Last week I challenged myself to actually do the writing exercises I’ve recommended for others. The first exercise combines two things: one I’ve already done (writing to an illustration, just not this illustration), and the other I haven’t attempted since I was a kid and didn’t even own a typewriter (and the home computer was yet to be invented). This week I give you, warts and all, a short story inspired by this weird old illustration:

via The Public Domain Review

via The Public Domain Review

And here’s a sample page from the handwritten manuscript, which took up eleven and a half pages in a cheap composition book:

Click on the image to read the whole thing in handwritten form (good luck).

Click on the image to read the whole thing in handwritten form (good luck).

Yes, my handwriting looks terrible, and yes the story really needs help. But this is me taking my own advice, again, to write as fast as possible. This explains the tragic state of the handwriting, the numerous typos, the many instances of passive voice, the lack of some detail, and so on. Given some more time, effort, and considered thought, I’d like to add more description of “the lady,” get just a smidge deeper into Zach’s relationship with his mother, and add some more details of the haircut itself—it’s occurred to me that I should show her shaving the sides of his head.

All in all, regardless of the relative quality of the story in its current form, I’m going to go ahead and call this exercise a success. I found writing by hand to be much easier and faster than I’d anticipated. Again, having given myself permission to write a short, bad short story, I wasn’t getting hung up in the process of getting through the rough draft. Writing this 2259-word short story took about an hour or so. I then spent exactly fifty-seven minutes typing it, while making only a few very minor changes to the text. If you like, you can compare the handwritten text to the typed and cleaned-up text here. It only took me eighteen minutes to clean it up after typing it in.

This exercise was successful not because it resulted in this short story, which may or may not ever be revised and published in any way, but I was inspired to sit down and hand write a short section of a work-in-progress that for reasons unknown I was seriously blocked on. That change-up unblocked me and that important, overdue project is rapidly getting back on track. I can now tell you for sure that this is a way to get unblocked—to switch things up just enough to get you telling stories again.

Anyway, here’s the short story that resulted. Enjoy!



by Philip Athans


Zach tried to get a haircut like the boy in the picture, but he never could describe it right. The lady at Great Clips started out trying to understand but after what seemed like the millionth time he said, “Kind of curly on top, but with a line on the left—I mean, my right,” she started to roll her eyes.

When Zach’s mother intervened the lady said she thought she knew what he meant. Zach’s mother’s only concern was that it was taking too long.

She asked, “What’s taking so long?” exactly four times. She must have had some idea of how long a haircut should take—at least a haircut at Great Clips or a haircut for Zach. Even with the lady not understanding, even with Zach not being able to describe it right, his mother’s own haircuts always took way longer.

With time pressure increasing, the lady started cutting.

Zach wanted to try to help her as she worked, but she’d turned him away from the mirror so he couldn’t see what she was doing. And he couldn’t really help her anyway. He didn’t know what she was doing. Zach would have to trust her.

“What is this picture?” the woman asked him after a few minutes of snipping away. “You don’t have it on your phone?”

“No,” Zach said. He tried not to sigh. “They don’t let you take pictures of the paintings, and any—”

“Who doesn’t?” she interrupted.

Zach swallowed. He glanced up to try to look at her face—he hadn’t actually really looked at her—but all he saw was her arm, droopy fat swaying as she worked her scissors: snip sway snip sway snip sway—a fish flying past his forehead.

“Like in the picture,” Zach whispered—then very quickly said, “The museum . . . people.”

“What, hon?” she asked as she pushed his head to the side with the tips of her fingers.

“The painting is in a museum,” Zach said. “The museum doesn’t want you to take pictures in the museum—to take pictures of the pictures. And anyway, I don’t have a phone.”

“Really? Why not?” she asked. Zach was a little surprised by how surprised she sounded.

“I’m not sure,” he said, risking a shrug under the plastic tarp she’d thrown around him and fastened—too tightly—around his neck. “I think they just don’t want flashes going off. It kind of ruins the . . .” Zach wasn’t sure of the word. He had to stop and think, and he knew she would interrupt him.

“No, hon,” she said while laughing, “I mean why don’t you have a phone? I mean, my little niece is, like, seven, and she has an iPhone 6.”

“Atmosphere,” Zach said. He just had to finish the thought.

She ignored him and snipped a few times. At least a whole minute passed before she said, “Well, you should put one on your Christmas list.”

Zach nodded and she put her palm on the back of his head. “Hold still, hon.”

“Sorry,” Zach said. Then he felt he had to say something else. “Kinda curly on top.”

“Curly on top,” she repeated—somehow making it clear she didn’t really understand those three words. “Got it, hon.”

Zach could tell she didn’t have it—but what could he do?

“So what is this picture again?” she asked.

Zach knew she was just trying to make conversation. He was of two minds about that. It would have been fine for him if she just finished cutting his hair in silence. But he also kind of liked her voice. She had an accent—a Southern accent? Zach thought so, but wasn’t sure.

He finally answered, “It’s an old print, actually. A wood cut.”

“Oh yeah?” She did not care. “What’s that?”

“I think the artist carves the picture into a piece of wood then puts ink on it—on the piece of wood—then presses it onto paper to make the picture. If you look real close, you can see the indentations in the paper—almost like it’s 3D. But just a little.” Zach knew that because he had looked at it real close.

“And it’s in a museum? Is it old?” she asked.

Zach closed his eyes when he felt hair trimmings fall—itchy—on his forehead.

“I think it’s pretty old, yeah,” Zach told her. He knew exactly how old it was—what year it was made at least—but he didn’t want to tell her for some reason. She didn’t deserve to know.

“That’s cool,” she said, and she was humoring him—Zach knew the word: condescending.

She was condescending him.

“It is cool,” Zach condescended back.

