WHY ALL THE PRESENT TENSE?

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

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

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

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

INT. DECKARD’S APARTMENT – NIGHT

A blurry photograph, unclear, FILLS THE SCREEN.

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

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

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

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

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

He punches up.

A transparent grid with vectors is superimposed over the photo.

Deckard’s eyes move over it carefully.

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

I hope not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shouldn’t that be “they changes”?

Sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or vice versa.

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

What else is new!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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YOUR PILE OF FAILURES

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how the seminar was described:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As my father would say: Walk it off.

Or in our case: Write it off.

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

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

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

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

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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

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

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

But that’s just me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay. Fine.

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

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

So what about this rule?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . who am I to argue?

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

 

—Philip Athans

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make sure that your one weird thing actually matters!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

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IN SEARCH OF SELF-DISCIPLINE

Despite rejecting the concept of New Years Resolutions, I did start out 2017 with a renewed sense of urgency, a renewed sense of purpose, and the absolute determination to climb my way out of whatever hole I buried myself into in 2016. We can call it depression or exhaustion or . . . I don’t know, and to be honest I don’t care as long as I just stop doing it.

So now here it is the first week in April and I’m doing pretty well, actually. I’m climbing on top of a lot of stuff, but today let’s talk about writing.

I more or less stopped writing fiction by around the end of the second third of 2016 and there’s absolutely no reason for that. I just kinda . . . forgot to do it? That’s terrible. That’s not even a little okay.

So I started trying new things, taking a lot of my own advice for breaking through writer’s block, and by the end of 2016 it was really working, and has continued into 2017—until the past few weeks. I’ve stopped writing again. Why?

Margaret Atwood, in a Paris Review interview, said:

But everyone “writes” in a way; that is, each person has a “story”—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart, and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at twenty is seen as comedy or nostalgia at forty. All children “write.” (And paint, and sing.) I suppose the real question is why do so many people give it up. Intimidation, I suppose. Fear of not being good. Lack of time.

Going back to taking my own advice I feel entirely okay with the “short, bad book” concept so I’m honestly not concerned with anything being “good,” which is a hopelessly subjective term anyway. I honestly don’t feel intimidated by it. I’ve finished enough books, novels, and short stories to know with clarity that I can finish one.

So that leaves “lack of time.”

But I still have the same twenty-four hours in every day that everyone else does, so how is it possible that my “day job” is editing novels that other people with “day jobs” have written but I’m not able to finish a novel because of lack of time?

I’ve also started reading personal and professional development books as part of my self-therapy for 2017 and this really struck me in Brian Tracy’s No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline:

Setting priorities requires setting posteriorities as well. A priority is something that you do more of and sooner, whereas a posteriority is something you do less of or later. You are probably already overwhelmed with too much to do and too little time. Because of this, for you to embark on a new task, you must discontinue an old task. Getting into something new requires getting out of another activity. Before you commit to a new undertaking, ask yourself, “What am I going to stop doing so that I have enough time to work on this new task?”

Go through your life regularly and practice “creative abandonment”: Consciously determine the activities that you are going to discontinue so that you have more time to spend on those tasks that can really make a difference to your future.

I’m back to letting editing and other work take the number one priority every day, and that’s fine. First of all, it’s work I love, so it doesn’t feel like any kind of compromise. So if that’s my “day job” then as far as work and my career goes, writing surely must come next, right?

But without even realizing it, I gave the number two spot to watching TV.

What the hell?

Though I have advised keeping yourself open to a variety of media to help feed your intellectual curiosity and I absolutely stand by that—I’ve got a podcast playing in the background even as I write this—it’s inarguable (at least to myself, in my own head) that I watch way, way, way too much TV. And I could have added another dozen ways to that. I sit in front of the tube (remember when they used to be tubes?) far too much.

Here’s, I think, a good way to tell you’re watching too much TV: if at any point you flip through the menu a second time hoping that you missed something interesting the first time through. Now you’re just trying to watch TV, you aren’t watching something that you’ve heard is great from friends who’s opinions you value, or have read about or saw a trailer or commercial that piqued your interest . . . you’re just staring.

I spend hours just starting at the damn TV.

At least, though, I’ve applied a new rule to myself for 2017, which is this:

Never watch any movie or TV show you’ve already seen.

And with a very few exceptions I’ve actually managed to stick to this rule, and I’ve seen a bunch of great stuff—but I’ve also blankly stared at some bad stuff. And who says I have to see all the “good stuff” immediately?

