WHAT I’VE LEARNED IN THE LAST TWENTY-THREE YEARS, PART 3

To finish up this little series of posts that began here, I’ll let the 2017 revision of my 1994 horror short story “Piece Music” speak for itself . . .

 

Piece Music

It was a hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground, a growling, hissing sound, and it came up fast behind her. She turned, unable to go any farther. The fence across the end of the alley was thirteen feet high and she wasn’t in any condition to climb it now. Fear, anger, frustration—all the precursors to a violent and premature death—raged in her head along with stolen moments from her whole life: The time she pissed her dress in her third grade classroom. The time her Aunt Lilly touched her there. The boys, the men, the needles like vampires taking out more than they put in. Her mind went to parties and laughter and humiliation and death and fucking.

She shivered and the blood flowing freely from the long gash on each forearm cooled against her skin, raising gooseflesh as if in a futile attempt to repel this thing coming at her.

And what came at her was impossible. Impossibly grey and glossy like a brain. Like something from inside you. It had eyes and holes everywhere. Were those teeth? More than anything she didn’t want them to be teeth. Not that many teeth. Not teeth moving like that. Moving all by themselves, each alive and hungry and impossible. She had no idea what this thing was that was about to kill her.

It stopped running and approached her one stiff-legged step at a time. It drooled from lots of places and the smell hit her like the inside of a dumpster in which a dead body had been left to rot. She gagged and almost threw up. A bizarre sense of embarrassment slid across her face and she could have sworn it smiled thirteen, fourteen, fifteen times.

It went onto her all at once and she cried as it ripped her apart, but she never screamed. She had always resented her mother, but she begged for her now. She wanted somebody to hug her and just make it go away. The pain was beyond anything. She wanted this grey thing to go away and leave her alone. She even told it, out loud, “Leave me alone,” but it wouldn’t. It just wouldn’t.

In the morning they found enough of her to identify her by dental records. Her face was pretty much intact from the bridge of her nose down to about the middle of her neck. The shredded thing that was her shoulders held bits of gravel, asphalt, the impotent bites of alley rats, and the beginnings of a dry crackling around the jagged edges and flaps. She had one eye left, hanging limply out of its socket. It was crystal blue and the contact lens had popped out.

The medical examiner told Detective Reyes he hadn’t seen anyone torn apart like that since Vietnam. Reyes was eight when the Vietnam war ended, so all he could do was shrug. Reyes had given up hope of not puking. He could still taste it in his mouth and wanted nothing more than a tube of toothpaste. The coroner guys thought it was pretty funny when he ran out of the room, but those guys have a very sick sense of humor. When he came back he saw them all crowded around the table that held parts of the girl’s face. According to the computer downtown she was a hooker. A nobody really, some drifter that came in from San Francisco or some place like that. Seattle attracted those types of people. Reyes never understood that. She was twenty, HIV positive, and still working. It was a complex world.

When Reyes got to the table he heard it and immediately puked again. One of the coroner guys ran out of the room, his pressed white lab coat rustling behind him like a superhero’s cape. One of the other guys said, “Holy shit,” and Reyes heard the voice again, guttural, throat full of something. Spit? Blood?

“Where,” it whispered, then more loudly, “am I?”

It was the girl, the face, the pieces. Reyes remembered prayers and recited them around the foam of watery puke coating his lips. No more than a quarter of the girl’s face survived. By the coroner’s best estimate her body was in thirty-seven pieces in two separate laboratories. They figured that nearly seventy percent of her body mass was missing, taken away or eaten by one or more extraordinarily sick individuals. She rolled her hanging eyeball up at Reyes and sputtered, “Am I in the hospital?”

Two more of the coroner guys took off. One of them puked in the hallway, the other just kept repeating, “Sweet Jesus,” over and over again. That left only the chief medical examiner, Tillis, and one of his assistants, a pretty young doctor named Sarah something, and Reyes, and the piece of face.

“Am I?” the face asked again, impatient.

“Yes,” Tillis answered. “Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

Sarah mouthed “Oh my god,” but nothing came out. She turned her face away. She was crying. She had no idea what was going on. It was better that way. She had dinner with Jeff last night and almost went to bed with him. During lunch today she bought a CD and was going to listen to it in her office. The parts of a woman’s face were talking. She forgot to buy coffee and tampons.

“Do you,” Tillis started, then seemed to be fishing for something. “Do you remember what . . . happened . . . to you?”

It screamed loud and shrill and Reyes screamed back. They did that for a full thirty seconds, they did it for a long time.

“Are you in pain?” Tillis asked, louder, his voice shaking along with his body.

Sarah slipped on her way out and sobbed into the hallway where people were starting to congregate. She couldn’t remember the name of the CD she bought during lunch.

“I’m like this,” the pieces screamed, her voice an insane thing, a wild animal thing, “I’m like this. I’m like this.”

“Like what?” Reyes shouted back at it, his voice a little girl’s voice. “Like what? What are you like?”

“I’m in pieces!” she shrieked. “I’m ripped into pieces! I’m ripped into pieces. I’m ripped into pieces!”

She established a rhythm they followed, their questions taking on a melody, “What did this?”

“I’m ripped into pieces!”

“Where did it come from?”

“I’m ripped into pieces!”

“How can you be alive?”

“I’m ripped into pieces!”

“What ate you?”

“I’m ripped into pieces!”

Their questions and her screaming and the echoes of the screaming and the muttering in the hallway was like hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground where they listened, writhing in hideous pleasure, slick and grey and impossible and full of teeth.

Recording it.

Recording it all.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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WHAT I’VE LEARNED IN THE LAST TWENTY-THREE YEARS, PART 2

Last week I posted a short story that I wrote twenty-three years ago and had published in the now-defunct magazine Aberrations. I asked a big question: What have I learned in the last twenty-three years? Or as I said last week:

Though I stand behind this grim little bit of post-Lovecraftian mayhem, I’ve done an awful lot of writing, and a whole lot more editing, in the couple decades and change since it was first published. How would I have done this differently now? What would Editor Phil fix? How many of the items in my Common Comments file can I attach to this early example of my own work?

If you haven’t read last week’s post, including the complete text of “Piece Music,” the story in question, click here and start with that.

This week, let’s answer one of those questions and see if it also answers the others . . .