“It’s a picture of a boy with curly hair?” she asked, and Zach could tell she couldn’t tell he was being condescending.

“Curly on top, short on the sides,” Zach said. And it was as if a switch flipped in his head. He looked up at her fish-flapping arm again—moving only his eyes—and made an entirely unconscious decision to keep talking.

“It’s a boy in the water—in a lake,” he said, “or anyway I think it’s a lake. It might be a river. But I don’t think it’s the ocean.”

He paused for the length of one breath, if maybe she had some other question to ask in her could-be Southern accent.

“He’s up to his neck,” Zach went on, “or really right up to his chin in the water. And he has a fishhook in his mouth.”

She clicked her tongue quietly four times really fast.

“I guess he does,” Zach said. “You can’t actually see the hook in the picture—just the fishing line going into his mouth. The line goes up to a fishing pole. And the fishing pole is held by a huge fish who’s standing on the riverbank, or lake . . .” He almost said “lakebank” but instead just skipped it. “The fish is fishing for the boy.”

The lady giggled in a way that made it seem as though she was listening. “A fish fishing for people . . .” she said. “I guess that means the fish is peopleing.”

Zach blinked. A little hair stabbed him in the corner of his right eye like a needle.

“Get it?” she said, nudging him in the shoulder with her fist. “Instead of fishing it’s ‘peopleing’?”

Zach forced a smile and said, “Good one,” while tears filled his tightly-shut right eye.

“There are other fish too,” Zach said. His voice sounded and felt different. He cleared his throat.

“Oh yeah, hon?” she asked as she moved his head gently side to side. “Are they peopleing too?”

Zach blinked his eyes open and clenched his teeth. He waited for her to start cutting his hair again, then said, “The other fish are flying in the air.” He glanced up at her arm again. “Four of them are going in one direction, but one is going opposite. That fish is bigger and looks kinda different so I think he’s not part of the school. He also seems kind of . . . surprised.”

Zack swallowed. He’d never said that out loud before and was surprised how hard it was to get that last word out of his throat.

She didn’t say anything. He kept talking.

“There’s a tree on the riverbank, too. It’s kind of in the middle—it seems to be in the middle but it’s off to the left of the picture—left of the boy in the water. There are things on the ground under the tree that—”

“Apples?” the lady asked. She stepped away from him. He could hear her rummaging around on the little counter under the mirror behind him.

Zach nodded. He closed his eyes again. “Yeah.” He let the surprise stay in his voice. Maybe she would hear it. “I think they might be apples that fell out of the tree.”

“Okay, now, hon,” the lady said, her voice sounding more serious now and a little more Southern. “I’m going to need you to hold real still.”

“Can I still talk?”

“Sure, hon,” she replied, “just don’t move your head around, okay?”

“Okay,” Zach said, sitting very still. “There are birds in the water, too. I’m pretty sure one is a seagull—the one on the left of the tree. The other two are on the right side with the boy and I think they’re ducks.”

She wasn’t listening. She twisted his hair around something. Zach could smell something burning.

“It’s my favorite painting,” Zach said. His throat was starting to cry—his eyes weren’t, his mouth wasn’t—just his throat. The burning smell went away a little then came back. “I go to the museum every day after school. I started going just on first Thursdays because that’s when it’s free. But then I started to save up—I used my lunch money or whatever—now they just let me go in. The lady and the man at the counter just wave me through. They’ve never asked me what my name is. They just let me go in. And I go to that gallery—always just that gallery—a gallery is a collection of rooms that have pictures or statues that are kinda the same—the same artist or the same time period or from the same country or style or whatever. I go to that gallery and usually I sit on the bench in the middle of the room and face that one picture and I just look at it for about half an hour.”

Zack wiped a tear from his cheek and the lady hissed and said, “Careful, hon,” and the burning smell got a little worse.

“About half an hour,” Zach said, “every single—”

“What’s taking so long?” his mother interrupted. He could hear in her voice that she didn’t even know he was talking. Zach closed his eyes.

“Well, hon,” the lady said, and Zach could hear the shrug in her voice, “he said curly on top.”

“You’re using a curling iron on my son?” Zach’s mother asked.

Before the Great Clips lady could say anything Zach said, “It’s okay, Mom, we’re almost done. She’s almost done. It’s okay.”

He didn’t open his eyes. He could hear and feel her walking away.

Zach almost said, “Sorry,” to the lady, but instead, his eyes closed, his nose filled with the burning smell, he said, “But the one thing I really have never been able to figure out . . .”

“About what, hon?” the lady asked.

Zach opened his eyes and looked up, but she was behind him—no arm, no flying fish.

“What I’ve never been able to figure out about the picture,” he replied, “about the wood cut.”

He paused. She rolled his hair up again—pulling it a little but it didn’t really hurt.

So he started talking again. “Next to the tree on the left is a lion. It looks like the lion is laying down on the top of—on the surface of the water. But it’s not like he’s floating, or swimming, but just like the water is solid right there—solid enough to hold up a lion.”

The lady waved her hand over his head and the burning smell was gone.

“And there’s another animal laying on top of it—of the lion,” Zach said. “I used to think it was a dog—a dog with droopy ears—but now I think it’s like a goat or a sheep or—”

“A lamb,” the lady said.

“Can I move my head now?” Zach asked—he didn’t realize he was saying it while he said it.

“You’re fine now, hon,” she said. “Almost done.”

Zach wanted to turn his head to look at her, but then she started kind of slapping him on the back of the neck. She turned on a vacuum and started to vacuum the cut hair off his neck and shoulders.

“A lamb,” Zach said, nodding. She couldn’t hear him over the vacuum.

Then the vacuum turned off and Zach waited, taking a few deep breaths.

“What is taking so long?” his mother called from the little waiting area.