Of course I don’t.

So then following Brian Tracy’s advice, and keeping in mind similar advice from Tony Robbins, who said, “Genius is nothing but focusing your action in a consistent way to get a result that you’re committed to.” Or even Dean Wesley Smith’s dismissive snark from Heinlein’s Rules: Five Simple Business Rules for Writing: “As long as you are working on something, you can call yourself a writer.” And then trying to answer Kent Sayre’s question from his book Unstoppable Confidence! “Are you moving toward your goals or are you moving away from your problems?” It’s time for me to move away from TV and to writing.

But how do I get started?

The best advice I’ve seen so far comes from Kristen Lamb in her post “Self-Discipline—the Key to Success”:

We Must Be Mindful To Progress

Just like curling the same dumbbell eventually can cause a plateau, self-discipline is the same way. Make sure your goals get progressively more difficult as time goes on.

Start with small goals and progress from there. Small successes inspire us to try harder, bigger, better tasks. Too many writers start out with some stupid word count goal that is destined to fail long-term:

I am going to write 5000 words a day.

What happens is they burn out and hate their writing (been there, done that got the T-shirt). Start with 250 words (one page) six days a week and go from there. If 250 was way too easy (like curling a 1 pound weight) then adjust until it is slightly beyond comfortable. Once that word count becomes easy, increase by 15%… just like weightlifting.

This works for any self-discipline. Don’t go on a diet and cut every last unhealthy thing out at one time. Start with lowering the number of sodas and increasing water intake. Then no soda. Then onto no fast food. Easing into these life changes helps make them life-long habits. Just like writing 5000 words a day cannot sustain a career, eating nothing but celery and protein shakes is no way to eat for life.

She’s right—5000 words a day, every day, is more than a little “optimistic,” so I’m going to follow her advice and just write a little bit every day then add more and more until I feel I’m in a good place, and producing a decent number of readable words. In fact, I’m following precisely this advice in other aspects of my life, especially in personal finance, which, honestly, took a big hit in 2016 along with everything else.

But most of all, please keep in mind that I’m getting up in years. I’m 52, but not only can this old dog learn a new trick, this dog is actively searching for new tricks, trying and failing or succeeding or some combination of both and keeping what works and replacing what doesn’t with a different new trick. This, to me at least, is called “being alive.”

 

—Philip Athans

 

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LOVECRAFT’S FIVE DEFINITE ELEMENTS, PART 4: WHAT MAKES IT SCARY

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

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

If you haven’t read part one yet, here’s the link. In this penultimate chapter we’ll dig deeper into the fourth point:

(d) the types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror

I take this to mean: What makes this thing scary.

There are all sorts of reasons to be afraid of something, including things that turn out not to be true, or turn out not to be so bad or even beneficial when all is said and done. Even if the ultimate reveal of your monster story is that the monster is actually friendly and here to help us, if you want your characters (and by extension, your readers) to be afraid of it along the way, you’ve got some work to do.

A full chapter in my book Writing Monsters is called, appropriately, “What Makes a Monster Scary?” and you can read that here. There I actually break down the ten most common phobias to look at what psychologists have identified are common fears, however irrational. Then I did my best to break down what makes a monster scary and got it down to any combination of one, some, or all of these seven traits:

  • They are unpredictable
  • They have a disturbing capacity for violence
  • They exhibit “otherness”
  • They are amoral
  • They are beyond our control
  • They are terrifying in appearance
  • They turn us into prey

I’ll let you go back to the book or to that post for more on each point, but I’d like add an eighth and that’s that they show us something terrifying inside of us.

In the same way that your “one weird thing,” be it monster, artifact, spell, or what have you, can bring out the good or evil in the people who encounter it, revealing their strengths and weaknesses, sometimes the “weird thing” has been inside us all along and the horror begins when that’s revealed. Or better yet, is sustained while we worry that it might be revealed. More on that in my post Surprise vs. Suspense vs. Writing Monsters.

This is the idea of transformation—the fear of turning into a monster, or of having your personality, your sense of self, your individual agency taken from you. This is why Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Night of the Living Dead are scary—we’re either taken over by something that turns us into monsters, or some amoral, non-intelligent cause (a plague, etc.) transforms us into monsters.

Going back to role-playing games for a second week, this is where you get into a monster’s “special attacks.” Likewise, the effects of a particular magical item or spell. What does this thing do to you? Does it bite you, eat you, absorb you, enslave you? These all sound scary to me, but a simple statement like “zombies eat living humans,” isn’t going to be enough to put the fear of zombies into your readers.