How many of the items in my Common Comments file can I attach to this early example of my own work?

At risk of seeming lazy, I’ve made a Word document I call Common Comments in which I’ve collected some of the advice I’ve found I’ve had to type into lots of different manuscripts in various genres by various authors of varying experience. It’s a time management tool for me.

I don’t care who you are, you can’t be both an editor and a writer—definitely not at the same time. And believe me, Writer Phil makes all sorts of crazy mistakes from simple typos to what-the-hell-were-you-thinking disasters that makes Editor Phil cringe. This is a little weirder for me in that now Editor Phil 2017 is looking at the work of Writer Phil 1994. That does make the text lots more fresh for Editor Phil’s eyes, while at the same time allowing Writer Phil to hide behind a couple decades’ more writing practice. And writing is something you get better at the more you do it.

So anyway, what Common Comments can Editor Phil attach to “Piece Music”?

Sentence 2, It was a growling, hissing sound and it was coming up fast behind her. gets this comment:

That construct: “something was verbing” is often a sign of passive voice. It’s almost always better to let the action be more direct: “something verbed” so that thing is happening in the past tense “now” and doesn’t come across as feeling as though there’s an extra layer of delay between your readers and the action. https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/active-search-something-was-verbing/

And yes, I link authors back to this blog.

The question then becomes, would that sentence, in context, read better as: A growling, hissing sound came up fast behind her.?

Not necessarily, because the “growling, hissing sound” adds detail to the “harsh music” of the first sentence. “Can I get away with this one?” asks Writer Phil. Editor Phil is nervous, and thinks maybe the better thing to do would be to rewrite the first sentence accordingly, combining the two into one thought:

It was a hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground, a growling, hissing sound, and it came up fast behind her.

Editor Phil might warn against “it was” as passive, but not always, and will give Writer Phil a pass on that this time.

Not in my Common Comments file, but I have to ping myself for going to the “this and this and this” well too many times. There’s no rule, and I don’t want to make one, but if you do that twice in one paragraph, that’s probably once too often:

It was a hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground, a growling, hissing sound, and it came up fast behind her. She turned, unable to go any farther. The fence across the end of the alley was thirteen feet high and she wasn’t in any condition to climb it now. Fear and anger and frustration, all the precursors to a violent and premature death raged in her head.

And the first paragraph ends with “this and this and this” number three: Her mind went to parties and laughter and humiliation and death and fucking. But Editor Phil will give that one to Writer Phil because it bookends the first sentence, and it’s not all about rules of grammar and syntax . . . Let’s not forget the art!

The first sentence is echoed in the last paragraph,and I definitely want to keep that agreement in place, so let’s fix the second one:

Fear, anger, frustration—all the precursors to a violent and premature death—raged in her head.

Editor Phil thinks he knows what Writer Phil was going for with this: Adjacent to that was her whole life. but isn’t sure Writer Phil got there. The intent was to show that, basically, while she was afraid and angry and frustrated, her whole life was flashing in front of her eyes. I like the little bits of her life that follow—they add some backstory in flashes and make her feel like a person, if an unhappy person, who’s already been through some stuff, so neither Editor nor Writer Phil wants to lose that. So Editor Phil will ask Writer Phil to look at that little sentence: Adjacent to that was her whole life. and find a better alternative.

The second paragraph has more “something was verbing” issues but worse, a weird transition from how she feels to what the monster looks like, and Editor Phil sends Writer Phil back to the drawing board on that one. Paragraphs don’t have to religiously be about one thing and one thing only, but there does seem to be too big a separation between those two ideas. You’ll have to come back next week to see if Writer Phil could figure that out.

Then we get to: It was drooling from lots of places and she could smell it.

An easy “something was verbing” fix to start with but then: she could smell it gets this from the Common Comments file:

Since this is all in this character’s POV, we get that this is what this character smells (or sees or hears or thinks, etc.)—an easy trim just to get to the heart of it. More at: https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/active-search-he-could-see/

And that easy trim is: It drooled from lots of places and she smelled it.

That’s not really good enough, though, and Editor Phil asks Writer Phil to go back and show what it smelled like, inhabit that smell for a few words at least.

Editor Phil thinks we have an “it” problem here: The pain was beyond anything. She wanted it to go away and leave her alone. in that the “it” in the second sentence seems to refer to “the pain” but is meant to refer to the monster. That should be fixed.

Then we get to our first POV issue. The first few paragraphs are clearly from the point of view of our unnamed victim, but then a hard transition with: In the morning they found just enough of her to identify her by dental records.

The easy solution would be to simply add a scene break—some little indication that we’re jumping time and/or place and/or point of view. Writer Phil will try that even though he’s worried that maybe the “blended POV” (his words, not Editor Phil’s) is a . . . good thing . . . ?

What follows then are a couple strong paragraphs that are clearly from the point of view of Detective Reyes, even if the first paragraph doesn’t necessarily nail that down right up front. But Writer Phil will get pinged with a Common Comment on this sentence: She was twenty, HIV positive and still working. The comment being:

The Oxford or serial comma is non-optional in long form prose—doing without it is a relic of print journalism where any opportunity to save column width is taken.

Right. So: She was twenty, HIV positive, and still working. Easy enough.

Editor Phil will then compliment Writer Phil on ending that paragraph with: It was a complex world. Writer Phil feels good about himself for the way that landed.

Perhaps infused with a transitory sense of mercy, editor Phil chooses to let this instance of “Reyes heard” pass: One of the other guys said, “Holy shit,” and Reyes heard the voice again, guttural, throat full of something. It may be “passive” but it works, and works always trumps correct.

Transitory sense of mercy spent, Editor Phil puts the hammer down on this sentence: There was no more than a quarter of the girl’s face left, her body was in (by the coroner’s best estimate) thirty-seven distinctive pieces in two separate laboratories. That “There was” is just too passive and hey, Writer Phil, “distinctive” means: characteristic of one person or thing, and so serving to distinguish it from others (according to the dictionary app I use). Surely Writer Phil meant to say “distinct”: recognizably different in nature from something else of similar type, but actually it’s better just left as “pieces” anyway. And Editor Phil has a weird bias against parenthesis, so . . .

No more than a quarter of the girl’s face survived. By the coroner’s best estimate her body was in thirty-seven pieces in two separate laboratories.

