BACK, BACKWARD, AND BACKWARDS

These three words sometimes kinda mean the same things, and sometimes kinda mean different things, but as an editor, I see them used more or less interchangeably almost all of the time. That’s a lot of kindas and most of the timeses there, so let’s see if we can get to the truth of when to use back, when backward makes more sense, and whether or not backwards is even a word.

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Third Edition), Edited by R.W. Burchfield, says:

backward(s) 1 In most adverbial uses backward and backwards are interchangeable, but usage varies subtly from region to region. It is broadly true to say that in North America backward seems to be somewhat more usual than backwards, and in Britain the other way round.

2 As an adjective the only form used is backward

This says to me that, if you’re an American, it must always be backward in any case, otherwise you might be accused of counterrevolutionary thinking. At least, so says Oxford. So then what of a primary source from our side of the pond? A Dictionary of Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner lumps them together with other directional words:

Words ending in -ward may be either adjectives or adverbs, whereas words ending in -wards, common in BrE [British English], may be adverbs only.

Two exceptions in AmE are the adverbs afterwards and backwards, which are almost universally used in preference to afterward and backward. It’s anomalous that most people say forward but backwards.

So then so much for the US vs. UK part of that. Who to believe?

I’ve had -ward drummed into me so thoroughly that I have to side with Fowler on this one, and US English copy edits from me will tend to show that. Grammarist sort of backs me up:

Backward means the opposite way, behind, in reverse, away from the front. Backward may also mean shy, not socially adept, or regressing instead of progressing. While technically backwards is interchangeable with backward, the overwhelmingly preferred spelling in the United States is backward, whether it is used as an adjective or an adverb.

Backwards also means the opposite way, behind, in reverse, away from the front. Backwards may also mean shy, not socially adept, or regressing instead of progressing. In British English, the use of either backward or backwards is technically correct, however the overwhelming preference is to use backward when in need of an adjective andbackwards when in need of an adverb.

One last source, from my handy Apple dictionary app…

In US English, the adverb form is sometimes spelled backwards ( the ladder fell backwards), but the adjective is almost always backward ( a backward glance). Directional words using the suffix -ward tend to have no s ending in US English, although backwards is more common than afterwardstowards, or forwards. The s ending often (but not always) appears in the phrases backwards and forwards and bending over backwards. In British English, the spelling backwards is more common than backward.

…seems to edge onto a side with Garner, so now it’s back to tied at 2-2. The fact that there are a lot of qualifications in all this: tends to be, sometimes spelled, and so on, falls short of the hard and fast rule we might be looking for.

Let’s try a few examples:

Bronwyn walked backwards three steps.

Because backwards modified the verb walked, so is an adverb. Unless you’re me and that s makes you bristle, in which case Bronwyn walked backward three steps, is still fine—or, for this copy editor, at least, still preferred for God Fearing Americans.

Galen and Bronwyn couldn’t countenance the orcs’ backward custom of selling their own children into slavery.

Because in this case, backward modifies a noun: custom, so is an adjective. Easy enough.

But then how do we account for the word back? When does that make more sense than backward(s)? Setting aside the noun forms of back (describing the part of a body, for instance) and the obvious verbs: Galen was backed up against the wall, here’s what my dictionary app says:

adverb toward the rear; in the opposite direction from the one that one is facing or traveling: she moved back a pace | she walked away without looking back• expressing movement of the body into a reclining position: he leaned back in his chair | sit back and relax• at a distance away: I thought you were miles back | the officer pushed the crowd back• (back ofNorth American informal behind: he knew that other people were back of himexpressing a return to an earlier or normal condition: she put the book back on the shelf | drive to Montreal and back | I went back to sleep | he was given his job back• at a place previously left or mentioned: the folks back home are counting on him• fashionable again: sideburns are backin or into the past: he made his fortune back in 1955in return: they wrote back to me.

Got it. Though I will maintain to my dying breath that sideburns, like selling your own children into slavery, are and will always be backward, consider:

Bronwyn jumped back to avoid the spear thrust.

This is where I see a lot of backward/back confusion:

Bronwyn jumped backwards to avoid the spear thrust.

Though backwards is the previously determined correct adjective form, let me at least fall back on the idiom to make a case for Bronwyn jumping back instead of backwards. It just sounds right, doesn’t it? In this case, what’s being described is the same as the dictionary app’s example of the adverbial back.

And you know what? Even with all the rules quoted above, in the end, if it doesn’t sound right, but is technically correct, will your readers know the difference and end up reading the technically correct form as a mistake?

Maybe—in fact, this sort of confusion of “correct grammar and usage” happens all the time in an ever-evolving and highly regional language like English.