“All done, hon,” the lady called back to her. Then she spun Zach’s chair around so he was facing the mirror again. She crouched next to him like a baseball catcher and smiled at him in the mirror. “Curly on top,” she said, “and short on the sides.”

Zach didn’t think he looked anything like the boy in the picture.

“Good?” she asked.

Zach nodded. He smiled and she winked at him in the mirror.

“A lamb,” he said, his voice catching a little.

“It’s from the Bible, isn’t it?” the lady said, standing up and taking the tarp off him and flipping all the hair clippings off his lap and onto the floor. “A lamb lies down with a lion, or something like that.”

“I guess,” Zach said. He knew he was supposed to stand up then, but he didn’t right away. “I’ll have to think about—”

“What’s taking so—?” his mother interrupted, until the lady interrupted her.

“All finished, hon.”

Zach nodded and stood up.

“I guess it’s a metaphor or something, huh?” the lady said.

Zach nodded. A tear made his right eye hurt and walked to the front and then out onto the sidewalk while his mother paid for his haircut.

He waited until the next day, after school, in the museum, to finally cry


—Philip Athans





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A couple weeks ago, fed up by how crappy I felt, I started exercising again, and though I’ve ended up taking a few days off already, sidelined with a wicked summer cold, I’m committed to getting back to daily moderate aerobic exercise so that I won’t, I don’t know . . . die in the next few years.

This exercising thing, combined with another period of “deadline hell” juggling multiple projects while trying desperately to carve out any time and creative energy for my own writing got me thinking about exercises of a different kind:

Writing exercises.

When it comes to advising other people to do them, I’m a huge believer in writing exercises. I’m poised at all times, on a hair trigger, ready to throw out writing exercises to anyone who’ll listen. I’ll get you writing lists, spying on people in public, and even weirder things, but do I practice what I preach?

Um . . . yes? –ish?

I have done writing exercises, and loved some and thought a few were silly, but I have to admit, just like I dropped off doing physical exercise in the past couple years in which my work life has gotten super busy (and that’s not a complaint—busy is good when you love what you do and you have a mortgage and a kid in college) and . . . other excuses.

So what if I try this:

Publically shame myself into doing these exercises—a whole bunch of them, some of which might even combine with each other—and make sure that I give myself deadlines which you then see, so the whole internets can (if you don’t have anything better to do, like writing exercises of your own) hold me to task if I blow them off.

Oh, look at that: self-imposed deadlines and forced management.

What exercises then?

As many as I can think of off hand:

Write to the Illustration

This one I already did, writing a short story for the ProSe Productions anthology Write to the Cover—a brilliant cover it is and I stand by my story. But then, here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, I challenged y’all to do the same and even found a fun public domain illustration to spark your creativity. Write a short story inspired by this picture, I assigned:

Deadline: August 25, 2015

Deadline: August 25, 2015


But did I write a story of my own based on that picture? Nope. Well, I will now. And please expect this from me no later than . . . make this real . . . one week. I must have a short story based on that illustration done at least in first draft form by this time next week.

Next . . .

Creative Eavesdropping

This is the “take home exercise” in my Living Dialog class. If you’ve ever been to a Starbucks or anything like a Starbucks, or an airplane or airport or bus or subway train, etc., you’ll have seen all the people, heads down, typing away into laptops or scribbling into notebooks (usually the former). What are they writing? Fifty Shades of Grey fan fiction? In my neighborhood, probably mostly. Some kind of dry and soul-deadening corporate memo or report for work? Okay. The Great American Novel? Why not?

The point is, you have no idea what they’re writing and neither does anyone else and you know what? No one cares. So here’s what you do to get a real, fast sense of how people actually speak to each other:

Bring your laptop or notebook to someplace like a Starbucks and nonchalantly sit close to a table at which two or more people are sitting and having a conversation—any conversation, about anything. Then write down every word they say to each other.

Don’t tell them you’re doing that. What they don’t know won’t result in restraining orders. Just write down what they say. Don’t look at them, don’t make eye contact, and don’t judge. Don’t edit. Just be the stenographer.

Here’s an example of . . . oh, wait.

I need to actually go do that.

Deadline: September 1.

Next: Write Longhand

I hate writing longhand. It hurts. I get focused on my penmanship, which gets worse and worse as I go. I hate to then have to laborious retype everything. I know this because I . . . never actually tried it?

I know writers who only write in longhand, at least at first, and have come to rely on the process of transposing it onto their computers as an essential first edit. This worked for people like Truman Capote, so what the hell am I doing dismissing it?

I’m going to write either some portion of a book—a chapter, let’s say—or a short story . . . hey, maybe the short story based on that weird little picture . . . longhand.

Can I get away with combining these two exercises? Why not? Let’s say this has the same deadline.

This week I will write that short story, longhand, and edit while transposing it.

And last but not least:

I’m still not done with that whole exercise of using note cards to plot out a novel. I’m using the note cards I made that inspired that first post to populate an outline and they were instructive, but this never really took off for me. Or more accurately, it hasn’t yet taken off for me.

In “Outlining with Note Cards, Part 2: Seeking Wisdom,” I mentioned Holy Lisle’s advice on “Plotting Under Pressure.” I’m going to do this: create a plot like this, then write it start-to-finish in November as part of . . .

. . . drum roll, please . . .


I kinda tried to start that once, five years ago, but let’s say that this year, we’ll actually make it happen. So let’s get that note card plot started the first week in September, do some worldbuilding in October, and write the dang thing in November.

That should keep me busy for the rest of 2015 . . . along with everything else!

I’m looking forward to it!


—Philip Athans





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We’ve been thinking of stories in terms of three acts: beginning, middle, and end, for at least the last 2350 years or so—since the publication of Aristotle’s Poetics. I think we probably all “get it,” at least in its simplest terms, but for me there’s another side of that three-act coin.