Then we get to our second flagrant POV violation in this paragraph that jumps from Reyes’s head to Sarah’s:

Sarah mouthed “Oh my god,” but nothing came out. She turned her face away. She was crying, and then suddenly she stopped having any idea what was going on. It was better that way. She had dinner with Jeff last night and almost went to bed with him. During lunch today, she bought a CD and was going to listen to it in her office. The parts of a woman’s face were talking. She forgot to buy coffee and tampons.

Editor Phil might suggest just cutting that whole paragraph but would also agree with Writer Phil that one of the strengths of this little story is that a small group of people, including the victim herself, are confronted with the shared experience of this horrible weirdness, which we then hope pays off in the end with the revelation of the intent of the monsters.

Now Editor Phil starts to think, Okay, then, just use another scene break, but hesitates because in a tiny little story like this, just barely over a thousand words, too many scene breaks will break it up too much, visually chopping the text and bumping readers out of the moment, however briefly. And a thousand-word horror story is all about sustaining a single moment, so here’s where Editor Phil grits his teeth and realizes that though it is patently “incorrect,” the story—the reading experience—is better served with the blended POV.

Editor Phil can be a tough nut to crack, but he can crack. In this case, he cracks so much he goes back and deletes the scene break he added in previously.

Still, this sentence: She was crying, and then suddenly she stopped having any idea what was going on. in that same paragraph calls out another Common Comment:

Be careful of words like immediately, suddenly, abruptly… a full rant here: https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/immediately-suddenly-and-abruptly-stop-using-the-words-immediately-suddenly-and-abruptly/

In this case, the “suddenly” is troubling because it indicates a sudden transition from crying to not knowing what was going on, but by this point in the story it’s clear that no one, including the victim, actually understands what’s going on. We have another “was verbing” moment there but this is another case where even Editor Phil thinks it’s okay since it indicates what she had been doing while we were over in the other character’s POV. So let’s try this: She was crying. She had no idea what was going on. because sometimes you have to just say it, and short, declarative sentences do that.

Editor Phil also deleted a comma in there, but refuses to tell you where.

Now, all that having been said, this next transitory POV jump, to Tillis, is too much, or maybe more accurately, too little:

“Do you,” Tillis started, then seemed to be fishing for something and he couldn’t stop it in time to disbelieve. It was just happening. “Do you remember what. . . happened . . . to you?”

It seems to begin in someone else’s POV (Sarah’s? Reyes’s?), as indicated by “seemed to,” then goes into Tillis’s head. In the next sentence, though, we fall back into Reyes’s POV. Editor Phil needs Writer Phil to fix this so Editor Phil won’t have a stroke. Editor Phil can sometimes manifest physical symptoms in response to bad writing.

Actually, the story continues by jumping back to Sarah’s POV. Look at the whole exchange:

“Do you,” Tillis started, then seemed to be fishing for something and he couldn’t stop it in time to disbelieve. It was just happening. “Do you remember what. . . happened . . . to you?”

It screamed loud and shrill and Reyes found himself screaming back. They did that for a full thirty seconds, they did it for a long time.

“Are you in pain?” Tillis asked, louder, his voice shaking along with his body. Sarah slipped on her way out and sobbed into the hallways where people were starting to congregate. She couldn’t remember the name of the CD she bought during lunch.

Both Editor and Writer Phil like touching back with Sarah and the CD she bought, so let’s keep this all in Sarah’s head, mostly with a few careful deletions, a needed paragraph break, and hallways changed to hallway:

“Do you,” Tillis started, then seemed to be fishing for something. “Do you remember what. . . happened . . . to you?”

It screamed loud and shrill and Reyes screamed back. They did that for a full thirty seconds, they did it for a long time.

“Are you in pain?” Tillis asked, louder, his voice shaking along with his body.

Sarah slipped on her way out and sobbed into the hallway where people were starting to congregate. She couldn’t remember the name of the CD she bought during lunch.

Leaving almost all of the rest in Sarah’s POV works okay, but we find another Common Comment: “Never use ALL CAPS for emphasis. Italics in context should be fine,” when we get to:

“WHAT ATE YOU?”

“I’M RIPPED INTO PIECES!”

Easy enough to make those italics instead.

That brings us to the all-important last paragraph:

Their questions and her screaming and the echoes of the screaming and the muttering in the hallway was like hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground. What did it was the rest of them, slick and grey and impossible and full of teeth. Recording it. Recording it all.

Sticking with our only-okay-in-very-short-short-stories blended POV structure it’s okay for Writer Phil to pull back to the POV of the creatures in the end. But Editor Phil still has some gripes with the writing in here and Writer Phil is concerned that the big idea, or at least what Lester Dent would call “the snapper, the punch line to end it” isn’t landing properly.

Editor Phil sends Writer Phil off to think about this and see what he comes up with.

The results of all this will be revealed next week, when we look at the revised “Piece Music.” Whether or not it’s been made better or worse, or just different, I’ll leave up to you.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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WHAT I’VE LEARNED IN THE LAST TWENTY-THREE YEARS, PART 1

The magazine Aberrations: adult science fiction, fantasy & horror ran for forty issues between 1991 and 1997, publishing a variety of authors including Jeff VanderMeer, Kevin J. Anderson, Tim Waggoner, and Lois Tilton. The March, 1994 issue (Issue #18) featured an 1100-word short story by unknown author Philip Athans entitled “Piece Music.”

I remember getting a very encouraging letter from editor Richard Blair, who really liked the story. I was delighted to see it in print. And there it sat, in this long-forgotten (even if someone has a copy up for sale on Amazon!) but really fine small press magazine for twenty-three years or so. I pulled my old copy of it out a couple weeks ago with the intent of throwing the text up on Amazon as a 99¢ short story, but a quick scan through had me wondering if that was such a good idea.

Though I stand behind this grim little bit of post-Lovecraftian mayhem, I’ve done an awful lot of writing, and a whole lot more editing, in the couple decades and change since it was first published. How would I have done this differently now? What would Editor Phil fix? How many of the items in my Common Comments file can I attach to this early example of my own work?

Well, let’s find out.