So, hmm… I guess, good luck, but no matter what, keep your writing moving forward!

Or is it forwards?

—Philip Athans

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GET, OR KEEP, A LIFE

We talk a lot, us writers, about productivity—how much writing we got done, how much writing we meant to get done, how much writing we should have gotten done, how much writing we wished we could have gotten done. We impose deadlines on ourselves and either hit them or blow them. We hit or blow deadlines imposed on us by others. We suffer over our our word count, our daily output…

And we blame lots of things when we fall short—or perceive ourselves to have fallen short. I hope Margaret Atwood was kidding when, in “When? Where? How?” she wrote:

Ah yes. Writing. Life. When? Where? How? That’s the problem. You can have a life or you can do some writing, but not both at once, because although life may be the subject of writing, it is also the enemy.

I don’t accept that. I don’t think we have to have internal enemies.

Over the past year I’ve been working on both my physical and mental health, and thinking a lot about my own lack of productivity in the fiction department, which is to say very little to none over not the past few weeks, or in any way related to COVID, but literally years without more than a few short stories, an outline or two, and some scattered notes to show for it.

I’ve been busy with my “day job,” yes. COVID blew up everyone’s daily routine, for sure. But of course I could have—and for the sake of my own mental health—should have been writing all along.

I’d be willing to bet that most of you reading this are not in the position to be able to write full time. You’re still building a writing career, or just starting one. We need our “day jobs” to put roofs over our heads and food on our tables, and in the meantime we need to wedge some writing in there. That’s the first place we need to give ourselves a break and sometimes set writing aside to get our lives in order. And hell, if George Orwell can mix life and writing, so can Margaret Atwood, and so can I.

When we think of Orwell writing Nineteen Eighty-Four at Barnhill on Jura, we might summon the man with a perpetual cigarette, a tall figure stooped over his typewriter as if chained to it, utterly dedicated and driven, working against time, trying to ignore his failing lungs. But in those months, he was also rowing, fishing, digging, sawing, chopping, fixing his motorbike. In Wallington, long before he tended a fictional animal farm, he had kept a goat and hens. He had also worked a lathe, and with his wife, Eileen, run a grocery shop. He knew how to strip down a rifle and drill a platoon. He knew his turnips and runner beans. He would become an attentive father to a toddler. Half his life, the non-writing part, was in a world of solid things that resisted abstraction.

I like to think that this kind of practical engagement with the material world came from the same source that informed the empirical, clear-headed and factual quality of his prose. The physical tasks he set himself were both distractions from mental effort and full immersion in ordinary everyday matters—both in the whale and out of it—and so defied his own useful metaphor.

…wrote Ian McEwan in “George Orwell outside the whale.”

Okay, so then, the good news: I have started writing again, and I’ve climbed on top of my various health issues, gotten over and through some stuff, and am sitting here today only a few days away from being once again “caught up” on other projects and ready to get into that novel and all sorts of other great stuff. I’m healthier than I have been in years, and even got back into what for years now has been a distant memory: hobbies.

It is possible to turn stuff around, to jump out of ruts, to fix broken stuff in our lives. And sometimes that means a pause or a slowing in our writing output—or a restart and acceleration of our writing output. Whatever… But putting pressure on ourselves to write doesn’t help make writing the joy it should be.

Let’s write as much as we can, for sure. But let’s be decent with ourselves when it comes to the definition of “can.” I “can” finish a “novel” in two months. I’ve done it before and regretted not spending twice that long revising it. I’ve gone months without writing any fiction at all, and that made me even more depressed. Somewhere in the middle is where I’d like to be.

And here we get to the, I think, crazy idea that writing has to be hard. We have to suffer for it. We have to give up things—even big things like family, kids… our own health… In “Kafka the hypochondriac,” Will Rees laid out one author’s sad journey through “writing = suffering.”

By the time he was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 34, Kafka had already spent two decades worrying about disease. He took his holidays at convalescent spas, while letters to friends and lovers often amounted to little more than catalogues of symptoms. Kafka attributed all this to what he frequently called his ‘hypochondria’, a condition that, he believed, consigned him to the monastic life of a writer.

Kafka had inherited the view, popular since the Romantic era, that a certain sickliness becomes a writer – an idea that can be traced back as far as Robert Burton, who explained in his compendious (and never-completed)  Anatomy of Melancholy  (1621) that ‘windy Hypochondriacal Melancholy’ was an ailment of students and scholars. ‘I am taciturn, unsociable, morose, selfish, a hypochondriac, and actually in poor health,’ Kafka wrote in 1913 to Carl Bauer, the father of his fiancée, Felice. What is more, he added, ‘I deplore none of this.’

