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


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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