But first, this week, the text of the story exactly as it ran, typos and all, in Aberrations #18:

 

Piece Music

 

It was a hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground. It was a growling, hissing sound and it was coming up fast behind her. She turned, unable to go any farther. The fence across the end of the alley was thirteen feet high and she wasn’t in any condition to climb it now. Fear and anger and frustration, all the precursors to a violent and premature death raged in her head. Adjacent to that was her whole life. The time she pissed her dress in her third grade classroom. The time her Aunt Lilly touched her there. The boys, the men, the needles like vampires taking out more than they put in. Her mind went to parties and laughter and humiliation and death and fucking.

She was shivering, the blood flowing freely from the long gash on each forearm was cooling against her skin, which raised gooseflesh in a futile attempt to repel this thing coming at her. This thing coming at her was impossible. Impossibly grey and glossy like a brain. Like something from inside you. It had eyes and holes everywhere. Were those teeth? More than anything she didn’t want them to be teeth. Not that many teeth. Not teeth moving like that. Moving all by themselves, each alive and hungry and impossible. She had no idea what this thing was that was about to kill her.

It stopped running and was approaching her one stiff-legged step at a time. It was drooling from lots of places and she could smell it. She gagged and almost threw up, and a bizarre sense of embarrassment slid across her face and she could have sworn it smiled thirteen, fourteen, fifteen times.

It went onto her all at once and she cried as it ripped her apart, but she never screamed. She had always resented her mother, but she begged for her now. She wanted somebody to hug her and just make it go away. The pain was beyond anything.  She wanted it to go away and leave her alone. She even told it, out loud, “Leave me alone,” but it wouldn’t. It just wouldn’t.

In the morning they found just enough of her to identify her by dental records. Her face was pretty much intact from the bridge of her nose down to about the middle of her neck. The shredded thing that was her shoulders held bits of gravel, asphalt, the impotent bites of alley rats and the beginnings of a dry crackling around the jagged edges and flaps. She had one eye left, hanging limply out of its socket. It was crystal blue and the contact lens had popped out.

The medical examiner told Detective Reyes he hadn’t seen anyone torn apart like that since Vietnam. Reyes was eight when the Vietnam war ended, so all he could do was shrug. Reyes had given up hope of not puking. He could still taste it in his mouth and wanted nothing more then a tube of toothpaste. The coroner guys thought it was pretty funny when he ran out of the room, but those guys have a very sick sense of humor. When he came back he saw them all crowded around the table that held parts of the girl’s face. According to the computer downtown she was a hooker. A nobody really, some drifter that came in from San Francisco or some place like that. Seattle attracted those types of people. Reyes never understood that. She was twenty, HIV positive and still working. It was a complex world.

When Reyes got to the table he heard it and immediately puked again. One of the coroner guys ran out of the room, his pressed white lab coat rustling behind him like a cape. One of the other guys said, “Holy shit,” and Reyes heard the voice again, guttural, throat full of something. Spit? Blood?

“Where,” it whispered, then more loudly, “am I?”

It was the girl, the face, the pieces. Reyes remembered prayers and recited them around the foam of watery puke coating his lips. There was no more than  a quarter of the girl’s face left, her body was in (by the coroner’s best estimate) thirty-seven distinctive pieces in two separate laboratories. They figured that nearly seventy percent of her body mass was missing, taken away or eaten by one or more extraordinarily sick individuals. She rolled her hanging eyeball up at Reyes and sputtered, “Am I in the hospital?”

Two more of the coroner guys took off. Reyes heard one of them puke in the hallway, the other one just kept repeating, “Sweet Jesus,” over and over again. That left only the chief medical examiner, Tillis, and one of his assistants, a pretty young doctor named Sarah something, and Reyes, and the piece of face.

“Am I?” the face asked again, impatient.

“Yes,” Tillis answered. “Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

Sarah mouthed “Oh my god,” but nothing came out. She turned her face away. She was crying, and then suddenly she stopped having any idea what was going on. It was better that way. She had dinner with Jeff last night and almost went to bed with him. During lunch today, she bought a CD and was going to listen to it in her office. The parts of a woman’s face were talking. She forgot to buy coffee and tampons.

“Do you,” Tillis started, then seemed to be fishing for something and he couldn’t stop it in time to disbelieve. It was just happening. “Do you remember what. . . happened . . . to you?”

It screamed loud and shrill and Reyes found himself screaming back. They did that for a full thirty seconds, they did it for a long time.

“Are you in pain?” Tillis asked, louder, his voice shaking along with his body. Sarah slipped on her way out and sobbed into the hallways where people were starting to congregate. She couldn’t remember the name of the CD she bought during lunch.

“I’m like this,” the pieces screamed, her voice an insane thing, a wild animal thing, “I’m like this. I’m like this.”

“Like what?” Reyes shouted back at it, his voice a little girl’s voice. “Like what? What are you like?”

“I’m in pieces!” she shrieked. “I’m ripped into pieces! I’m ripped into pieces. I’m ripped into pieces!”

She established a rhythm they followed, their questions taking on a melody, “What did this?”

“I’m ripped into pieces!”

“Where did it come from?”

“I’m ripped into pieces!”

“How can you be alive?”

“I’m ripped into pieces!”

“WHAT ATE YOU?”

“I’M RIPPED INTO PIECES!”

Their questions and her screaming and the echoes of the screaming and the muttering in the hallway was like hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground. What did it was the rest of them, slick and grey and impossible and full of teeth. Recording it. Recording it all.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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WHY ALL THE PRESENT TENSE?

More and more and more and more over the past several years I see novels written in the present tense. Though this isn’t necessarily some new invention, going well back in time to Dickens at least, past tense more or less overwhelmed all other choices for decades in there, and though there are three, only two are practical. Go ahead. Try to write a novel in the future tense.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about this whole present tense thing, having never really written fiction in present tense. My first instinct is that this is purely authorial choice. A good story, well-told in present tense is a good story, well told, which is all I ask for as either an editor or reader—and is all I’m going for as an author.

But still, this present tense thing just seems to be an outlier, a weird trend that started . . . how? And will be around for . . . how long? And comes from . . . where?

My first instinct was that it came from Hollywood. Screenplays and story treatments are written in the present tense, like this bit from Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’s screenplay for Blade Runner:

INT. DECKARD’S APARTMENT – NIGHT

A blurry photograph, unclear, FILLS THE SCREEN.