In a post from last May I called on you to Show Your Villain Being Villainous, and I should have added to that: Show your monster being monstrous, show your one weird thing being weird, or as Chuck Wendig said in “25 Things You Should Know About Writing Horror”:

Beneath plot and beneath story is a greasy, grimy subtextual layer of pacing—the tension and recoil of dread and revulsion. Dread is a kind of septic fear, a grim certainty that bad things are coming. Revulsion occurs when we see how these bad things unfold. We know that the monster is coming, and at some point we must see the wretchedness of the beast laid bare. Dread, revulsion, dread, revulsion.

Showing the emotion of fear is as difficult as any other emotion, and though it feels as though I’m sending you to other posts an awful lot this week, I did get into that in my series on emotions, namely fear.

Here’s part of a scene from my horror novel Completely Broken, in which I attempted to layer into one scene various fears—fear of enslavement, fear of the unknown or of the seemingly impossible, and fear of physical pain and mutilation:

Gilroy’s reflection studied him with Jake’s unyielding stare. Like he kept track of sleepless hours, he kept track of Jake’s visits—twelve so far, not counting the times he had to huddle in a corner and not move or the demons would see him. The demons came dozens, maybe hundreds of times, and he never saw their faces. Jake had come only twelve times, though Gilroy couldn’t remember a time before Jake. Before he was a slave.

Completely Broken

Jake looked away and Gilroy gasped, longing for the thing he most feared in the world: Jake’s stare, Jake’s attention. The demon in the bathtub moaned, or laughed, or growled—some kind of sound meant to convey reproach.

“I’ll…” Gilroy managed to choke out, “do it.”

The reflection met Gilroy’s eyes again and smiled. There was a line of infected black around the nearly orange teeth.

Do they look that bad? Gilroy thought. Do my teeth really look that bad?

“I know,” came rumbling from the mirror, “but you hesitated.”

“I hesitated,” Gilroy repeated, beginning to cry.

The demon in the bathtub started to pull the shower curtain down. The cheap, thin nylon stretched at the rings.

“You will lose…”

Gilroy wept. He might have cried like that when he was a newborn baby. His lips pulled back until he thought they’d snap.

“Your teeth,” Jake said.

The reflection came out. Jake broke the line of the mirror, but there was no shattering of glass. Tears and terror kept Gilroy from seeing the twisted, hideous mockery of his own face hurl itself at him. Jake’s grotesque, stinking mouth opened over Gilroy’s and came down so hard and so fast that his teeth, almost every last one of them, shattered in his gums as if they were made of glass. The pain was an explosion that made his head burst into dizzying light. Jake’s face withdrew, spitting teeth as it slid back into the mirror. Teeth and blood showered Gilroy’s face and he closed his eyes tightly. He’d never imagined such pain. His teeth, his whole mouth, were ruined.

The demon in the bathtub screamed, a shrill whistling sound, and thrashed madly against the cracking porcelain. The curtain whipped around but didn’t fall.

Gilroy looked away, put his hands to the ruin of his mouth, and sat down hard on the tile floor. The demon in the bathtub was gone all at once. He continued to cry, letting the reflection’s last “Finish it…” trail off into silence.

When Gilroy came out of the bathroom he came out screaming. He stabbed Howard over and over, the blood from his mouth mixing with his jerking victim’s. It took three minutes for Howard to die. Gilroy laughed at the strong man’s last breath, his own blood blowing out in strings on the wind of his vacant cackling.

I tried my best to keep this about my POV character, Gilroy, throughout. It’s his experience of the demons that haunt him, that make demands of him, and that punish any transgression.

Most of all, it’s never going to be enough to simply say: Galen was scared.

That’s telling us he’s scared. Your job is to show us he’s scared so we (your readers) are scared right along with him. Your readers and your characters should be sharing the experience of being in that moment, in that place and time, with that thing. In my Horror Intensive course I suggest finding your favorite horror movie—one that’s particularly well acted at least—and when you get to the close-up of one of the actors being scared, pause it, run it back, study it. What does it look like, in that person’s face, eyes, body, to be scared? Describe that on paper then run it back and add a layer, then find another scene like it, maybe even in a different movie and try it again.