Other than as a way to organize the plot of your novel, what other significance do these three acts carry? It’s interesting to think about the life cycle of a book in terms of those three acts as well. The beginning of the book’s life is the author actually writing it. The middle is its time with the “gatekeepers” (agents and editors), and the end is its time with readers. And how your book finds its way from your computer screen through the gatekeepers and to your readers’ hands is intrinsically tied to the writing itself.


The Beginning

I’ve written about the importance of the first line of a short story or the first paragraph of a novel. This is your one chance to make a first impression. There’s a lot of pressure, up front, on the beginning of your book. I’ll go so far as to say that the relative strength of the beginning of your book will determine if it’s ever actually a book in the first place.

If you’re not excited about the beginning of your book, how can you expect that anyone else will be? If you find yourself slogging through “setting the scene” and “establishing the [whatever it is you’re trying to establish]” then you need to pause and listen to yourself. If it’s a chore to write, what makes you think it won’t be a chore to read? Stop info dumping, and start storytelling.

The fact is, whether or not you agree with it or believe it or understand it, very few people in that “gatekeeper” layer will read your entire manuscript from beginning to end if the first paragraph doesn’t suck them in. A weak first paragraph will result in a quick rejection. Agents and editors routinely get thousands of submissions every year and of course they can’t read every word of every one of them. In fact, they can only read every word of only a very tiny percentage of them. There is a certain finite quality to time, after all.

So yeah, the first paragraph, page, and chapter really are that important.

A strong first paragraph will get your first chapter read. If that doesn’t pay off you’ll get a slightly less quick rejection. If the first chapter is strong there’s a good chance that agent or editor will keep reading into the middle of your book, at least, and that’s a great sign. That means you’ve passed probably 90% or more of the other authors in the slush pile. Congratulations!

Once it’s published, readers will decide to buy your book or not for lots of different reasons, almost all of which are entirely out of your control. But the one thing you do have some control over is the quality of your own work. If that first paragraph really grabs, you can get that reader from glancing at an Amazon preview or skimming the first page at a bookstore to actually buying the book. Or at least maybe they’ll keep reading through the first chapter and then make that decision.

If this is making you nervous, feeling as though I’m putting tons of pressure on you to nail that opening paragraph, good. I’m putting tremendous pressure on you to nail that opening paragraph.

No one ever said this was going to be easy.


The Middle

The fact is this is where the bulk of your work as an author will actually focus. You need to get that strong opening done fast, get ’em hooked, but then deliver a page-turner all the rest of the way through. If your first chapter is all awesome in media res action written in an immediate, spare, and evocative voice then you grind to an info dumping halt at the beginning of Chapter 2 and the next hundred pages read like an encyclopedia you’re in potentially more trouble than if you’d just started off bad.

At least if you suck right up front, everyone from potential agents to potential readers will wander off fast, not having felt they’ve wasted too much time, effort, or money. You can lose readers at any point in the process, and again mostly for reasons entirely unknown and unavoidable, but still. Learn all those lessons about tight POV, and Chekov’s Gun, and rising and falling action, and raising stakes.

Oh, and I almost forgot. These three acts are by no means meant to be equal thirds of our word count. The middle could easily be 80% of the actual book. It’s where almost everything happens.


The End

The end of the story ultimately has to answer one question:

Was it worth it?

And this is a question you should expect to be asked by your own characters first. “Was it worth it? Did I grow, did I succeed or fail, can someone learn from my triumphs and tragedies, did everything hang together in a logical and plausible way?” If your characters feel cheated, you need to listen to them and go back and keep writing until they tell you they’re good.

That’s me being a little fuzzy, I’ll admit. But again, no one ever said it was going to be easy, and almost all of what you’re doing when you set out on a creative writing project is entirely subjective. What it feels like, seems like, etc. is always more important than how many words it is, how many chapters it has, or other concrete, objective things.

The next set of people, the gatekeepers, are going to ask that same question:

Was it worth it?

These are people, agents and editors, who are accustomed to reading first drafts, and so will be forgiving of typos and whatnot, but not terribly forgiving of flat, lifeless endings. If you’ve convinced one of these busy professionals to read past the first chapter, kept them in over the last 90,000 words or so in the middle, then drop on them a “to be continued in Book II: The Seriesing” or decide that endings are “unrealistic” and you have some kind of plotless literary non-ending in mind, or the dreaded deus ex machina arrives to pull everyone’s fat out of the fryer, or any other ways in which you can blow the ending of your book . . . well, now you have a busy professional who wants to murder you.

In some cases, they might love the rest of your book enough to get back to you with advice on how to fix the ending—and I beg you, listen to that advice—but most likely you’ll get the slower, maybe slightly bitchier rejection.

If your sucky ending makes it all the way to the bookstore, expect that readers will hate you even more. When they ask: Was it worth it? And their answer is “no,” expect to see that online. And other readers actually will listen to them.

Readers are smart—if they weren’t they wouldn’t be reading—so they’ll ignore online reviews that speak to personal preference, etc., but when word starts getting out, from multiple people at multiple venues, that the ending sucks in some way or another, your next round of potential readers will drop off in droves. That really seems to be a complaint that other consumers take very seriously.


But if you nail it . . .

If you write an attention-grabbing beginning, keep up the pace through the page-turner middle, and bring it all together into a surprising and satisfying ending, you’ll make it through your own writing process in a happier, more excited state. The gatekeepers will start fighting over it. And readers will shout from the rooftops about how awesome it is.

Reader recommendation seems to be one of the most effective ways to sell books: You listen to your friends, who know your tastes and whose taste you know. And though that means you’re lots less likely to read a book when they say, “Well, if you can make it through the first hundred pages it gets good,” (which is where I immediately pass, thanks anyway), or “It was really good right up till the Seinfeld ending,” if you nail all three parts and your readers ask their friends some variation of “Was it worth it?” and that’s answered with some form of, “Yes!” then you win.