The photograph intensified. The foreground BLURS AND SHARPENS it’s the “man” in Leon’s room with the wardrobe behind him. The head is turned away and downward, the face unreadable.

Another change! A dramatic one. The picture is suddenly three dimensional.

Now we see that Deckard is studying the picture in a viewer controlling the effects with punch controls.

The ashtray next to him is full of butts. The bottle of vodka is nearly empty.

He sucks on his cigarette and empties the vodka bottle into his glass and goes back to peering into the viewer.

He punches up.

A transparent grid with vectors is superimposed over the photo.

Deckard’s eyes move over it carefully.

All the money is in Hollywood, writing million-dollar screenplays, so everyone’s learning to write screenplays, and . . . is that it? The quest for the impossible-in-publishing quick pay day infects the long form prose narrative?

I hope not.

And that doesn’t really explain why the present tense trend seems to have started up in “literary” fiction while the big Hollywood money is in genre fiction (science fiction, romantic comedies, action, etc.). In fact, present tense has been a trend in literary circles for so long, we can go all the way back to September of 2010 for the first inklings of a backlash. In the Telegraph editorial “The Booker judges should take a stand against the modish present tense“ Philip Hensher does just that:

The routine use of present tense in the historical novel is quickly becoming a terrible cliché. There is, too, a spread of appallingly dull novels that run, “I go downstairs and make a cup of tea. On the television, the news is talking about a disaster in India. Got any drugs, I say to my flatmate Baz.”

The present tense is the voice of the very informal anecdote—“So I say to him, who do you think you’re talking to, and he looks at me and says . . .” It is the way we tell jokes—try to start a joke, “A man walked into a bar,” and see what a strain it quickly becomes. But in a literary context, it quickly takes on a weird, transfixed, glassy quality—the opposite of vividness.

In fact, present tense is so rare in fantasy and science fiction, compared to literary novels, it led to Charlie Jane Anders, writing at iO9 in “10 Writing ‘Rules’ we Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break“ appealing for more present tense some five years later:

At least, I’ve heard some people say this is a big no-no. It can be a bit disconcerting when the narrator is telling you about stuff as though it’s happening now. But present tense can also really work to make the story feel more immediate. And it can feel more arty, since a lot of vaguely literary writing is in the present tense. But also, if you want to see present tense working to create a dark, intense mood, check out Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels.

But then she also seems to think third person omniscient (aka third person lazy) is okay (and it’s just not). She does agree with me about the weird and absurd anti-prologue bias, though, so it’s kind of a toss-up.

But what is it about present tense that might appeal to authors and readers like Charlie Jane Anders, if not one particular Booker Prize judge?

There seems to be an assumption of additional immediacy, that present tense brings the reader and the POV character closer together—something I’m always happy to see happen. Brian Klems included this among his “The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense“ at Writer’s Digest:

Past-tense narration is of course “immediate” in a way, since the events of the characters’ past are happening in the reader’s present. But the immediacy of the present tense also allows us to convey a character’s change as it happens, not after the fact. In present tense, we are there with the narrator step by step as he changes, and hence the story’s climax can be both more immediate and intense.

Shouldn’t that be “they changes”?

Sorry.

“Can be,” sure, but isn’t necessarily always true. Not everyone agrees with this assumption of immediacy, including myself and author Philip Pullman, who write in his Guardian op-ed “Philip Pullman calls time on the present tense”:

What I dislike about the present-tense narrative is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate.

I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.

I also want authors to use all the tools available to us, and to use them carefully and well. But then present tense is one of those tools, and here’s at least one mega-bestselling genre novel that didn’t seem to suffer any from the present tense:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Yes, that was the first paragraph of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. She made that choice, she wrote a novel that’s a good story, well told, and so who am I to tell her she did it wrong? Who is Philip Pullman, either?

In “Make it now: the rise of the present tense in fiction,” Richard Lea quotes author David Mitchell, about a year and a half ago, in The Guardian:

“Some books just come alive in the present tense in a way I feel they don’t when told in the past tense,” says Mitchell, suggesting the decision is a question of following the particular demands of each novel. “I thought that writing an historical novel in the present tense gave The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a strange paradox. This already happened a long time ago, yet it’s happening now. Time is such an important character in The Bone Clocks—it’s there in the title—that I liked the idea of a narrative that surfed the crest of the present moment for six decades.” As for his second novel, Number9dream, Mitchell remembers “sitting in my then-girlfriend-now-wife’s bedroom and just changing all the verbs from past to present, and liking it a whole load more. Books let you know what tense they want to be written in.”

That changing an already-written manuscript from tense to tense can be a more difficult process than it may seem. It’s definitely not a matter of searching for “was” and replacing it with “is.” This is yet another instance where a good editor can—and must—help you keep a very careful, very close eye on that process.

No matter what, consistency is king. So with a few stylistic exceptions (first person, present tense inserts like R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt journal entries wrapped in a third person, past tense narrative, for instance) if you start in present tense, stay in present tense. If it starts to fall apart on you—if something about that style choice begins to interfere in your storytelling? Past tense is always there for you.

Or vice versa.

But still, this trend toward present tense does seem to have stalled out a bit in adult science fiction and fantasy, but has made its present presence known in young adult genre fiction. So then is present tense okay for young adult, not so much other science fiction and fantasy? Yes and no. Is it prone to the whims of individual agents, editors, and readers, some of whom hate it, some of whom love it, and some of whom don’t care either way?

What else is new!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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YOUR PILE OF FAILURES

On February 1st of 2011 I wrote about the various definitions of “successful” and with six years passed, and two things appearing in front of me at more or less the same time, I thought it time to look at that subject again with the more negative connotation: failure.

First, I read Rivka Galchen’s article “Mo Willem’s Funny Failures” in the New Yorker, in which she told this story:

Willems’s books reveal a preoccupation with failure, even an alliance with it. In “Elephants Cannot Dance!,” they can’t; in “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!,” Pigeon, despite all his pleading and cajoling, never does. Willems told me, “At ‘Sesame Street,’ they would give us these workshops about the importance of failure, but then in our skits all the characters had to be great at what they did, everything had to work out. That drove me crazy.” One of his most memorable sketches on “Sesame Street” was about a Muppet, Rosita, who wants to play the guitar; she isn’t very good, even by the end of the episode. Many artists talk about the importance of failure, but Willems seems particularly able to hold on to the conviction of it. He is a distinctly kind, mature, and thoughtful person to spend time with, and there was only one anecdote that he told me twice. It was about a feeling he had recently while walking his dog, a kind of warm humming feeling starting in his abdomen, which, he said, he had never had before. Was it happiness? I asked. He said no. He’d felt happiness before. This was something different. He said he thought that, for the first time ever, he was feeling success.