Fuck that.

I can be healthy while I write, work, spend time with my family, watch a baseball game one day, try my luck at the slot machines last weekend (there wasn’t any—we lost $400, but had a ball doing it), and I can pay my bills, plan our first vacation in five years, have surgery and recover from it, radically change my diet for the better, lose 45 pounds and counting, and get out of the bunker mindset and start moving out of “crisis mode” and into a future still, even at my age, full of possibilities.

I don’t know… maybe its just that spring is in the air.

Write, yes, but don’t hurt yourself in the process.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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WHERE TO BEGIN?

I’ve written before on the subject of a story’s first line, or a novel’s first paragraph, and starting a story—pulp fiction style—with a “bang,” but there’s really no way to overstate both the importance of the first line or first paragraph of any piece of writing, fiction or non-fiction, and the infinite variety of approaches that makes every author and every piece of work unique.

Rather than repeat that, yes, the first sentence of a short story of first paragraph of a novel is, y’know… important, this time let’s look at a few other opinions that I’ve copied out into my ever-expanding Word file Random Writing Quotes and Examples.docx, starting with Joan Didion (from The Paris Review interview “The Art of Fiction No. 71”):

What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first  two  sentences, your options are all gone.

Well, that sounds frightening. But then so does most of the writing advice out there, right? I try really hard not be one of those many voices that emphasize how hard this is, and how there’s no money in it, and the first advice to any aspiring author is that you should stop aspiring to be an author, so let’s see if we can get some wisdom out of that, and a smidge of positivity.

First of all, until the story or novel is actually printed and out there for sale you aren’t “stuck with” anything. You can rewrite that first sentence right up until the last moment. You can get a better idea at any time during the writing process, decide you need to start earlier in the story or later in the story or from a different point of view… There are all sorts of reasons you might revisit the first sentence (or paragraph), and if I have any rules at all, a big one is: Always give yourself the freedom to have a better idea. Even if that means going back and rewriting the first sentence or the first hundred sentences—or any other sentences. Your options are only gone once it’s published, and, as previously established, it belongs to the ages.

In “What Makes a Great Opening Line?” Allegra Hyde asked:

Is it possible for a sentence to be overly clear—too contextualized? Absolutely. We’ve all read sentences so freighted with detail that narrative momentum comes to a standstill. Just as the thrill  love at first sight  necessitates a degree of mystique, so does a compelling first sentence require certain gaps in information. Something has to remain unanswered, unexplained, unresolved—because therein lies the special chemistry between clarity and curiosity. We need to know enough to wonder more.

Here I stand united with Allegra Hyde.

In “How Not to Open a Short Story” I warned against too many ideas in a sentence—especially the first sentence. Believe it or not, you do not have to “set the scene” for your readers right up front. There is no requirement that they “know” anything other than a story has started. There is never a good reason for anything resembling an info dump, even in the form of a single sentence that exists only to tell your readers what is going to happen, where this is happening, or does anything other than showing something happening. The details—the whole rest of the story or novel—will cover the necessary remaining context. Let your first sentence live, let it play, let it inspire your readers to read on by being, in and of itself, alive.

Edith Wharton picks up from here in “How to Write a Vivid First Line.”

The arrest of attention by a vivid opening should be something more than a trick. It should mean that the narrator has so brooded on this subject that it has become his indeed, so made over and synthesized within him that, as a great draughtsman gives the essentials of a face or landscape in a half-a-dozen strokes, the narrator can “situate” his tale in an opening passage which shall be a clue to all the detail eliminated.

Note the word, “clue.” The first line is not a decision. It’s not, going back to my previous post again, a newspaper lead. The first sentence doesn’t have to tell the whole story, or really any of the story at all. It can set the story’s mood, sample the writing’s tone, establish the author’s voice, showcase the central conflict, introduce the story’s hero or villain, or… what else?

I’m actually asking.

The first sentence or paragraph can do a lot. It can do one, some, or all of the things I just listed, plus or minus whatever else we can think of later.

So what to do then, if you’re reading this after staring at a blank page with an equally blank look on your face? You came here for advice, right? You need me to tell you how to do this!

Easy…

Try stuff and if you find a sentence that resonates with you, that’s the one.

Do that over and over again for the rest of your life, and at some point you might feel you’re pretty good at it, then keep challenging yourself.

In other words, approach writing your first sentence the same way you should approach writing every other sentence, and that is as an ongoing experiment—which is what art is, an ongoing experiment in what it means to be human.

Don’t believe me? How about listening to John Cheever (also from The Paris Review):

Fiction  is  experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction. One never puts down a sentence without the feeling that it has never been put down before in such a way, and that perhaps even the substance of the sentence has never been felt. Every sentence is an innovation.

