distinction, though, between knowing “the rule” and breaking it on purpose and not knowing “the rule” and later on making the claim that it was a choice and not a mistake. Generally speaking, as an author you shouldn’t really be engaging with anyone but your editor (and a few selected, trusted beta readers) about the specifics of your writing. Let the online haters hate and lovers love, but don’t start collaborating on your own writing. If someone points out a mistake, please don’t let your ego kick in and make you want to say, “Oh, no, I wanted it that way . . . it’s my style!” If that isn’t actually, literally, specifically true, then learn from that mistake—and maybe adopt it as a personal style point, but more likely, learn from that mistake and never make it again. In most instances, actually, you’ll probably keep making that mistake over and over again, and your editor will keep pointing it out and fixing it over and over again . . . we all have a few of those.

When do you make these specific stylistic choices?

The little tweaks will show up when you’re not paying attention, along with a thousand or more other mistakes, typos, and ideas that seemed good as you were typing but don’t stand up to even the first read-through.

Last week I talked about how Ray Bradbury also advised writers to write fast, uncaring of perfection or grammar or spelling or anything but the raw experience. I think this is excellent advice. So write your rough draft like a madperson . . . as fast as you can type. Then you can go back and suffer over when you feel this bit of passive voice works or that comma should be taken out even though “the rule” says it should be there, and so on. So how about this:

 

Write in ecstasy.

Edit with intent.

 

Always!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XVI: ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy 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 the fantasy author, so worth looking for.

 

I started reading Ray Bradbury when I was very young. I’m not sure how young, but young, maybe single-digit young. How is it it took me this long to read Zen in the Art of Writing?

If, like me, you grew up as a science fiction fan, surely you must have read Ray Bradbury. He is one of the absolute giants of the genre, and one of those rare “crossover” authors who was not only recognized by the so-called “mainstream” literati, but who also wrote outside the genre. I remember being assigned to read his brilliant, non-genre novel Dandelion Wine in high school. It was the only book besides One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that I was forced to read in school and legitimately loved.

Please don’t make me jump through any more hoops to establish that Ray Bradbury is an author worth reading, and worth listening to on the subject of writing. He just is.

Zen in the Art of Writing, at least in the edition I read, clearly says on the cover: “Essays on Creativity.” This is a fair description, so please don’t expect a “how to” book. I will admit, though, to being a little disappointed in some of the content, which was drawn from various sources, including introductions Bradbury wrote for his own books: reissues of novels or new collections of short stories. The essays were also written over a number of years, the earliest from The Writer magazine in 1961 and the latest from the introduction to the 40th anniversary edition of The Martian Chronicles in 1990. As such, the result is a bit of a grab-bag.

Bradbury

The above might seem like quite a significant complaint, but once you get past that choppy nature and read each essay on its own merits rather than as a part of any sort of greater whole, Mr. Bradbury has quite a lot to say on the subject of writing—mostly from what I’ll call a “top down” perspective.

Rarely if ever in the book will he get into any sort of proscriptive “how to.” What concerns him most in these essays is the nature of creativity, and how he approaches the more “unknowable” side of writing than the nuts and bolts of the craft.

There is an awful lot to learn.

In the preface, and elsewhere in the book, Bradbury implores us to write every day:

We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory. Remember that pianist who said that if he did not practice every day he would know, if he did not practice for two days, the critics would know, after three days, his audiences would know.

A variation of this is true for writers.

I’ve never been one of those writers who writes every day. I have to be in the mood, and I do have a lot of other work that needs to be done to keep the lights on and the wolves at bay . . . and other bullshit excuses. Bradbury has shamed me with this book—or more accurately, maybe, encouraged me to rethink that and actually do what needs to be done to carve out a couple hours every day to write. I’m not too old to learn new tricks, to form new habits, and boy, will I be a happier person in general if I can make that come true for myself. It’s advice I’ve heard and ignored before, but Ray Bradbury can’t be ignored.

BradburyBook

Like Jane Yolen did in her brilliant Take Joy, Bradbury goes back time and again to the idea that writing, for him, was not work or drudgery or something he needed to get through. He loved the act of writing. He kept that passion going for a long life and career. For some of us, this can be a difficulty. Writing becomes a deadline we have to hit, a to do list item to be crossed off. When I am writing, I love every second of it, but somehow, some wire gets crossed so that I forget that when I’m not writing, and so don’t have the “screw everything else, I’m writing” compulsion that Bradbury describes in the essay “The Joy of Writing.” That, having now identified it in myself, is something I have the power to change.