So if Mo Willems is struggling with this balance of success and failure, where does it leave us mere mortals?

Then I saw an email from Artist Trust advertising the seminar Fail Again. Fail Better: A Conversation on Artistic Failure held at the Northwest Film Forum on April 19th. Not wanting to fail at being there I acted quickly and scored two (free) tickets: one for me, and one for my recent college graduate/graphic designer daughter. Anxious to see what our different perspectives would get from this sort of program, we made the short trek into Seattle.

Here’s how the seminar was described:

Go on social media, and every day you’ll see artists winning awards, receiving big grants, and promoting their latest work. In a culture where likes, comments, and retweets are currency, good news spreads fast, but we rarely hear of the bad, the dark days when an artist’s project falls apart or their practice bottoms out. In this conversation, artists Valerie Curtis-Newton, Sheila Klein, Peter Mountford, and Ahamefule Oluo share their stories of failure, how they coped when they almost lost hope, and what they did to turn the trainwrecks into success.

The title for the seminar came from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Moderated by Artist Trust Program Director Brian McGuigan, the panel consisted of four equally funny, charming, and wise panelists: Peter Mountford, author of The Dismal Science: A Novel, Valerie Curtis-Newton of the University of Washington School of Drama and Founding Artistic Director of the Hansberry Project, visual artist Sheila Klein, and musician/composer/writer/performer Ahamefule Oluo. I was particularly enamored of the spread of disciplines represented and though author Peter Mountford ended up speaking more directly to my own experience there was an awful lot to learn from all four of them.

They all spoke openly about past failures, which take on very different forms in the various disciplines. Valerie Curtis-Newton told a cringeworthy story of a play she was involved in that went bad. There was a rule in place at the theater that if there were more people on stage than in the audience the actors didn’t have to go on, but with eight people on stage and only three in the audience one night they went on anyway, and two of the people in the audience fell asleep. That could definitely feel like a failure.

Oluo suggested figuring out a way to engineer a “controlled failure” after talking openly of his fear of embarrassment, which translates to a fear of failure. Interestingly he also told of his struggles in school, including flunking out of the same private art college my daughter graduated from.

Let’s bring this to writing, though. There’s some difference between writing a novel and trying to get it published, and once published, read; and writing, staging, and promoting a play, for instance . . . or so the panelists seemed to think. Visual artist Sheila Klein essentially just makes art and if she thinks its good she offers it for sale. If it sells, it’s successful—and though I’m radically paraphrasing there, isn’t that true of pretty much anything, including novels and short stories?

You write a novel or a short story. If you think it’s good you send it to an agent or editor. If it’s published it either finds an audience or it doesn’t.

But what was common for all four of these artists—for any artist in any medium—is the work comes first.

First, sit down and write it: the novel, the play, the song—or paint the painting, sculpt the sculpture, choreograph the ballet . . .

Someone, and my scrawled-in-the-dark notes failed me on who, recommended the book Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, which has gone on my wish list and tells of a study in which it was found that artists trying for quantity produced better work than artists going for quality. The latter group made less art, was less likely to finish, became entrenched in one idea, and were too often left “polishing a turd.”

This struck an immediate chord with me, since it matches up so perfectly with what I’ve been saying (after Dani Shapiro) about approaching each new project as a short, bad book.

Mountford affirmed that any artist, and as an author himself he’s speaking to us in particular, have to develop a “pile of failure”—an inventory of work—so each piece has less individual value.

Think of it like this: If you have three finished short stories and the first doesn’t sell you still have two more in circulation. If you write one short story and wait for it to sell before writing the next one you may never be published ever—you may not even ever get to write that second story. Write as many as you can—which also agrees with Dean Wesley Smith and Heinlein’s Rules—get them in circulation, and keep them there.

Think of it as basic supply and demand. If you only have one of something—one story—the perceived value of that story, for you, goes way up. Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t share that same view, since editors are looking at the complete supply of stories—stories written by everybody, not just you. And there are a lot of those, believe me. So if you only have this one thing of value, if you’ve put all your eggs into one basket, any perceived “failure” can be both soul crushing and career crushing.

But if you have a bank of work and can start to see why one story didn’t work so the next story is a little better, you start playing the long game and those failures become educational, at least easier to survive, and not catastrophic. It’s easier to do the next project, and the next, etc. because this so-called “pile of failures” is an emotional buffer that keeps your head in the game—it keeps you writing.

And sometimes work can go from the failure pile to useful pile. Curtis-Newton said: “Enter the space knowing there are a million ideas” and you start to have choices. I loved it when she said that she’s willing to accept some degree of fear of success or failure, which is better than the idea of not doing art at all. She also recommended seeing every unsold piece as part of a “stockpile of failures.” I also loved that she had the wisdom to choose her battles, saying of a particular moment of staging: “It’s not art, but it can get me to art.” Not every bit of everything—every word, every sentence—has to be perfect. This is where a writer can get into that dangerous territory of putting too great a focus on “quality”—whatever that is—and run the danger of “polishing a turd.”

Afraid of failure if your book doesn’t sell? Of embarrassment of your book is met with negative reviews?

As my father would say: Walk it off.

Or in our case: Write it off.

“You have to be delusional,” Peter Mountford said. You have to think you’re great if you’re going to fail. “I sort of expect failure,” he went on, adding, “I look forward to rejection.”

And what inspired me the most, he said: “I’m publishing so I can have time to write and not have to get a job. Getting published is a means to an end, and the end is writing.”

Get writing, stay writing, and good luck with that stockpile of failures!

And hey, writers, wherever you live, hook into the artistic and literary community around you and go to things like this. And specifically for science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors, the sun doesn’t rise and set on your genre alone. Conventions aren’t enough. Expand your mind and your work will follow!