Good luck with that!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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CHARACTERS, CULTURES, AND GROUPS

I used to teach in-person then online courses, and one of the most popular was my worldbuilding course. Though it’s been a while since I’ve actually taught these courses, one of the exercises continues to stay lodged in my brain. This one serves a dual purpose, which is to add richness to both characters and the world they live in, and it can happen simultaneously. It goes to the nature of the culture of the world, the lifestyle of its people, and what grounds your characters in that world.

Starting with yourself, not your protagonist, the exercise asks a simple question:

What groups do you belong to?

Spend five minutes making a list. Go as fast as you can and do your best to open up that definition of “group.”

A group doesn’t have to have any formal initiation or membership process. In this case I mean group to be anything that separates you from people who aren’t…? This shouldn’t be a list of what makes you you, but a list of things that make you one of a community. Open your mind to groups beyond the big obvious things: I’m an American, I’m a citizen of the state of Washington… Students in my classes have come up with things like “Subaru driver,” and “Babylon 5 hater,” and “clown-phobic.” It’s those personal things—likes and dislikes, relationships and insecurities—that really start to tell us something personal, something deeper, about ourselves first, then about any character we create and by extension, the culture in which they live.

Really do this. Stop reading and come back in five minutes. Here’s an ad for one my books to fill the space…

Now that you have that list, read through it and circle the three that are most important to you. Then circle the three that are least important to you. What does this say about you?

That’s not a question I can answer, but this is the kind of thinking you want to do about your characters, human or otherwise, so make a similar list for each of your major characters and think about your world’s equivalent of “Subaru driver,” “Babylon 5 hater,” or “clown-phobic.”

Governments and religions tend to be the biggest, most obvious components to a culture, or can be shared by otherwise very different cultures in the same way that both Australia and India are democracies, but otherwise share very few cultural traits. The day to day lives of the average Australian and the average Indian share many human drives and reactions, but all of us can clearly detect a difference between them that goes beyond the color of someone’s skin.

Or an even closer example: The United States and France are both democracies with very similar governments, and both are majority Christian. So the question of governments and religions in your world would cover both with basically the same brush. So then what makes those two nations so different from each other, beyond both politics and religion? Language, definitely. Music, maybe. Food, sure… what else? This is what I hope you’ll focus on here, not what the law demands or what God expects, but what the average person does on an average day.

This will start to pull your worldbuilding out of the top-down aspects of who the king is and how he got there and who will be king when he dies, and into how you define the popular culture of a people: the way people in that world think, live, and interact with each other and outsiders on a day to day basis.

I have seen dozens of these lists and talked about them with students in detail and I can tell you for sure that I’ve seen it blow authors’ worldbuilding—and their characters—wide open.

—Philip Athans

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THANK YOU, READERS

A few weeks ago I talked about how, once your novel is published, it “belongs to the ages,” and I’ve written before about my ambivalence toward critics and reviews, and the ways in which readers bring their own experiences and creativity into the act of reading, but I don’t think I’ve ever simply thanked readers in general, so I will now.

Thank you for reading novels.

If you’ve read any of mine, thanks. If you haven’t, but read novels by anyone else, thanks.

Through all the time I’ve been involved in the business—since 1986—publishing has been dying. It’s been seconds away from complete collapse. It was and still is a lumbering old dinosaur whose time has come and gone. Even really smart people, like Kurt Vonnegut, seemed to think so. Decades ago, he said, “There is no shortage of wonderful writers. What we lack is a dependable mass of readers.”

And yet here we are, in 2022, and though we have been beaten up a bit here and there, the publishing business is alive and well. People read every day. People buy books from various outlets in various formats. People talk about the books they liked (or didn’t like) on various social media platforms from GoodReads to Instagram.

And people are writing books, publishing them themselves or in various cooperative forms, and with giant publishers and everything in between. Hollywood is making movies and TV series based on novels.

Publishing is a venerable and honorable profession that supports thousands of Americans, and just because it’s not as lucrative as the enterprise software business—or video games—that doesn’t mean it’s dead, dying, or in any way mortally wounded.

And that’s because of readers.

If you read a novel in the past year you’re part of the solution, and I, like John Cheever, love you all:

All sorts of pleasant and intelligent people read the books and write thoughtful letters about them. I don’t know who they are, but they are marvelous and seem to live quite independently of the prejudices of advertising, journalism, and the cranky academic world… The room where I work has a window looking into a wood, and I like to think that these earnest, lovable, and mysterious readers are in there.