That’s two very short essays by Ray Bradbury, and I’m already committing myself to real change in my approach to writing.

See how powerful a book like this can be?

I was also gratified to see places where Mr. Bradbury and I were already in agreement. For years I’ve been advising authors to write a rough draft as quickly as possible, free of distractions like in-line spell-check and anything else that might compel you to edit as you go. I’ve also managed to make this a habit in my own writing so that now when I’m really “in the zone” I barely even glance at the screen, paying no attention whatsoever to typos, run-on sentences, punctuation in general, etc.

All that can be fixed later.

In the essay “Run Fast, Stand Still, or, the Thing at the Top of the Stairs, or, the New Ghosts from Old Minds,” Bradbury writes:

The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.

Agreed!

I’ve also encouraged authors to nourish our intellectual freedom. Bradbury refers to this as a Muse in the essay “How to Keep and Feed a Muse,” in which he encourages us to drink in everything we can about life around us:

As we can learn from every man or woman or child around us when, touched and moved, they tell of something they loved or hated this day, yesterday, or some other day long past. At a given moment, the fuse, after sputtering wetly, flares, and the fireworks begin.

In other words: pay attention!

And Bradbury recognizes this intellectual curiosity as, often, a passive exercise, as in the essay “The Secret Mind” in which he tells of his time spent, unhappily, in Ireland and his conscious decision not to write about it, then the subconscious intrusion of his remembered, repurposed, and entirely personal Ireland into his writing some years later:

From now on I hope always to stay alert, to educate myself as best I can. But, lacking this, in future I will relaxedly turn back to my secret mind to see what it has observed when I thought I was sitting this one out.

We never sit anything out.

We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled.

The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.

I’ve also said, if you’re going to write science fiction and fantasy, read science fiction and fantasy . . . be a science fiction and fantasy fan. Bradbury, from “Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle”:

I went back to collecting Buck Rogers. My life has been happy ever since. For that was the beginning of my writing science fiction. Since then, I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.

Science fiction and fantasy are valuable and not something to be grown out of. As Bradbury expanded upon poetically in the essay “On the Shoulders of Giants”:

The children sensed, if they could not speak, that the entire history of mankind is problem solving, or science fiction swallowing ideas, digesting them, and excreting formulas for survival. You can’t have one without the other. No fantasy, no reality. No studies concerning loss, no gain. No imagination, no will. No impossible dreams: No possible solutions.

So, science fiction and fantasy authors, go read Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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WRITING ACCENTS

Following up on last week’s post, “Don’t Write Accents Phonetically,” here’s some more specific advice on what to do rather than what not to do.

But first, let’s take a look at the offending passage from Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die in more detail. This is text scanned directly from the book:

 ‘Aw, honey,’ the girl was anxious. ‘ ’dey ain’t no use tryin’ tuh git mad at me. Ah done nuthen tuh give yuh recasion tuh ack dat way. Ah jist thunk you mebbe preshiate a ringside at da Par’dise ’nstead of settin’ hyah countin’ yo troubles. Why, honey, yuh all knows Ah wudden fall fo’ dat richcrat ack’ of Birdie Johnson. No sir. He don’ mean nuthen tuh me. Him duh wusstes’ man ’n Harlem, dawg bite me effn he ain’t. All da same, he permis me da bestess seats ’nda house ’n Ah sez let’s us go set ’n dem, ’n have us a beer ’n a good time. Cmon, honey. Let’s git out of hyah. Yuh done look so swell ’n Ah jist wan’ mah frens tuh see usn together.’

‘Yuh done look okay yoself, honeychile,’ said the man, mollified by the tribute to his elegance, ‘an’ dat’s da troof. But Ah mus’ spressify dat yuh stays close up tuh me an keeps yo eyes off’n dat lowdown trash ’n his hot pants. ’N Ah may say,’ he added threateningly, ‘dat ef Ah ketches yuh makin’ up tuh dat dope Ah’ll jist nachrally whup da hide off’n yo sweet ass.’

‘Shoh ting, honey,’ whispered the girl excitedly.

Bond heard the man’s foot scrape off the seat to the ground. ‘Cmon, baby, lessgo. Waiduh!’

Bond put down the menu. ‘Got the gist of it,’ he said. ‘Seems they’re interested in much the same things as everyone else—sex, having fun, and keeping up with the Joneses. Thank God they’re not genteel about it.’

Okay, where do I begin?

