First, read last week’s post.

You can’t critique yourself any more than you can edit yourself, so what the hell am I even doing here?

I first mentioned this short story in a post about why starting with just a gimmick is a bad way to approach a short story, and that this one went out there with a hollow thud because I never really did think about the characters enough, just set them out into a gimmicky idea. It’s now been a long time since I’ve read this story again, so maybe I’m far enough away from it that I can start to see both its weaknesses and its strengths in at least a slightly objective way?

I’m willing to try, anyway.

So let’s start off with this:

I have, over and over again, advised that you start any story or novel in media res (in the middle of things). Start with action then come back and “set the scene” only as little as absolutely necessary. So in “The Strange Geometry of a Well-Placed Attorney” did I follow my own advice?

He’d been awake for at least an hour before the alarm clock started beeping. Still, he paused before reaching over to turn it off. With a sigh he rolled onto his back and glanced over to his left. He made eye contact with his wife, but only briefly, and knew it would be the only time their eyes would meet that day.

Well . . . nope. That’s a pretty passive opening and I would have pointed that out if this was someone else’s story I was editing. But here’s what I probably told myself: The whole idea of this story (and by “idea” I mean “gimmick”) is that we meet this seemingly normal guy, get an increasing sense that something weird and scary is going on with him and his family, and then we get the Big Surprise. I am the reincarnation of Ray Bradbury!

Easy, there.

Okay, but still. I think I started this story off with a sigh rather than a bang. Could this guy be dreaming of monsters and horrible scary horror stuff, then wake up and we see that he’s just an ordinary guy who then seems to be scary and weird and at least that story says “You’re reading a horror story” and . . . hm. Not a bad idea, actually, though that “it was all a dream” is almost as bad a way to start a story as its to end one.

Damn. Writing is hard.

In case you were wondering if it was dark in their bedroom, the second paragraph ought to clear that up for you.

Gee, here’s what I did: I started a story with the main character’s morning ritual.

That can’t have been me. I must have been possessed by a demon or something. When I was in college, sometime in the late Paleolithic Era, I had a screenwriting professor who warned us never to start a movie with the main character’s morning ritual. Even back then when screenplays were drawn on cave walls with charcoal that was clichéd, lazy writing.


This idea that he’s committing suicide by letting himself get fat and out of shape is where I got to sort through some of my own baggage. This is actually a positive, honestly. If you aren’t working through some of your own baggage in your writing, you’re doing it wrong.

Here’s a question for you: Does all the stuff about his wife clearly being in it for the money and prone to obsessive shopping and so on read as sexist?

She isn’t supposed to be a sympathetic character. She is married to not just a terrible demon god thing but worse, the evil demon god thing’s lawyer. This is not a condemnation of all women, just her.

In all the description of the house I was channeling (which is a weenie way of saying “copying”) the movie Dark City in which we see the difference between rich and poor as the relative sizes of their living spaces and the physical distance between people. Rich people live in huge places and don’t go near each other, and poor people are more physically intimate because they have to be. I loved that image and that concept, and hereby promise to one day pull it off better.

Okay, so now we get to the Asian prostitute in the limo, which I suffered over a bit, worried about more sexism and racism creeping in from the culture, but in this case I’m going to give myself a break on it, even if no one else does. The idea is that this woman is a cliché, that he’s being provided with all the stuff that someone with no particular imagination would default to based entirely on stereotypes, and what they might have picked up in Hollywood movies. This is what his house should look like. This is how his wife should behave. This is the woman he should find attractive. And so on.

And then my “hero” at least has the decency to kinda feel guilty about it.

And she (the Asian prostitute) definitely feels bad.

Another positive, I think, is the sense that everyone is desperately trying to please some unseen observer who seems to want them to do certain blandly petty things. This was me struggling with the idea of what would really happen if the threat of every horror and fantasy story actually came true. What would it be like to live in the millennium of darkness, etc.?

In historically dark and oppressive times in real places, to some degree or another life still goes on. There were shops open in Nazi Germany, albeit not run by Jewish people. People suffering under the yoke of the oppressive Soviet regimes still went to the movies, though the movies had to pass strict censorship requirements. There were cars, so there must have been gas stations, mechanics, etc. There was electricity so you had to go buy light bulbs and call an electrician. There were artists and galleries and museums and pubs and so on. So, okay, Cthulhu has risen from the depths, but we still need to run out and buy batteries, or whatever. Right?

So then, once my hero gets to work, this is where I could feel the story really getting away from me. I’m dutifully dialing up the weird. The contrast of petty corporate workplace evil with supernatural demon evil is another too obvious choice that I didn’t seem to be terribly committed to even as I was writing it.

I stole the line “blood atonement” from the HBO series Big Love. Thanks, Big Love.

I then got myself into the corner we all back ourselves into eventually: Now it has to get even more dangerous. What is the maximum horrorness that Cthulhu might unleash on a day to day basis? I stole the being skinned alive thing from Haruki Murakami who did it so much better than me on every level I owe him a written apology.

And then I had to figure out how to say, “Surprise everybody, he’s Cthulhu’s Lawyer!”


But here’s the good news. I wrote it out of my system, reminded myself that I’m perfectly capable of terrible writing, and like anyone who puts pen to paper I need to continue to learn, practice, think, read, and get better at it.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Shawn Colletti says:

    Reblogged this on Fantasy Writer Online and commented:
    In my post It’s Been A Long Labor Day ( I talked about a short story that I had forced myself to finish. I made the mistake of focusing on a gimmick rather than my character. And this is why Stage Mage shall never see the light of day.

  2. Sean Durity says:

    Gutsy and helpful to critique your own story. Well done, sir!

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