Thank you for reading, and in so doing, help me, and many like me, to make a living doing something we love. I think Chris Jackson said it nicely when he described being an editor:

The immense privilege of working as an editor is to be there at that point of connection between the writer and the reader, the moment when the author’s work of creation or co-creation with the editor enters its next act of co-creation, where the author’s consciousness mingles with the readers, another generative act of meaning-making, the miraculous work of our stories. 

Miraculous, yes. So, yeah, readers… thank you!

—Philip Athans

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I WILL WRITE THAT NOVEL

I’ve written here before that we should remind ourselves that writing fiction—especially genre fiction—should be fun, that we should get in touch with a sense of play—and in recent weeks this has come back to me for a few different reasons.

Over the course of the past year I’ve been focusing more than I have in far too many years on my physical health, which hasn’t been terrible—I’m not dying of anything—but has not been good either. Having just recovered from an out patient surgery I thought I would bounce back from within a few days but that knocked me back for more like a couple weeks, and finally back to feeling as good as I’ve been feeling since dealing with the other stuff last year, it’s time for me to move on to some of the mental health issues, including what I guess I have to describe now as a period of (fiction) writer’s block that’s gone well into the “years” column. How many since I actually wrote a novel (published or not)? About… yeah, ten years.

Though I have gone back to some of my “literary” impulses and published a handful of poems and short stories, the novel work-in-progress has not progressed due to a lack of work. Now, with physical health well in hand, the next step is mental health, and I always feel better—I always have, anyway—when I’m writing, so the same way I got my physical health together since last April, mostly by dramatically changing my diet, I’m now determined to get my mental health together by writing, starting now, and with the goal of seeing as much mental progress in the next year as I’ve seen physical progress in the past year.

You may have noticed me working through some of this in recent posts, like the one about, y’know, starting to write by just, y’know, starting to write. This week, allow me to remind myself, out loud, that I like writing. Creating stories is fun. The genres I write in (the next will blend fantasy and horror) are fun.

I will continue writing poetry and “literary” short stories, because I love those, too, but when I was a kid I didn’t dream of being the next Dostoevsky. I dreamed of being the next Edgar Rice Burroughs. Then got a little older and thought maybe I could be the next Harlan Ellison, who said himself in a 1979 The Comics Journal interview:

The words along the way, Hemingway, and Mark Twain, Conrad, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Cervantes, all the right authors—but, and this is something that I said to  Time Magazine, I said, “You know, I will tell you that my germinal and seminal influences were Conrad and Dickens and Poe and Blackwood”—which they definitely were, I’m not lying about it—“but the truth of the matter is, the things that influenced me the most were comic books, pulp magazines, old-time movies, and old-time radio.” Those were the four boundaries of my world when I was a little boy and I had nothing else.

My inner child loves monsters and this fantasy-horror novel will have monsters. My inner disturbed punk rock post-adolescent loves dark antiheroes, so it will have that, too. My current middle aged semi-intellectual loves novels with something to say, so it will have something to say. But can all three of these things coexist in a single novel? Sara Gran told Crime Reads:

This is part of why YA is so popular, I think readers have really been missing adventure novels, by which I mean novels with some propulsiveness to them. You don’t have to lose anything in your story in order to bring these elements in. Just like with literary fiction–you don’t have to lose any of the beautiful language when you also focus on the plot.

Reading that again here, honestly, really excites me. I feel like I have to write this book now. I’m committed to having fun writing a dark, scary fantasy novel because I have fun writing in general and I have fun reading dark, scary fantasy novels. I want this back in my life because, as Elias Canetti said in  The Book Against DeathWith every hour spent alone, with every sentence that you draft, you win back a piece of your life.”

If “I love doing it,” isn’t motivation enough, well, maybe I need to talk to a doctor.

But in the meantime, you’ll find me writing!

—Philip Athans

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And did I mention that I love monsters?

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NOTES ON CHARACTER-DRIVEN DIALOG

In Bird By BirdAnne Lamott tells us that, “One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a way that pages of description can’t.”

Absolutely true.

Each of your characters, like each of the people you know in the real world, should sound different. And in this case I don’t mean describing their voices as “booming” or “high-pitched,” but what they say and how they say it should be unique to them, to that character. Anne Lamott again:

…remember that you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says. Each one must sound different from the others. And they should not all sound like you; each one must have a self. If you can get their speech mannerisms right, you will know what they’re wearing and driving and thinking, and how they were raised, and what they feel.

This is something I see less experienced authors struggle with all the time. Everyone sounds the same, and it’s a pretty good guess that means they all sound like the author. Or, what might be worse: They all sound like the author thinks constitutes “good writing.” Maybe that author hasn’t yet scraped off all the damage from high school English classes that force a, well, for lack of a better term, forced formality.