First of all let’s just get past the overtly racist context this is set in, and Bond’s reaction to the overheard conversation, which goes to the chapter’s general feeling of men observing wild animals in their natural habitat. What’s additionally troubling is that Bond, who is English, is hanging out with Leiter, a Caucasian American CIA agent, and Fleming makes no effort to try to render Leiter’s “white American” accent in any way. The residents of Harlem are singled out for special honors. The content of the conversation is intentionally unflattering, and we’ll leave that aside too, and just look at the words on the page.

By now, I’m sure everyone on Earth has seen that bit of text that’s run several million laps around the internet that shows that as long as the first letter and last letter of a word are left in place, the rest of the letters can be in any order and you’ll still be able to read it without much trouble. This turns out to be true, and actually points to why Mr. Fleming’s rendering is so difficult. He’s turned this into a sort of exercise for the reader, a puzzle we’re forced to work out, taking each word and trying to decode it. I’m still suffering over the meaning of “recasion” and “richcrat,” for instance. The fact that “Ah” is capped is a particularly weird touch, subbing in for “I.” .

My advice is to not try to render the pronunciation of words phonetically, which really almost every single time ends up being confusing at best, demeaning at worst. Instead, look for the peculiar word choice and then swap in those words, allowing sentence structure and word choice to convey that peculiar voice.

Screenwriters have the luxury of relying on actors and a director to infuse written dialog with the proper cadence and pronunciation, but prose authors have to be the actor in every part, the director, etc. But we can learn a lot from movies and TV, listening how people talk. I once had the opportunity to interview Harlan Ellison, one of my absolute heroes, and he told me he watches Judge Judy in order to keep up with the way people talk. That’s by far the best reason to watch reality TV!

I sat down and watched a couple episodes of some scripted TV, and transcribed the dialog. We’ll start with The Sopranos, which made exceptional use of an outstanding ensemble cast who reveled in that New Jersey dialect.

From season one, episode eight, “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti,” this exchange at a wedding reception:

Livia: Listen to him with that ‘my darling.” I am nobody’s darling.”

Lorenzo: “This one here, she never disappoints, I’ll tell you that.”

Livia: “Are you still seeing your other women, Lorenzo?”

Carmella: “Come on, Ma. Let’s mingle.”

Tony: “Sorry, the older she gets the worse she gets.”

In that first line, note the specific use of “I am” as opposed to “I’m” to emphasize the point.

Nowhere but in New York and New Jersey would anyone ever structure a sentence this way: “This one here, she never disappoints, I’ll tell you that.”

See how that “accent” comes through without a single apostrophe or alternate spelling? In the case of “Ma,” that’s what Carmella actually said—it wasn’t my attempt at rendering her version of “Mom.”

Another example from The Sopranos, season 2, episode 10, “Bust Out”:

Richie: “Coolers are like scissors. Everybody wants one, nobody has any fucking idea what they cost. You put a Nigerian out on the street, have him sell these for a couple three bucks a piece, who’s not going to say, ‘Fuck it, gimme one.’ ”

The magic is here: “a couple three bucks.”

The f-bombs sprinkled in, bucks rather than “dollars,” my favorite: “a couple three” instead of two or three. Then I used “gimme,” which, like “Ma” in the previous example, is  almost as commonly seen as “give me” and would be confusing to no one, and not becuase he said, “give me” and it sounded like “gimme,” but he actually said “gimme.”

Crossing the pond to England and Ricky Gervais’s brilliant Derek:

“I loves babies, but they’re fragile, isn’t they. If I drops a vase or something like that, or sits in some apple crumble and custard, I’ll go ‘Oops, sorry,’ and everybody goes, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, Derek,’ but if I drops a baby or sits on it, ‘Oops, sorry’ isn’t enough, is it. So I sort of . . . I play it safe. I would like to hold one, though.”

What you read there are the actual words he said. It didn’t kind of sound like he said “drops” and “sits” when he was really saying “drop,” “sit,” or “sat,” he actually said the words “drops” and “sits.” There are no question marks after “isn’t they” and “is it” because his voice didn’t go up at the end—he wasn’t asking a question. These are just little colloquial tics.

And all of these examples sound right on the page, without me having to sort out the slight differences in the pronunciation of vowels and render it in gibberish.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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DON’T WRITE ACCENTS PHONETICALLY

After the post from a couple weeks ago I had promised to stay away from politics for a while—if not forever—and I really meant to stick to that, but then this came along, just this morning as I was reading Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming, and I just couldn’t let it go by without comment.