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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THE SINGULAR THEY HURTS MY BRAIN BUT I’LL TRY TO GET OVER IT

I’m honestly really not some kind of Grammar Nazi or elitist, but I’m an editor, and I was trained by other editors, and I have some clients who have strict style rules and anyway as a professional I like to be able to back up what I do with some kind of authority, some source to explain any edit I’ve made.

I think some people think I’m nuts when I change dove to dived, for instance, but the latter is the past tense of the verb “to dive” and the former is a sort of pigeon. But almost everyone always says “I dove headfirst,” so I leave it in dialog and change it everywhere else because some of these rules keep me from sliding off the face of the Earth into the Howling Oblivion.

But that’s just me.

Anyway, in the past few years at least there’s been a lot of talk about the “formal” adoption of they/them as singular pronouns. In fact:

they: gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person, as a non-binary identifier (214)

. . . became the 2015 Word of the Year from the American Dialectic Society—a good enough authority for me to adopt this?

Let’s start with setting aside what I can feel coming: Accusations of gender bias, entitlement, and all the other things that I know I have to spend my life apologizing for because of . . . you tell me. I’ll apologize for it. But me being flippant aside, I actually get it. I’m happy living in a world that includes people rather than excludes them, and I absolutely understand that the pronoun issue has different meanings for different people.

Washington Post columnist Steven Petrow wrote in “Gender-neutral pronouns: When ‘they’ doesn’t identify as either male or female”:

Jacob (whom I’ve known for years) prefers the pronouns “they” and “them,” and so here’s how I would write about Jacob: They have a gender identity that encompasses both male and female, and their attire ranges from pencil skirts, high heels and lipstick to blazers, bow ties and facial hair on any given day.

This past week I attended a presentation at Duke University’s Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, whose name was the LGBT Center but was changed to reflect a more fluid understanding of gender. At the outset, the speaker asked the audience to introduce ourselves and declare our preferred gender pronouns. Most of us stated an adherence to the traditional—“he/him/his” and “she/her/hers”—but several individuals chose gender-neutral pronouns, “they/them/their.” One person preferred to use “ze” (“ze smiled”) and “hir” (“I work with hir”).

Okay. Fine.

Look, after all, I resisted the strong temptation to add serial commas to that quote, written AP Stylebook-wise by a newspaperperson. If someone asks me to refer to him/her/them/ze/hir by a particular pronoun, I’m happy to do that. You tell me. I’m on board. It will feel weird to me, I’ll honestly feel as though I’m babbling a little, but so what? In my ordinary speech I tend to babble anyway. I use all sorts of colloquialisms, heapin’ helpin’s of profanity, sentence fragments, what could be described as sound effects . . . Trust me, if we were watching a football game together you’d never peg me as some kind of stuffy English professor. And I’m not.

But at least in some forms of writing I need to be understood more clearly, and as an editor, without rules, where the fuck are we?

So what about this rule?

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, my own primary source and the primary source of all of my clients who actually specify a primary source, I’m already at least a little behind the curve on this, but they still won’t dive fully into the singular they pool:

The singular “they.” A singular antecedent requires a singular referent pronoun. Because he is no longer accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of either sex, it has become common in speech and in informal writing to substitute the third-person plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves, and the nonstandard singular themself. While this is accepted in casual contexts, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing. Avoiding the plural form by alternating masculine and feminine pronouns is awkward and only emphasizes the inherent problem of not having a generic third-person pronoun.

And this is really the source of the issue. The only non-gender specific singular pronoun is it, and that’s always seen as disrespectful, carrying the message that this person is seen as an object. And anyway, from what I understand, the “ungrammatical they” has been in common use since as early as the 14th century and seems to have been common practice back in the 16th century.

But still, the plural pronouns they/them/their just sound wrong in the singular—to me, at least, just as wrong as it.

Let’s look at the options here for a minute:

If we know the gender of the person we’re referring to, the singular is fine because we’re talking about one person of that gender:

That Martian can get violent if he thinks you’re stealing water.

When this dwarf starts drinking, it’s hard to get her to stop.

The old style, admittedly sexist, is to defer to the male pronoun when we don’t know the gender of the person we’re referring to or if we’re referring to anyone of either gender:

A Martian can get violent if he thinks you’re stealing water.

When a dwarf starts drinking, it’s hard to get him to stop.

That was what I was taught, but the first attempt to modify this came into regular use when I was a kid, very likely fought against by that generation’s Grammar Police: he or she or some variation like s/he:

A Martian can get violent if s/he thinks you’re stealing water.

When a dwarf starts drinking, it’s hard to get him or her to stop.

Can we just not add a slash to a word, ever? And the second example is clunky.

So what if we do the slightly harder but rather more clear thing and write around it? If you want the sentence to refer to either gender, just make the noun plural:

Martians can get violent if they think you’re stealing water.

When dwarves start drinking, it’s hard to get them to stop.

Here they/them are plural pronouns because they and them are plural pronouns—even if they didn’t used to be eight hundred years ago or so. These sentences make just as much sense—more sense, actually—than the old style:

A Martian can get violent if he thinks you’re stealing water.

When a dwarf starts drinking, it’s hard to get him to stop.

. . . since it would actually be reasonable to read those sentences as referring only to male Martians and dwarves. And after all, we know that female Martians are way more violent, in general, than male Martians and no one wants to try to get between a female dwarf and her tankard of hearty ale.

Now, that having been said, I fully realize that language is a living thing, and me sitting here trying to fight against a decision that’s clearly been made just makes me one of those old guys everyone hates.

Me and T.S. Eliot, when in a 1959 Paris Review interview was asked if he thought that “one of the changes of the last fifty years, and perhaps even more of the last five years, the growing dominance of commercial speech through the means of communication . . . make the problem of the poet and his relationship to common speech more difficult?” said:

I do think that where you have these modern means of communication and means of imposing the speech and idioms of a small number on the mass of people at large, it does complicate the problem very much. I don’t know to what extent that goes for film speech, but obviously radio speech has done much more.

To which the interviewer asked “I wonder if there’s a possibility that what you mean by common speech will disappear.”

Eliot replied, “That is a very gloomy prospect. But very likely indeed.”

Gloomy for some of us, maybe, but language is a living thing, so if everybody else is okay with:

A Martian can get violent if they think you’re stealing water.

When a dwarf starts drinking, it’s hard to get them to stop.

. . . who am I to argue?

But man, that will just always look wrong to me. Can this be made “acceptable” after I die? I identify as an old fat guy. It won’t be too much longer, I’m sure.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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LOVECRAFT’S FIVE DEFINITE ELEMENTS, PART 5: THE DAMAGE IT CAUSES

We’ve come to the end of a five-part series inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” in which one paragraph stood out for me as the beginnings of a horror/weird fantasy manifesto:

Each weird story—to speak more particularly of the horror type—seems to involve five definite elements: (a) some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.—, (b) the general effects or bearings of the horror, (c) the mode of manifestation—object embodying the horror and phenomena observed—, (d) the types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror, and (e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.

If you haven’t read the previous installments yet, here’s the link to part one. This week we’ll dig deeper into the fifth and final point:

(e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.

I’m taking this not as a second look at what it actually does, or what the “horror’s” powers are, but the larger effect it leaves on either or both of the characters and their world.

If this one weird thing has no lasting effect on anyone or anything it obviously wasn’t that big a deal in the first place. Of course, the exact parameters of that “lasting effect” can come in any form and can be attached to just a single person or the entire universe—or anywhere in-between.

Good stories—strong plots, anyway—depend on establishing what’s at stake and increasing the stakes as the story develops. And that’s really what we’re talking about here in terms of our “one weird thing”: What’s at stake?

Donald Maass devoted a whole chapter of his highly recommended book Writing the Breakout Novel to “stakes”—as in: What’s at stake? This is an essential question not just for each story but for each scene within, and Maass breaks it into two categories: Public Stakes and Personal Stakes.

Public Stakes go to the effect of the one weird thing on the whole world, or anyway some community of people:

A larger significance can be attached to the outcome of just about any story. It is a matter of drawing deeper from the wells at hand, particularly the story’s milieu. For instance, every setting has a history—and what is history if not a chronicle of conflicting interests? Every protagonist has a profession—and what profession lacks ethical dilemmas?

If you want to establish a character’s goal as: I have to stop the one weird thing from fully manifesting on Earth! That has to be followed by a good answer to the question: Or what?

What bad thing will happen if the one weird thing fully manifests on Earth?

If you haven’t seen the movie The Cabin in the Woods, you really ought to. I think it’s a great example of a story that establishes a high stakes environment for its characters—but not the set of characters we think we’re actually rooting for, the young people who rent the cabin. Instead it’s the two guys in the weird underground office complex that actually understand the consequences—have a real grasp on what’s at stake if their undead hillbillies fail in their mission of murder. This is only broadly hinted at at first but we see by their reactions and the reactions of the people around them that as scary as things are out in that cabin in the woods, the consequences for all of humanity are much, much higher.

What do I miss about working at Wizards of the Coast? I’ve actually been in meetings with white boards that look like this!

Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon do this by making us like these guys. We get them, and as creepy and murderous as their jobs are, we start to understand that they’re not bad guys but good guys in a horrific situation. The Cabin in the Woods communicates what’s a stake by “creating high human worth,” as Donald Maass advises in his book. And bonus points that we see (spoiler alert) those consequences play out, or at least begin to, at the very end.

This actually combines the Public Stakes of the impending apocalypse with the Personal Stakes of these two poor saps being our last line of defense, and failing.

Combining Public and Personal Stakes again, a character can perform some sacrifice in order to save someone he loves, or even save the whole world from something no one else even knows was ever a threat, as we saw attempted in The Cabin in the Woods and eighty-four years earlier in the final paragraph of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”:

Cthulhu still lives, too, I suppose, again in that chasm of stone which has shielded him since the sun was young. His accursed city is sunken once more, for the Vigilant sailed over the spot after the April storm; but his ministers on earth still bellow and prance and slay around idol-capped monoliths in lonely places. He must have been trapped by the sinking whilst within his black abyss, or else the world would by now be screaming with fright and frenzy. Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. A time will come—but I must not and cannot think! Let me pray that, if I do not survive this manuscript, my executors may put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye.

This leaves the threat of the one weird thing still hanging—the stakes left still high. Our hero managed to escape the worst of it, saving the world in the process, but next time maybe we won’t be so lucky.

Lovecraft wrote “The Call of Cthulhu” in 1926 and it was first published about a year and a half later, but looking at that story again it had me thinking about nuclear weapons.

There’s one weird thing that was still almost twenty years in Lovecraft’s future, but has a similar vibe. In Writing Monsters I looked at the indelible link between the atomic bomb and Godzilla, and it’s interesting to see the idea of the threat to the world constantly hanging over our heads predating the reality. But I suppose this goes back to Armageddon and various mythical world-ending catastrophes. I can image the first cave man to ride out an earthquake thinking, Is that going to happen again? He was the progenitor of the apocalyptic vision.

But even if there are no Public Stakes, per se, at least the fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance in your story—and it doesn’t have to!—you still have to focus on the Personal Stakes.

Starting with a single person, the effect of the weird thing on that character can be any combination of positive and negative. It could be that defeating the evil thing provides the character with some redemption or feeling of satisfaction. That’s more or less standard in both science fiction and fantasy but actually pretty rare in a horror story, which more often ends like this, from Stephen King’s short story “Nona”:

I’m going to kill myself now. It will be much better. I’m tired of all the guilt and agony and bad dreams, and also I don’t like the noises in the walls. Anybody could be in there. Or anything.

Here we see one hapless “hero” paying the price for his encounter with weirdness, a fate shared by many of Lovecraft’s own characters. The one weird thing may not kill you, but you may end up wishing it had.

Either way, the key component is that your one weird thing is actually interesting enough to justify its existence—to justify the existence of the story itself. As H.P. Lovecraft himself said in the same article that inspired this series:

Being the principal thing in the story, its mere existence should overshadow the characters and events. But the characters and events must be consistent and natural except where they touch the single marvel. In relation to the central wonder, the characters should shew the same overwhelming emotion which similar characters would shew toward such a wonder in real life. Never have a wonder taken for granted. Even when the characters are supposed to be accustomed to the wonder I try to weave an air of awe and impressiveness corresponding to what the reader should feel. A casual style ruins any serious fantasy.

Make sure that your one weird thing actually matters!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

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