Your English teacher probably told you that starting a sentence with However is good and starting a sentence with But is bad. But that never was a rule and few people actually start sentences with the word However… unless they’re intentionally trying to sound smart or formal. Is your the character in your story, in that moment, trying to sound smart or formal? Then However is your word. If not, But away, please.

Making each of what could be dozens and dozens of characters sound different is as big a challenge as it sounds, and one I’m not going to be able to completely explain in one blog post, but let’s look at a few things to keep in mind.

First of all, a lot of what we sound like, our word choices, vocabulary in general, colloquialisms, and so on, are regional. Not everyone from Boston sounds exactly the same but no one from Boston sounds like someone from New Orleans. Even if you’re writing fantasy in a completely invented world there can be regional dialects, yes? Characters from faraway lands who have only recently learned (name your language anything but) the common tongue might not always get the idiom. Playing with that takes dialog from just a way to get information across—the content of what they’re saying—to a richer experience in character and worldbuilding via how they say it.

Though I continue to see it all the time, even from authors I feel should know better published by publishers and journals I feel should know better, playing around with the spelling of words to convey an accent is a slippery slope starting with confusion and possibly dumping you out into racism and cultural insensitivity. Just so you know I’m not the only one who thinks so, in Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern backed me up with:

…it is better to concentrate on rendering the rhythms, the architecture, the syntax of the dialect than to try to indicate pronunciation of individual words by changing spellings and using apostrophes. There are several reasons for that. English is orthographically too imprecise, so the misspellings often don’t indicate how the word is pronounced. Also misspellings seem to caricature the speakers, ’n fillin’ yuh tawk wit’ ’postrophes ’n stuff’s tew hahd tuh read. A particular offense is eye dialect, like writing enuff for enough, since it doesn’t change the pronunciation but implies that the speaker is ignorant and inferior.

So then one character is from a distant realm and has an accent. Great! Let’s see that in word choice and word order, not in “creative” spelling!

I bet we all know at least a few people with a distinctive rhythm to their speech, or a lack of rhythm. Not everyone speaks in complete sentences. We interrupt ourselves, lose track of what we were saying, and a lot of people have a tendency to mispronounce words (see above for cautions here) or use the wrong word. If a character trails off, end the sentence with ellipsis… If a character stops all of a sudden, end with an— If a character stutters within a singe word indicate that with a h-hyphen. If the character stutters the whole word that’s—that’s an em-dash. And, of course, use this with a gentle hand to it stays readable.

And we all have favorite words—words we drop in willy nilly, in places both appropriate and inappropriate, exacting and confusing. If every character has a couple go to words that can go a long way to making them sound like themselves. Ed Simon unpacked one of his own in “Who’s Afraid of Theory?”:

My favorite critical jargon word, however, is “liminal.” All of us who work on academic Grub Street have their foibles, the go-to scholarly tics marking their prose like an oily fingerprint left on Formica. We all know the professor with their favored jargon turn (often accompanied by an equivalent hand movement, like an intricate form of Neapolitan), or the faculty member who might be taken to yelling out “Hegemonic!” at inopportune times. Thus, I can’t help but sprinkle my own favored term into my writing like paprika in Budapest goulash. My love for the word, used to designate things that are in-between, transitioning, and not quite formed, has less to do with its utility than with the mysterious sense of the sounds that animate it. It’s always been oddly onomatopoeic to me, maybe because it’s a near homophone to “illuminate,” and makes me think of dusk, my favorite time of day. When I hear “liminal” it reminds me of moonbeams and cicadas at sunset; it reminds me that the morning star still endures even at dawn. An affection for the term has only a little to do with what’s useful about it, and everything to do with that connotative ladder that stretches out beyond its three syllables. I suspect that when we love these words, this jargon, it’s an attraction to their magic, the uncanny poetry hidden behind the seemingly technocratic. 

I say “right,” way too often at the end of sentences, probably because I need some reassurance that people are understanding me, right? Right.

And then there are commonplaces, the fun little idiomatic phrases we use without always realizing we’re using them. Yohei Igarashi explained this nicely in “The cliché writes back”:

The stylistic ideals of clarity and brevity exert far greater pressure on our writing than the need to adhere to traditional commonplaces. Even so, one of the stranger effects of contemporary language models is that they reveal to us that our plain style is itself full of highly probable phrases. They are perhaps less conspicuous than phrases such as ‘feathered friends’ or ‘smiling mornings’, but they’re no less likely—for example, ‘so far, so good’ or ‘unprecedented times’. In other words, our post-commonplace writing is actually full of commonplaces. And beneath our own stylistic commonplaces are strata upon strata of earlier commonplaces by which we organised and navigated the world.