Go for the win.


—Philip Athans

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I sat on a panel at the Chuckanut Writer’s Conference and the moderator had a copy of Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro. She referenced the book a few times and recommended it, so I wrote down the title and bought a copy almost immediately after getting home.

I’ve just started reading it, and already have a feeling you’ll be seeing a longer, more detailed recommendation from me here in the next few weeks, but for now . . .

Still Writing is made up of a number of short essays on the writing life. This morning, after exercising, I was reading it sitting on my back porch and got to her essay “A Short Bad Book.” To quickly paraphrase, Ms. Shapiro recommends starting—maybe not every—book by convincing yourself that what you’re going for from the outset is a short, bad book.

This is really good advice.

In lots of ways, it goes to my own often-offered advice to write fast, not to care about spelling and grammar or complex matters of style. Just write a story. Then you can find all the ways it’s too short and expand it, and all the ways it’s bad and make it better, later.

The idea behind this is that if you’re essentially planning on it being short, it takes the pressure off that terrifying thought that you have to write ninety thousand words or more to make this happen. Anyone who’s embarked on the climb up that word count mountain knows how scary it is, and anyone who’s reached the summit knows how hard a trek it was.

If you start by giving yourself permission to write a bad book, you can set aside the insecurities that cripple a lot of us—and I said “us” because as many books as I’ve actually written, believe, me all the insecurities are still there, and then some. If you start a book convinced that in order for any of the effort to be worth it—if anyone is going to publish it and anyone else is going to buy it and read it—then it has to be great, that’s even more scary.

This got me thinking then, even as I’m still working on an outline for a book I want to be somewhere between ninety and a hundred thousand words and that I hope will be fantastic, if I’ve ever actually taken that “A Short Bad Book” approach myself.

The fact is, not only did I start out writing a book with that in mind, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that it stayed both short and bad.

Under no circumstances should you read Baldur’s Gate. It’s out of print anyway, and please don’t bother trying to find it. This was my first published “novel,” and I wish it would disappear from the memory of mankind for all time.

Let’s go back a bit to the beginning.

BioWare was working on a computer RPG, under license from Wizards of the Coast, set in the Forgotten Realms world. The buzz started to get pretty positive really early and the idea was floated by someone I’ve since forgiven that we should publish a novelization of the game. Because I’m a total moron, I participated in a blind proposal process in hopes of being the person to write it. Because of reasons unknown, my proposal was picked and I was assigned to write the book. That was somewhere around Halloween and they needed the first draft by Christmas.

A “long” book wasn’t going to happen, so though I don’t remember what the assigned word count was, it was less than the average 90,000 for other Forgotten Realms novels. So I went in knowing it was going to be short and though I didn’t really hope it would be bad, I did start the process with that same sense of the freedom of low expectations.

First of all, this was a novelization, so the story was (more or less—it’s complicated, but for our purposes . . .) all spelled out for me. Gary Gygax, Ed Greenwood, and everyone else who came after them had already built the world, and so all of the up-front work was done. I just had to write it up.

I also went in comfortable with the fact that all I needed to show up with around Christmas was a first draft. That draft would then be read and vetted not just by my editor at Wizards of the Coast but by someone at the game studio, and together they would make sure I was in line with the spirit and the letter of the game story, and so on.

So I did my best with what time and story material I had and went for done—not for good, not for long, just . . . done.

And I was done on time, and the book went to my editor and someone—I have no idea to this day who and still think it might have been no one—and after a few weeks I got notes back from my editor, and nothing from anyone involved in the game except some kind of vague, “It’s fine.”

I was pretty sure it wasn’t fine.

After all, at that point there wasn’t even a beta version of the game to play. I was working from a very early story document and that’s it.

But it was “fine,” and a production deadline loomed before us, and almost as if we planned it, the second the book went to press we got a pre-beta version of the game that crashed too early on to tell how off the mark I was, but gave me just enough negative feedback to know I was in trouble in Chapter 1 . . .

Then the book came out to a flurry of online hate, all directed at me, the worst writer of all time, who had clearly never bothered to even play the game and . . . My short bad book wasn’t revised into a longer better book. It stayed short and bad, and though it sold a crap ton of copies, at least by today’s standards, it remains most Forgotten Realms fans’ least favorite FR book, and something of an albatross around my neck.

Conscious of the fact that I may have just terrified you out of ever pursuing Dani Shapiro’s advice to start out writing a short bad book, I still think you ought to at least try it. Just, for Bhaal’s sake, make it better, if not longer, before it’s actually published!


—Philip Athans


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A little harried, extremely busy, getting close to that coveted and elusive state known as “caught up,” and sorta pressed for ideas this week, so let’s run back through some of the last few months’ worth of posts and see if anything needs an update, and in general we’ll play Catch up With Phil.

First up, let’s run back through the online Pulp Fiction Workshop. The first course, via Writer’s Digest University, is all wrapped up and I think it went extremely well. If anything it was over-enrolled, and though not everyone submitted the four weekly writing assignments to build a complete 6000-word story almost everyone did—and though that meant some work for me it was work I was happy to do. Some exceptional stories were written for that class, and I’m delighted to be gearing up for another go-around starting on August 6. Sign up now!

Here’s a little taste of the additional material (I post something new every weekday) for the pulp course:

You only have one sentence to make a great first impression. Here are some sample pulp first lines…


From “Jim Dickinson’s Head” by Harold Ward (Black Mask, August 1920), an immediate establishment of tone, and a broad hint of something terrible having happened:

Jim Dickinson’s head, pickled in a jar of alcohol, reposes in the dishonored fastness of a dusty closet in Doctor Wright’s office.