I think we’ve all been scared before—what a lovely life you’ve had if you haven’t!—but not all of us have experienced real mortal terror. I’m not talking about the fear of the top of the roller coaster or the phobic nervousness of a rattling elevator or the childish dread of wait till daddy comes home—I mean the sort of fear a character confronted with an honest to God monster might feel, fear akin to: “This shark is about to bite my frickin’ head off!” A good actor might have somehow channeled that—let that be your guide, or at least your starting point.

And if you have felt that fear and can access the memory of it while remaining reasonably psychologically healthy—and after all, remaining reasonably psychologically healthy is all any writer can ask for—then I can’t wait to read your horror novel.

 

—Philip Athans

Jump to Part 5.

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“WRITE BETTER CHARACTER DESCRIPTION,” SAID THE 6’3”-tall, 349-pound, BALD WRITER WITH BROWN EYES AND GLASSES, WHO WAS A MALE HUMAN

It’s okay, I know I’m fat.

I also know that I see characters described in this way far, far too often. I’ll be honest—once might seem to be far, far too often. Describing what a character looks like is no easier than describing what anything looks like in a way that’s personal, emotional, experiential, and readable. But for me at least—and I know I’m not alone in this—the first rule should be: Less is more.

I tend to be a fairly visual writer myself, more or less describing a movie I’m seeing play out in my head, and there’s nothing wrong with that, at least in terms of getting that rough draft out fast. I’m also far from immune from “casting” my fiction—imagining certain characters as played by specific actors or other real people. This isn’t a bad thing, actually. It can help you keep an image of that character in your mind, even give you ideas for speech patterns or other character cues. But eventually it comes time to really make that character your own, to solidify him, her, or it in your mind as a unique individual. The temptation may then arise to convey that in as much detail as possible in the hope that you and your readers—every last one of your readers—will share a mental image down to the smallest detail.

Readers love that, right?

Wrong.

Elmore Leonard wrote in his rules for writers:

Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.

You might not necessarily want to be as stripped down in your prose as Hemingway—I know I’m not—but still. Maybe we set that one sentence of Hemingway’s on one end of the spectrum and an exhaustive list of physical attributes on the other.

If you’re really honest with yourself (and I know that’s hard to do) you have to ask yourself, in the voice not of your characters or the actors you hope might one day play them in your HBO series, but in the voice of your readers: “Why do we care about anyone’s eye or hair color or height?” I hope at least you realize that going to the numbers just plain stops your story in its tracks. She was 5’7” tall with auburn hair cut 1.3” from her shoulders and stood on size 10 feet . . . Now I feel like I’m being asked to do a math problem, or worse: remember this stuff for later.

In “How to Write Kick-Ass Character Descriptions” Meghan Ward wrote:

No matter how creative you get, describing a person according to his or her hair and eye color is A) Lazy B) Boring C) Ineffective D) Not memorable. Really—does telling you a woman has brown eyes and frizzy black hair give you ANY sense of what she looks like? Does it reveal anything unique about her that doesn’t apply to 500,000 other people? Does it reveal anything about her character? Nay, nay and nay. And adding an age doesn’t help much either.

Agreed!

I even have to ask: “Why do we care that this guy is tall, she’s stocky, or someone else is left-handed?”

Rachel Scheller tackled this in “11 Secrets to Writing Effective Character Description”:

When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds.

And here’s why:

Your readers want to cast the “movie” themselves.

My Photoshop Kung Fu is the Best!

When I read Robert E. Howard, Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t Conan, I am. I want to be a part of the stories I read, and we have to remember not just as readers ourselves but as writers that reading itself is a creative act. I’ve cautioned you to give your readers the benefit of the doubt in terms of dialog and what characters don’t have to say, what body language and “business” can convey, and the same, at least, holds true of what these people look like.

It’s not about the laundry list, about the procedural description, about a detailed dossier on each character—good, well-crafted fiction is about a shared emotional experience.

Here are a couple of great examples of how much—or how little—you really need, both sourced from “Great Character Descriptions from Science Fiction and Fantasy Books” by Charlie Jane Anders and Mandy Curtis:

He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror. Later, going to sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in the dark. It never went away, that smile, it never ever went away, as long as he remembered.

—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth—tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola.

—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slaughterhouse Five

Okay now, that having been said, just this morning I read a story from one the students in my Horror Intensive course in which we’re given the exact height and weight of the first person protagonist and it was not just fine, it was outstanding. In that precise moment in that precise character’s life in that precise story it was precisely appropriate.

So as with all rules, heed this warning against detailed physical description only until you decide against it—and only with the same precision I saw this morning.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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