This one can be a fun worldbuilding challenge. Where a human from Humanistan might refer to birds as “feathered friends,” a Dwarf from Deepunderground might call them “chirpy things.”

Those were terrible examples. Do better than that, but do it just the same!

Oh, and so much more… We could talk about this, in our own unique voices, forever. But let me end with a dash of hope from a Paris Review interview with Eudora Welty

In its beginning, dialogue’s the easiest thing in the world to write when you have a good ear, which I think I have. But as it goes on, it’s the most difficult, because it has so many ways to function. Sometimes I needed to make a speech do three or four or five things at once—reveal what the character said but also what he thought he said, what he hid, what others were going to think he meant, and what they misunderstood, and so forth—all in his single speech. And the speech would have to keep the essence of this one character, his whole particular outlook in concentrated form. This isn’t to say I succeeded. But I guess it explains why dialogue gives me my greatest pleasure in writing. I used to laugh out loud sometimes when I wrote it—the way P.G. Wodehouse is said to do. I’d think of some things my characters would say, and even if I couldn’t use it, I would write the scene out just to let them loose on something—my private show.

See? This might be hard but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be fun!

—Philip Athans

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[PROBABLY JUST CUT] DESIGN ROLE-PLAYING GAMES

Okay, so this week I’m recovering from surgery and just can’t manage a full post, so went looking for a corner to cut and found this odd little gem in the depths of my hard drive. This is a mini-chapter cut from The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction that I don’t believe has seen the light of day since it was written about thirteen years ago. I give you this, to bask in just how much has changed and not changed over that time, but mostly D&D and TTRPGs in general going from “remember when we used to play that” to maybe the hobby’s most productive and popular time.

Oh, and less than a year after writing this I didn’t work there anymore, and some time later, neither did Bill Slavicsek. But the only constant is change, isn’t it.

 

Freelancing and staff positions, knowing the rules, and embracing the math.

If video games are a growing business only just recently beginning to recognize good storytelling, role-playing games are a shrinking business that has always valued a story well-told. Indeed, the role-playing game, pioneered by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in the mid-1970s, is the progenitor of the modern video game. Without it, there would be no HALO, much less World of Warcraft. And though its online progeny are soaking up some of its market share, the traditional pencil-and-paper RPG is alive and well, and hiring science fiction and fantasy writers in both staff and freelance positions.

For more on this topic, I went right to the source, Bill Slavicsek, R&D Director for Dungeons & Dragons at Wizards of the Coast who told me, “We are constantly looking for creative people with strong writing skills and a passion for fantasy.”

But that doesn’t mean just anyone. I don’t think you should try to write for video games if you don’t play video games, and the same holds true for RPG design. Though I could help you with the product support you need to write fiction in one of the D&D settings, you’ll need to have a detailed understanding of the rules to write game products. Some game products are particularly “crunchy,” meaning there’s more rule content—more math. These would be “core” books that players use to build their characters and resolve in-game situations like combat or feats of physical or mental prowess. Others can be less crunchy, more story oriented, like the various campaign settings, that can have very few rules at all, but are closer akin to travel guidebooks, describing the setting and what characters can expect to find there.

In either case, according to Slavicsek, “Writers need to bring imagination, passion, and excitement to the work, so that the game setting comes alive for the players.”

Since I first started at TSR in 1995 I’ve struggled in some ways with the dichotomy of a well-designed RPG product and well-written novel. A good game product is all about set-up, with the resolution coming in the actual game play experience, whereas a novelist has to tie up his book with a satisfying climax, so while my comrades across the hall are setting up loose ends, I’m trying them up. There have been a few instances where we’ve gotten on each others’ nerves, but at the end of the day we’re all in it together.

 

Hey—the advice is still good, at its heart. If you play ’em, you can write for ’em!

—Philip Athans

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Science fiction and fantasy is one of the most challenging—and rewarding!—genres in the bookstore. But with best selling author and editor Philip Athans at your side, you’ll create worlds that draw your readers in—and keep them reading—with

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction!

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AND THEN IT BELONGS TO THE AGES

First you get an idea. Then you suffer over whether or not it’s a good idea until you come to grips with what I’ve called Schrödinger’s Idea, then you start writing it anyway. Then you revise it, you suffer over it. At some point you send it to beta readers, an editor like me, your agent (if you have one), or your writing group, or professor, or no one at all. Then you get to the point where you’re pretty sure it’s at least the best you can do at the time. Then one way or another it’s published, either by someone else or yourself.

And what then?

It continues to be your book in terms of copyright, royalties, other rights, and so on. It belongs to you on a legal and financial level.