Going back some, at some point I realized I had never read any of the original James Bond novels and thought I ought to, so I found an old copy of Casino Royale, read it, and really kinda dug it. It was all hopelessly dated, and retrograde especially in terms of gender roles, but I was willing to chalk that up to the fact that it was written in the 50s, and it was fun enough that I decided to read the rest of the series.

But the second Bond book has stopped me cold. Though I recently (re)wrote about the separation of author and art and have written about the endemic racism in pulp fiction that essentially came to: Hey, this was, like, ninety years ago—enjoy it for what it is.

But then I started reading Live and Let Die, which was first published not in 1914 or 1924 but 1954, when it seems to me fiction should have at least started to catch up with the Civil Rights Movement and . . . I don’t know . . . this might sound arbitrary, because admittedly it is, but I just bristled at the initial description of the African America villain Mr. Big, tried to think of it as “quaint,” but then got to Chapter 5, which is literally, actually entitled “Nigger Heaven,” and . . . right? Seriously? Honestly, that’s just it for me and Mr. Fleming.

This chapter features James Bond and white CIA agent Leiter moving through Harlem, observing the people there precisely as one would potentially dangerous animals in their natural habitat, describing them in no more human terms than as if they were animals encountered on a safari.

And then we get Ian Fleming’s demented attempt to convey the sound of a Black American’s voice:

“Aw honey,” the girl was anxious, “dey ain’t no use tryin’ tuh git mad at me. Ah done nuthen tuh give yuh recasion tuh ack dat way. Ah jist thunk you mebbe preshiate a ringside at da Par’dise ’nstead of settin’ hyah countin’ yo troubles . . .”

. . . and it just keeps going on like that, with the couple being eavesdropped on there only to show off Fleming’s obvious contempt for the voice, and in no other way moving the story forward at all.

Let’s be honest, the chances of that phonetic thing ever coming across as anything but offensive is actually rather slim. The next best chance is that it will be hokey. Third most common result: confusing.

See where I’m going with this?

Don’t try to convey accents—however well-intentioned you may be—phonetically.

Please, just don’t.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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TWO OLD POEMS

I have to admit I’m just really behind the deadline eight-ball again, but still, I also wanted to cleanse myself and the blog of last week’s rant, so . . .

It’s hard for me to even believe that at one time I actually wrote poetry, and it’s even harder to believe that some of it was published. Here are two that I always liked, for old time’s sake, and as an example of the fact that you can write fantasy but don’t have to only write fantasy. The first was published in a magazine that only published poems that were thirteen lines long. The second in a very cool magazine I wish was still around, like they wished mine was—it isn’t.

 

 

TO WAIT

In the midst

Of a

Serious financial

Crisis

Two

Old

Men

Play Tic-Tac-Toe

Pretending

To wait

For something

To wait

For some time.

 

Originally published in Thirteen, Vol. VII, No. 2, January 1989

Ken Stone, Editor

 

 

LOST LITTLE LOST

wonderful wasp wispy smoke sister one left tonight gone gones

gone below aground beneath beneath under underneath

someone goes and someone comes and someone stays and it’s all the

same and it’s all the same and it’s all the same and it’s all the

same

and look at me in this

outfit

look at me

little lost goats going flowing left right gone to hell go to

hell to hell with you.

 

Originally published in Slipstream #10, 1990

Robert Borgatti, Livio Farallo, and Dan Sicoli, Editors

 

That was twenty-five years ago, it was at least that many lifetimes, but hell, I should start writing poetry again.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT

Let’s start with two simple, indisputable facts:

  1. You have the right to your own opinion, and
  2. You have the right to remain silent.

I awoke this morning at 3:45 am feeling out of sorts. It wasn’t just the mysterious pain in my right elbow, radiating down my arm into my hand. It wasn’t the twinge in my back easily explained by yesterday’s uncomfortable thirty-minute stint on my uncomfortable exercise bike. This sense of nervousness has been building lately, and it’s around something that’s happening now that I think is putting science fiction and fantasy authors in mortal danger.

If you come here for career advice, please ignore everything if you only take this single bit of not just advice, but desperate request from a fellow author, a lifelong fan, and a reasonable, intellectually open fellow traveler:

Shut the fuck up.