From “Herbert West: Reanimator” by H.P. Lovecraft (Home Brew, 1922), the master at work:

Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror.


From the undisputed classic “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” by Mike Kames (Man’s Life, September 1956), a hero in trouble from the get-go:

I was sprawled on a mound of hay—shotgun cradled in my arms and my head drooping fiercely from want of sleep—when that first ripple of alarm surged through the dark house.


The first line of James G. Blades’s story “Squaw Killer” (Indian Stories, Winter 1950) gets things started immediately:

The Wolf flung his axe.


You know Beth Farrell’s story “The Silver Duke” is going to get good when it starts off this catty:

“Jan’s got to get out, ma, she’s too pretty.”

Science Fiction

Here’s the first line from the much reprinted novella “The Gods Hate Kansas” by Joseph J. Millard (Startling Stories, November 1941), which, again, starts the action right up, and immediately says “this is science fiction!”:

The rocks had been hurtling toward earth for more than a week, silent and invisible in the black airless void of space.


I’m not sure I’d recommend a sentence this long, but look how much worldbuilding Clark Ashton Smith put into the first line of “The Abominations of Yondo” (Overland Monthly, April 1926):

The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts; for Yondo lies nearest of all to the world’s rim; and strange winds, blowing from a pit no astronomer may hope to fathom, have sown its ruinous fields with the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns.

War & Air Combat

For the sake of being complete, how about the first line of “Jinx Run” by Scott Sumner (Wings, Spring 1947):

As an AAF soldier-correspondent I was strictly excess baggage on this mission, and I was mighty glad the little tail gunner had crawled back into the waist to keep me company.


Another great example of naming your hero right up front, while he’s in danger, from “Beast-Gods of Atlantis” by John Peter Drummond (Jungle Stories, Summer 1950):

Without breaking the swift stroke of his paddle, Ki-Gor snatched another brief glance over his shoulder at the pursuing war canoes.

Fight Stories

Don’t be afraid to just say what kind of story you’re writing in the first sentence, like Tom O’Neil did in “An Honest Fight Every Night” (Fight Stories, Fall 1949):

Center City was a fight town.

Speaking of online courses, I’m currently in week three of my four-week Worldbuilding class, also from Writer’s Digest University. This is, obviously, geared for fantasy and science fiction authors whereas the pulp class covers every genre. That’ll come back around with a new session starting on August 27 and you can sign up well in advance.

What’s great about these courses but that doesn’t always show up in the advertising, is the interaction between the students that happens with me off to the side as an observer. You get feedback from me, but if you choose to post your work so the rest of the class can read it (and that’s entirely optional) and are willing to read and offer constructive comments to your fellow students, there’s some amazing wisdom to be gained there. It’s not quite as thorough and intimate as the real life, face-to-face interaction that I really miss by no longer teaching these classes in a live setting, but it’s the next best thing, and you don’t have to live in the Seattle area to join in.

In the post from June 9: Writing Without Typing I mentioned a ghostwriting project I was planning to finish that day. There were a couple more passes through the text ahead of me then, but I’m delighted to report that that project is now completely done (at least from my perspective) and I’ve started wrapping nickels in Post-Its for other projects now. I can’t tell you the title of the book or even when it’ll be published, but I was delighted to be a part of it, and to share in a terrific story that I promise will be worth reading.

Looking back at the two posts about Writing Accents, I’d like to add a recommendation for an author who has done this extremely well. Read The Given Day by Dennis Lehane.

My complaints regarding my woefully inadequate home office, revealed in all its (total lack of) splendor in (Un)Happy Organize Your Home Office Day continue. I did buy a new chair, which is much better, but still. I need to explore standing options, leaving the house options, levitation, remote viewing . . . at this point, I’m open to anything. Add to that the preternaturally hot summer we’ve been having and this little nook is becoming a sort of pocket-dimension version of Hell. Maybe I need to start a Go Fund Me to pay for office space. It seems like a waste of money, and adding a commute to a commute-free life is anti-Earth, but . . . I still need to get out of here. Facebook reminding me that it’s been three years to the week since I last took a vacation isn’t helping either, believe me.

Looking at the Books For Christmas posts makes me feel a little better about the fact that I’m kinda keeping up on reading. Of this list I’ve read as much of The Haunted Vagina as I was able to get through (turns out I’m not a Bizarro fan, but at least I kept an open mind for part of it!), and read all of Attempting Normal and American Grotesque, both of which I highly recommend. The fact that these didn’t just go up on my shelves to be read, maybe, a decade from now, is kind of a big deal. I’m currently reading books I bought that long ago at least.

I am still reading a book from The Sci-fi Paperback Grab-bag, it’s just that the book I pulled out of the box at random in May was Peter F. Hamilton’s massive Pandora’s Star, and I’ve been loving it so far but working my way oh so very slowly through its 992 pages, proving yet again that I do not have an instantly limiting bias against long books. But it is taking me a while, and I’m not reading as fast as I can, and . . . whatever. The grab-bag lives!

Now I have to get back to two short but intense writing projects, two edits, and another ghostwriting project. Next week: writing advice. I promise!


—Philip Athans


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Dialog is a challenge for a lot of authors and sometimes the common, easy advice like “read it aloud” isn’t enough. It could be that there are writers who read their dialog aloud and think, That’s good—that sounds right for this character, but pretty much no one else agrees. The explanation for this disconnect could be as simple as performance. Maybe there’s some almost imperceptible inflection you’re using when you read it aloud that isn’t indicated, or that most people who don’t share your regional accent or dialect—whatever that may be—wouldn’t pick up on.

That all sounds pretty grim, then, in terms of learning to write dialog that will resonate with everyone—and it is difficult, maybe even impossible. You can’t please everyone, after all.