But that’s all.

Once it’s available to be read by distant strangers it becomes something more than your book, it becomes—at least as long as a reader is reading it, then as long as that reader remembers it—their book too.

In “On Taking Writing Lessons from Quantum Physics,” Hisham Bustani wrote:

As the observer plays a key role in a physical event, changing it by their mere observation, so does the reader—investing meaning in words and sentences, involving emotions and perceptions, changing viewing angles.

A text does not exist purely, supernaturally; it exists only through reading, and reading is necessarily an act of interpretation, extension, comparison, construction. It is an act of active engagement; of coauthoring; of creation.

And one thing I can tell you from bloody experience is that those unknown distant strangers might not only not like it, but might not like it for reasons that make no sense to you whatsoever. The fact that people didnt like my Baldur’s Gate“novelization” largely stemmed from the many ways it varied from the experience of the game, which wasn’t finished in any playable state when the book had to go to press. “The author obviously never played the game,” is criticism I can absolutely understand because it is indeed factually correct. I’ve written other things before and since then, including a Forgotten Realms trilogy that was often totally misunderstood and in the short term got a bunch of people I strongly disagree with thinking I was on their side…

Let’s not even get into that.

And, I’m sure like pretty nearly every published author ever, I’ve fantasized about getting the chance to set some of these wrongs right—to go back and either revise or even completely rewrite a previously published book. Could I carefully play through all of Baldur’s Gate and start completely fresh with a rigorous understanding of the story as it played out in the game rather than as it was sketched out on an Excel spreadsheet some months before anyone actually started working on it?

There is the tiniest sliver of that desire in me, but the rest of the much bigger slivers remind me that, hey, that was a lot of years ago. It’s about a body of work. Let’s face forward, not backward, and let that book be that book while I worry about the next one (if there is a next one).

In the brave new world of Kindle Direct and print-on-demand it actually is possible to go into the text of a previously published book and fix a typo, clarify some missing point, make sure your footnotes and citations are correct—and I’m 100% behind that when it comes to fixing factual errors in non-fiction, and so on. But going back and revising or even rewriting a novel?

I just don’t think it’s either necessary or worthy of the medium.

Novels are, no matter who has written it and when and where and from what point of view, a historical document. Reading a novel like The Sound and the Fury (even the “Corrected Text”) in 2022 isn’t the same as reading Cloud Cuckoo Land in 2022. With The Sound and the Fury, or The Great Gatsby, or War and Peace, we’re interacting with the story in many of the same ways we’d interact with a book published this year, but we’re also interacting with a past sensibility, a voice from the previous century, or centuries even more distant. We’re going back into the time and culture in which it was written, and maybe with the added layer of the time and culture in which it was translated.

Once the first week passes after publication, a novel belongs to the ages.

It’s out there, and the world and all the people in it—your potential readers now and into some unknowable future—are moving around it.

Don’t worry about going back to a book you published twenty years ago. Like Baldur’s Gate, that book belongs to the late 90s. The circumstances around which it was written are just as important as the words on the page, and though I’m as certain as I can be that Baldur’s Gate won’t be being read in three hundred years, if it is, then the readers of 2322 will make up their own minds, won’t they?

And for me? No take-backs.

I know it’s scary to think about, but publication, for an author, means letting go.

Your work is done, and your readers’ is just beginning.

—Philip Athans

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I can’t go back and add to this…

…so I moved forward with…

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A TENDENCY TO DO NOTHING OR TO REMAIN UNCHANGED

There have been maybe two or three times in the past thirteen years that I’ve had to sort of “punt” for a Tuesday FAH post, and here’s one! I took this week (partially) off to finally finish some much needed home repairs, and there were a few other things that just sort of intruded on my life in the past week…

Anyway, please enjoy this poem, which has been rejected by six literary magazines and so lives here now…

 

A Tendency to do Nothing or to Remain Unchanged

 

pas de poivrons sur le mein

cela vient-il avec de poivrons?

sont-ils épicés?

dites-leur que je ne veux pas de poivrons sur le mien

Et Moi?” by Xixenio Volumnia, Comte de Sang-froid (1464-  )

 

In a universe of uncaring violence

A world of opportunity

A nation of winners

I run on inertia

And precious little of that

 

Decisions made so long ago

Decades ago now

Long enough ago that no memory of their being made is left me

Finds me where I am

Where I have been sat, or I’ve gone

If there is a difference

 

Here, but for the grace of

From there by the grace of

And nowhere left to go with grace of

God, or her, or them, or me, or everyone

Of chance

 

Here, but for the grace of chance

Have come I

To run

On inertia

 

—Philip Athans

 

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