I worked with Brad Torgersen on our ill-fated Fathomless Abyss project and found him to be creative, collaborative, funny, and a terrific writer with a broad imagination. I didn’t ask him about his personal politics because I didn’t care. He came into the project via collaborator Mike Resnick, who I knew was one of those, let’s call him “curmudgeonly” SF authors of the Old School who occasionally got “in trouble” for stuff he’d written in the SFWA Bulletin, but I don’t care because Mike is also creative, collaborative, funny, and a terrific writer with a broad imagination. Now I learn that Brad Torgersen is in the process of destroying his writing career by publically blowing up the already thoroughly marginalized and long-ago well blown-up Hugo Awards. Attacking from the political right he and Larry Correia, and some other people I don’t know intruded on the tiny little group of friends who give a statue every year to other members of their tiny little group of friends and has everybody all in an uproar—the classic tempest in a teacup that is a good thing for precisely no one.

Over the course of my very long career I’ve worked with people who are politically conservative, and people who are politically liberal. I’ve worked with Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Mormons. In none of those cases—as an editor, author, or coworker—did I ask about any of those things ahead of time, and their political or religious views not only didn’t prevent me from working with them but in fact I welcome and am infinitely fascinated with the differences in people, and prefer those differences over any sort of political, religious, or cultural bubble.

If the so-called Sad Puppies is a reaction to a perceived bloc of feminist and/or liberal voters, Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen (et. al.) creating a voting bloc of anti-feminist and/or conservative voters only energizes “the other side,” and here we are, allowing something like Gamergate to penetrate into science fiction and fantasy.

And I just can’t allow that, not because I can’t handle a conservative SF author or a liberal fantasy author but because I can’t accept that we now have to separate into this side vs. that side.

In this blog and my other writings I tend to avoid politics, and as a member of a religious minority in America I’ve learned the hard way to just not talk about religion in “real life.”

But I write about both politics and religion in fiction all the time.

I have my political views, my opinion of religion, of popular culture, of other trends in world culture and so on. And as a writer of fiction I keep all that stuff there. I don’t want to be a “liberal author,” or an “atheist author.” I want to be an author, and if you read a story I’ve written and get thinking about religion in one way or another, or another story and think about politics in one way or another, fine. If you just enjoy it for the adventure, that’s perfectly fine too. And readers are going to reinterpret—from our perspective, misinterpret—that “message” as they see fit. I not only don’t mind that, I welcome that. I can’t, won’t, and don’t want to sit over your shoulder while you’re reading any of my fiction and say stuff like, “This is a fantasy retelling of The Fountainhead but I’m not a libertarian,” or “This short story is really about how Wall Street is like a cabal of devil worshipers,” or whatever. You’re going to get that or not, agree with me or not, and it’s the discourse-through-fiction that’s the thing.

So again, here’s my career advice to you:

Shut the fuck up.

If you declare yourself a “conservative author” of “conservative SF” you will not just be carving your potential audience in half—it’s the central delusion of both the left and the right that they each speak for half the people—you’re really limiting yourself to more like one or two percent of the potential audience. Pretend God help me, I’m about to agree proto-neo-conservative Richard Nixon, who invoked the Silent Majority.

Nixon was actually right about that, though maybe not quite in the way he was hoping. The Silent Majority really is a little bit conservative and a little bit liberal, a little bit religious and a little but agnostic, a little bit violent and a little bit peaceful, a little bit terrified and a little bit courageous . . . There is no rape culture in America, and there are no “feminazis.” There is no War on Christmas, nor is there a Gay Agenda. Those are “wars” being fought by two or three people at any given time, utterly ignored by effectively everyone else, which then attract a gaggle of anonymous internet trolls who are just there to stir the shit.

Wallow in that at your own peril, authors.

I flatly refuse to limit my own audience in that way. As authors we are all running our own small businesses. I’m not going to make the mistakes that other businesses, either Chick-fil-A or Hobby Lobby, or whatever else, have made when they said: “Attention people of conscience: don’t shop here.”

I want everybody—men and women, rich and poor, gay or straight—to buy my stuff and read it and think about it and like it or not or understand it or not . . . or understand it in a way that I don’t.

If you’ve joined the Sad Puppies you have done damage to your career. If you call out, as I’ve seen recently online to stop reading anything written by white men because women and/or people of color deserve to have the genre to themselves, you have done damage to your career.

When you make any one segment of the audience out there feel unwelcome, the Silent Majority will follow.

Leave your politics in your story, leave your spirituality in your story, leave your opinion in your story, leave everything about you in your story. The story isn’t about you.

No one gives a shit about you.

We want stories.

So, Larry Correia, George R.R. Martin, and anyone and everyone who’s ever said, “Well, your side has said and done thus and so while our side is perfect and gifted of The Truth,” please, I beg you, for the good of the genres we love, and for the good of your own careers, please just stop talking.

And start writing.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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