But there are a few things that the overwhelming majority of us share in terms of the patterns of the content of our speech. One of those common patterns is that we don’t tend to speak in bullet points.

Yes, there certainly are exceptions to this rule. The order-acknowledgement back and forth you’d hear on the bridge of a submarine, for example. But regular people don’t talk like that:

“Johnny, clean your room!” the harried mother yelled.

“Answering: clean room, aye aye ma’am,” Johnny shouted in response.

Overly formal, regimented dialog is one of the most common stumbling blocks for inexperienced writers and I see it all the time. And it’s an affliction that can be cured, like most writing afflictions, by specific attention followed by rewrites.

For example:

“I considered joining the King’s Guard once. Something else came up. Then I began an apprenticeship with a blacksmith. The blacksmith was a good man. He taught me everything I needed to know. I became a practicing blacksmith. I worked in Megacity. In the Smithy District. Off of Ingot Street. I realized this was my calling. I met a woman. We fell in love. The beer wraiths killed her. They were drunk at the time. What have you been up to?”

I know that might sound like a goofy example, but trust me, I see this kind of thing all the time. Even if this character who’s speaking is being interrogated by the Megacity Watch, this still isn’t the way people talk to each other. Let’s look at that again, but this time rendered as bullet points:

  • I considered joining the King’s Guard once.
  • Something else came up.
  • Then I began an apprenticeship with a blacksmith.
  • The blacksmith was a good man.
  • He taught me everything I needed to know.
  • I became a practicing blacksmith.
  • I worked in Megacity.
  • In the Smithy District.
  • Off of Ingot Street.
  • I realized this was my calling.
  • I met a woman.
  • We fell in love.
  • The beer wraiths killed her.
  • They were drunk at the time.
  • What have you been up to?

One option, and in this case, I think a bad one, would be to own the list and describe the character ticking these off on his fingers or writing them down on a white board.

Cringe, right? No thanks!

It means breaking this paragraph up again, but this time, taking each sentence and thinking carefully about what it does right here to serve the story and the character saying it, and the character or characters listening to it.

“I considered joining the King’s Guard once.” I might leave alone. It introduces the whole thing, starts this character thinking about his past.

“Something else came up.” This says, essentially: “I didn’t join the King’s Guard,” but I bet that if we could see the rest of the scene this paragraph is a part of, we’d already know he isn’t a member of the King’s Guard, and anyway, didn’t he just say he considered joining once? That implies he didn’t join, just thought about it at some unspecified point in the past. Say goodbye to that sentence entirely, but maybe indicate with a facial expression that it wasn’t necessarily a tragedy that he didn’t join.

“Then I began an apprenticeship with a blacksmith.” Feels a little passive, no? Once you start on that then this then that then the other thing cycle it can be as hard to jump off of as a hamster wheel. What we need to know is that instead of being a King’s Guard he became a blacksmith. Does it matter that he went through an apprenticeship? Maybe not, but let’s say it does since he’s talking to someone about his past—maybe an old friend who joined the King’s Guard and hasn’t seen the speaker in a while. If you’re talking to an old friend, the words you choose tend to be more personal, and by keeping an ear out for that you can start to build back stories for your characters with little off-hand references. I’ll imagine that the person he’s talking to would know this specific blacksmith, and the fact that “The blacksmith was a good man,” can remain unsaid. Oh, and remember that people often speak in sentence fragments, so don’t forget to write dialog the way people talk, not the way their English teachers would prefer they talk.

“He taught me everything I needed to know. I became a practicing blacksmith.” Since one would follow the other, can I combine these two sentences? I bet I can.

“I worked in Megacity. In the Smithy District. Off of Ingot Street.” Now, who says all this actually has to be said by the same character? Imagine this is a conversation, so make sure there’s some back-and-forth. Let’s have the person he’s talking to ask him if his shop is in Megacity and then the original speaker can nod in response—because we don’t always speak information: gestures, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues work just as well in a lot of instances. We can even have the other character get to the next specific level, and then go back to the original speaker for confirmation.

“I realized this was my calling.” Okay, do you care? I don’t, and I bet whoever’s listening to this won’t either. He’s a blacksmith, not a King’s Guard. Let’s kill that line and move on.

“I met a woman. We fell in love.” This is a pretty severe shift in subject matter from his job to his personal life. That’s fine, but people either don’t do that—we really don’t just smash cut from subject to subject—or if we do, not without some kind of “tell.” I’ll start thinking of ways to call out that transition.

And then another hard left turn from romance to tragedy: “The beer wraiths killed her. They were drunk at the time.” We’ll assume we’ll get into what a beer wraith is later—or have before this—so let’s concentrate on thinking about whether it matters that they were drunk, and if it does, why are these two obviously (based on the name of the monster) related facts cordoned off from each other in separate sentences? And beyond that, maybe the other person in the scene can help with that transition, can say something to move the speaker from “We fell in love,” to “The beer wraiths killed her.”

And that kind of tragedy needs to show in their faces and body language. You don’t report the death of a loved one like you’re announcing the 5:15 from Newark arriving on Track 16. We need to feel the emotional weight on the characters.

Then the last harsh transition, what really feels like a sort of punch line: “What have you been up to?” I have to imagine that this conversation is a tough one for both characters involved, so lets see if we can sell that punch line on an emotional level—and sell it with a contraction at that.

Here’s what I ended up with:


“I considered joining the King’s Guard once,” Galen said, the corner of his mouth curling into a wistful half-smile. “Apprenticed with Garrick Ironson instead.”

Bronwyn smiled and nodded at the mention of the old blacksmith’s name. She hadn’t seen Garrick Ironson in years either, but she remembered her father never went to another blacksmith in Smallercity.

“He taught me all I needed to know to start my own shop,” Galen said, looking at her in the eyes for the first time, his head tipped a little to the side.

“Here in Megacity?” Bronwyn asked. Galen nodded and she added, “Smithy District?”

Still nodding, Galen raised his eyebrows and replied, “Ingot Street.”

Bronywn offered him an impressed frown and returned the same nod until he sheepishly looked away.

Still not looking at her, Galen said, “I met a woman.” His voice was quiet, almost lost to the noise of the street. He was looking her in the eye again by the time he finished saying, “We fell in love.”

Bronwyn blinked and forced herself to smile. She nodded, but it felt jerky, insincere. Not sure what to say, she started with, “Are you and she—?”

“Beer wraiths,” he cut in.

Bronwyn gasped and took a step closer to him without intending to. He stiffened, but didn’t move away from her. “She was . . . ?” Bronwyn started.

Galen interrupted her with a shake of his head, and he looked down at the cobblestones at his feet.

There was a long moment of silence while Bronwyn considered reaching out to touch his shoulder, even hug him.

Then he looked up and with a forced smile over eyes heavy with tears, asked, “What’ve you been up to?”


I sprinkled in a little more back story for both of them. We now know they grew up in Smallercity, so Galen must have moved to Megacity to set up shop.

This was meant to indicate that Galen was curious to see if Bronwyn was impressed by the fact that he’d set up his own blacksmithing shop: Galen said, looking at her in the eyes for the first time, his head tipped a little to the side. Was I being too subtle?

Lots more words in the end, but words are cheap. Use as many as you need to share your characters’ story with your readers. Save the bullet points for work memos—and your own notes.


—Philip Athans


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Last week I determined, using rigorous scientific methods, the precise number of words for a chapter, no more, and no less. This was based on medical evidence and a joke that was meant to say there is no perfect length for a chapter and any effort to determine one is as silly as timing poops.

That having been said, though, those books with too-short chapters and the other books with too-long chapters still plague me. Surely there’s something off that I’m sensing and it’s not, to be honest, in any way connected to my bathroom habits.

Let’s dig a little deeper into this—the question of how long a chapter should be, that is, not my . . .

Anyway . . .

The number I arrived at last week was 2500 words, read in 12.5 minutes. Even if people read a little more slowly, that might be 15 minutes, or 20 minutes. Or, maybe, a morning’s commute by bus or train? Don’t read while you’re driving, but how about one chapter of an audio book if you drive to work? Could you read a chapter or two while on an exercise bike or other cardio machine either reading or listening? This would be a chapter per short lunch break, especially if you’re in school. I used to read during lunch when I was in school, and when I started working, too.

So even sans silliness about bathroom breaks I still like this number as a discreet package of minutes. It’s very reader-friendly, and we should all strive—at least a little bit and in service of our stories first—to be reader friendly.

See what I did right there? I said, “in service of our stories.”

Setting the math aside, what is a chapter even for, anyway? Why break our books up into chapters?

For a history of the chapter I’ll refer you to Nicholas Dames’s New Yorker article “The Chapter: A History.” From that article:

Novels have always been good at absorbing and recycling, taking plots and devices from other genres and finding new uses for them. With the chapter, novelists began, in the eighteenth century, to naturalize an informational technology from antiquity by giving it a new cultural role. What the chapter did for the novel was to aerate it: by encouraging us to pause, stop, and put the book down—a chapter before bed, say—the chapter-break helps to root novels in the routines of everyday life. The chapter openly permitted a reading oriented around pauses—for reflection or rumination, perhaps, but also for refreshment or diversion. Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” insisted that “chapters relieve the mind,” encouraging our immersion by letting us know that we will soon be allowed to exit and return to other tasks or demands. Coming and going—an attention paid out rhythmically—would become part of how novelists imagined their books would be read.

In my studies of the number of words in a sentence and the number of sentences in a paragraph and how that affects your readers’ breathing, it’s the idea of the length of a pause—short breath at the end of a sentence, longer breath and the end of a paragraph—that changes the rate of breathing. Chapters, then, take that idea to the next level, with a much longer pause in which you’re essentially giving your readers “permission” (in quotes because no matter what you do, your readers will access your words in whatever way they damn well please) not just to take a breath but to step away for a moment.

This is what you need to think about—and let me stress this: you need to think about it: Where do you think it’s okay for your readers to put the book down for a minute, or until the commute home, or the next time nature calls? Leave off at a point that says two things:

It’s okay to step away . . . smoke ’em if you got ’em.


You’ll want to get back soon to see where this goes from here.

That last indicates that a chapter should end with some form of a cliffhanger. Though that’s a word that can be considered too literally sometimes, what I mean to say is that there is a pause in the story but not an end. That there’s some hint, either broadly (the hero actually is hanging from a cliff) or subtly (the heroine gets a letter from her husband but is afraid to open it) that something very interesting is going to happen in the next chapter.

For me, it’s that point, not the 2500th word, that tells you to put a chapter break there. If you’re writing a fast-paced thriller with lots of these cliffhanger moments, you should consider lots of short chapters. Who says if I have 25 minutes on the exercise bike, how many chapters I can read in that time? Two 2500-word chapters? One 5000-word chapter? Or five 1000-word chapters? It’s the pacing of the story that should determine that.

This leaves me thinking back to Peter F. Hamilton and Simon Green and their immensely long chapters. Is that slowing the perceived pace of what are, at least in Simon Green’s case, incredibly fast-paced space operas? I think so. I really like these books, but have to ask: Would I have liked them more if they’d been split up into chapters of no more than 5000 words?

Honestly, I would have.


—Philip Athans


Posted in Books, creative team, E-Books, horror novels, how to write fiction, indie publishing, intellectual property development, NaNoWriMo, POD, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments