BLOG POST DCXL: TOO MUCH INFORMATION IN YOUR CHAPTER STARTS 11:19 am PST, TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2021 CE SAMMAMISH, WA “Come ye, all Authors and Hear, for Wisdom shall be granted upon thee by the hand of the Not At All Mighty that thou might Hearest.” —Lord Philus Athansusus, the 63rd Lord Viscount of the City of Citiphus in the Duchy of Blackriverwaterberg of the Kingdom of Forevermore, Part XVII, Chapter 24, paragraph 83 of the third volume of the Collected Writings of Lord Philus Athansusus, the 63rd Lord Viscount of the City of Citiphus in the Duchy of Blackriverwaterberg of the Kingdom of Forvermore (standard edition), published in the Year of the Publishing (Summer)

Figured out yet what this post is going to be about?

I get it. Chapter titles are fun. So are quotes from “in world” sources. And the exact time and date of the events of this chapter are of vital importance. There is no way your readers will ever begin to understand your story without all of this, or anyway, all but the parts that are there to provide lots of groovy extra “color” and show beyond a reasonable doubt that you’ve really put that worldbuilding work in to get your complicated calendar system all set and perfect.

Except maybe one of those things might be true, and even then, if you really actually do need your readers to understand a fraction of this stuff before your story makes sense, the problem isn’t your lack of mighty, robust chapter starts but the story itself.

I know, I went nuts in the example and no one actually does that—not that much, not that eggregiously. Okay, sure—mostly. But I do see books that are pretty damn close.

But yeah, you might be thinking, isn’t that kind of cool robust worldbuilding exactly why we read science fiction and fantasy in the first place? Doesn’t all that add to the experience?

I love cool robust worldbuilding—when it unfolds organically as part of the experience of a set of POV characters involved in an unfolding story. Reading an encyclopedia… not so much. But even then, hell, I’ve written world bibles and caompaign settings—I get it. That can be awesome, too. But in the case of the overly complex chapter start, what’s actually happening is you’re stopping your readers from staying in the story.

Everything you’ve done to raise the stakes, to craft rich and relatable characters, to build tension and suspense… all the good stuff… now comes to a complete stop so we (your readers) can be told a list of facts, and the result is that all that hard and good storytelling work is derailed and we have to work through why all this matters… Wait, what time was it when the last chapter ended? I need to flip back and see if time has passed. And is Lord Philus going to be a character? Did they meet him? I don’t remember him. How long ago was the Year of the Publishing? Is this an old book or a new one? Does that matter?

Good luck getting that reader back into the story.

Also, I have to come right out and say it, this sort of thing also provides most of the people you’re sending this to a quick out. Agents, editors, and readers alike might just take this sort of info pile-up as a sign that they don’t have to, or anyway, don’t want to, read further. So then, yeah, don’t do it!

Now, you know I don’t like to be negative. If I point out a problem I feel the need and responsibility to then offer a solution. And at the same time I don’t like to try to impose hard and fast rules any more than I like hard and fast rules being imposed on me. So in search of help, I pulled six published books off my shelf and took a look at what these authors did, which, at least in terms of chapter starts, got them published. I’ll start with a book I’m still reading now, the 1943 science fiction/horror classic Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak. Here chapters are not numbered and only begin with a dateline—but a very simple dateline: only the month and day. The book begins on September 13 and ends (no spoilers—I haven’t finished it yet!) on June 10. This works nicely since the text is written in the first person, as though it’s a scientist’s notes on an experiment, or his diary/journal. So here we see a minimal bit of information with a story purpose behind it: we’re reading Dr. Cory’s diary.

I am a William Gibson fan, so I pulled out my copy of his 2003 science fiction novel Pattern Recognition. Here chapters begin with an Arabic numeral and a short title. For example

15.

SINGUARITY

And that’s all. That’s fine, though I should warn you to craft your chapter titles carefully so they don’t become spoilers, like:

16.

NED GETS EXECUTED

Right?

A newer book, A Big Ship at the Edge of Universe by Alex White, has similar chapter starts but with the word chapter and the number spelled out, and, again, a simple chapter title:

Chapter Thirteen

Double Apex

And the publisher (Orbit) added a fun little graphic, too, which is swell. And the story continues right along.

Surely mega-best selling franchise authors can get away with the huge-ass chapter start, though, right? In his 2006 novel Lisey’s Story, mega-best selling author Stephen King employs a Roman numberal and a slightly longer, more complex title:

VII. Lisey and Scott

(Under the Yum-Yum Tree)

And then he further subdivides each chapter with Arabic numerals in place of scene breaks, which is a little Od School, but hell, first be Stephen King then do whatever the fuck you want.

One of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, begins chapters with an Arabic numeral and a quote from a real world source, which can be as short as:

8

Heaven and Earth are not humane.

—LAO TSE: V

…though some are much longer.

Another more recent book, Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone, literally just has an Arabic numeral, centered, in larger type than the text:

32

This tells us we’re on the thirty-second chapter and anyway, on with the story. This is the default that, I think, works perfectly fine in 90% or more of novels.

Just looking at these random samples we can see a lot of variation in approach, which is great, but the point I’m hoping to make is that choices are being made in terms of which elements to use, if not just a number then maybe a second element, and that’s it.

On with the story!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Where Story Meets World™

Look to Athans & Associates Creative Consulting for story/line/developmental editing at 3¢ per word.

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ON THE NATURE OF EVIL

This, from “A Witch Shall Be Born” by Robert E. Howard (Weird Tales, December 1934) is what evil looked like in the great old days of pulp sword and sorcery:

Taramis, queen of Khauran, awakened from a dream-haunted slumber to a silence that seemed more like the stillness of nighted catacombs than the normal quiet of a sleeping palace. She lay staring into the darkness, wondering why the candles in their golden candelabra had gone out. A flecking of stars marked a gold-barred casement that lent no illumination to the interior of the chamber. But as Taramis lay there, she became aware of a spot of radiance glowing in the darkness before her. She watched, puzzled. It grew and its intensity deepened as it expanded, a widening disk of lurid light hovering against the dark velvet hangings of the opposite wall. Taramis caught her breath, starting up to a sitting position. A dark object was visible in that circle of light—a human head.

In a sudden panic the queen opened her lips to cry out for her maids; then she checked herself. The glow was more lurid, the head more vividly limned. It was a woman’s head, small, delicately molded, superbly poised, with a high-piled mass of lustrous black hair. The face grew distinct as she stared—and it was the sight of this face which froze the cry in Taramis’s throat. The features were her own! She might have been looking into a mirror which subtly altered her reflection, lending it a tigerish gleam of eye, a vindictive curl of lip.

“Ishtar!” gasped Taramis. “I am bewitched!”

Appallingly, the apparition spoke, and its voice was like honeyed venom.

“Bewitched? No, sweet sister! Here is no sorcery.”

“Sister?” stammered the bewildered girl. “I have no sister.”

“You never had a sister?” came the sweet, poisonously mocking voice. “Never a twin sister whose flesh was as soft as yours to caress or hurt?”

“Why, once I had a sister,” answered Taramis, still convinced that she was in the grip of some sort of nightmare. “But she died.”

The beautiful face in the disk was convulsed with the aspect of a fury; so hellish became its expression that Taramis, cowering back, half expected to see snaky locks writhe hissing about the ivory brow.

“You lie!” The accusation was spat from between the snarling red lips. “She did not die! Fool! Oh, enough of this mummery! Look—and let your sight be blasted!”

Light ran suddenly along the hangings like flaming serpents, and incredibly the candles in the golden sticks flared up again. Taramis crouched on her velvet couch, her lithe legs flexed beneath her, staring wide-eyed at the pantherish figure which posed mockingly before her. It was as if she gazed upon another Taramis, identical with herself in every contour of feature and limb, yet animated by an alien and evil personality. The face of this stranger waif reflected the opposite of every characteristic the countenance of the queen denoted. Lust and mystery sparkled in her scintillant eyes, cruelty lurked in the curl of her full red lips. Each movement of her supple body was subtly suggestive. Her coiffure imitated that of the queen’s, on her feet were gilded sandals such as Taramis wore in her boudoir. The sleeveless, low-necked silk tunic, girdled at the waist with a cloth-of-gold cincture, was a duplicate of the queen’s night-garment.

“Who are you?” gasped Taramis, an icy chill she could not explain creeping along her spine. “Explain your presence before I call my ladies-in-waiting to summon the guard!”

“Scream until the roof beams crack,” callously answered the stranger. “Your sluts will not wake till dawn, though the palace spring into flames about them. Your guardsmen will not hear your squeals; they have been sent out of this wing of the palace.”

“What!” exclaimed Taramis, stiffening with outraged majesty. “Who dared give my guardsmen such a command?”

“I did, sweet sister,” sneered the other girl. “A little while ago, before I entered. They thought it was their darling adored queen. Ha! How beautifully I acted the part! With what imperious dignity, softened by womanly sweetness, did I address the great louts who knelt in their armor and plumed helmets!”

Taramis felt as if a stifling net of bewilderment were being drawn about her.

“Who are you?” she cried desperately. “What madness is this? Why do you come here?”

“Who am I?” There was the spite of a she-cobra’s hiss in the soft response. The girl stepped to the edge of the couch, grasped the queen’s white shoulders with fierce fingers, and bent to glare full into the startled eyes of Taramis. And under the spell of that hypnotic glare, the queen forgot to resent the unprecedented outrage of violent hands laid on regal flesh.

“Fool!” gritted the girl between her teeth. “Can you ask? Can you wonder? I am Salome!”

“Salome!” Taramis breathed the word, and the hairs prickled on her scalp as she realized the incredible, numbing truth of the statement. “I thought you died within the hour of your birth,” she said feebly.

“So thought many,” answered the woman who called herself Salome. “They carried me into the desert to die, damn them! I, a mewing, puling babe whose life was so young it was scarcely the flicker of a candle. And do you know why they bore me forth to die?”

“I—I have heard the story—” faltered Taramis.

Salome laughed fiercely, and slapped her bosom. The low-necked tunic left the upper parts of her firm breasts bare, and between them there shone a curious mark—a crescent, red as blood.

“The mark of the witch!” cried Taramis, recoiling.

“Aye!” Salome’s laughter was dagger-edged with hate. “The curse of the kings of Khauran! Aye, they tell the tale in the market-places, with wagging beards and rolling eyes, the pious fools! They tell how the first queen of our line had traffic with a fiend of darkness and bore him a daughter who lives in foul legendry to this day. And thereafter in each century a girl baby was born into the Askhaurian dynasty, with a scarlet half-moon between her breasts, that signified her destiny.

“ ‘Every century a witch shall be born.’ So ran the ancient curse. And so it has come to pass. Some were slain at birth, as they sought to slay me. Some walked the earth as witches, proud daughters of Khauran, with the moon of hell burning upon their ivory bosoms. Each was named Salome. I too am Salome. It was always Salome, the witch. It will always be Salome, the witch, even when the mountains of ice have roared down from the pole and ground the civilizations to ruin, and a new world has risen from the ashes and dust—even then there shall be Salomes to walk the earth, to trap men’s hearts by their sorcery, to dance before the kings of the world, to see the heads of the wise men fall at their pleasure.”

“But—but you—” stammered Taramis.

“I?” The scintillant eyes burned like dark fires of mystery. “They carried me into the desert far from the city, and laid me naked on the hot sand, under the flaming sun. And then they rode away and left me for the jackals and the vultures and the desert wolves.

“But the life in me was stronger than the life in common folk, for it partakes of the essence of the forces that seethe in the black gulfs beyond mortal ken. The hours passed, and the sun slashed down like the molten flames of hell, but I did not die—aye, something of that torment I remember, faintly and far away, as one remembers a dim, formless dream. Then there were camels, and yellow-skinned men who wore silk robes and spoke in a weird tongue. Strayed from the caravan road, they passed close by, and their leader saw me, and recognized the scarlet crescent on my bosom. He took me up and gave me life.

“He was a magician from far Khitai, returning to his native kingdom after a journey to Stygia. He took me with him to purple-towering Paikang, its minarets rising amid the vine-festooned jungles of bamboo, and there I grew to womanhood under his teaching. Age had steeped him deep in black wisdom, not weakened his powers of evil. Many things he taught me—”

She paused, smiling enigmatically, with wicked mystery gleaming in her dark eyes. Then she tossed her head.

“He drove me from him at last, saying that I was but a common witch in spite of his teachings, and not fit to command the mighty sorcery he would have taught me. He would have made me queen of the world and ruled the nations through me, he said, but I was only a harlot of darkness. But what of it? I could never endure to seclude myself in a golden tower, and spend the long hours staring into a crystal globe, mumbling over incantations written on serpent’s skin in the blood of virgins, poring over musty volumes in forgotten languages.

“He said I was but an earthly sprite, knowing naught of the deeper gulfs of cosmic sorcery. Well, this world contains all I desire—power, and pomp, and glittering pageantry, handsome men and soft women for my paramours and my slaves. He had told me who I was, of the curse and my heritage. I have returned to take that to which I have as much right as you. Now it is mine by right of possession.”

How fun is that? How over the top? How purely conceived: there are good guys and gals and there are bad guys and gals. Here, one sister, condemned from birth as a witch, was cast out, left to die, but survived to avenge herself against her family and claim what is hers by right—or so she believes. This is a classic revenge tale set-up: You done me wrong, I’m here to settle the score.

And this worked in 1934. And it kept working. These Conan stories have lived for decades now and I will never turn my back on them. It’s all just huge, gushy nerd love.

But can we get away with this eighty-seven years in the future? Is revenge enough motivation?

I’ve written on that in more detail in the past, so I’ll let Steven James sum it up for me, from his book Story Trumps Structure:

All fictional characters, just like real people, desire happiness. As philosophers throughout the ages have pointed out, happiness is the end to which we all aspire. After all, nobody pursues happiness so he can get money and power; he pursues money and power so he can get happiness.

So then, will revenge make Salome happy? Maybe. And is that motivation enough for a short story that’s heavier on action than ideas? Maybe.

If one sister is the good sister and the other sister is the bad sister… is that enough? Can we as fantasy authors in 2021 continue to deal in good and evil?

Though I don’t in any way want to pull back the clock to the point where we embrace what’s lacking in classic pulp fiction—and as fun as it is, there’s a lot lacking there, especially in terms of race, gender, and social enlightenment in general—does good vs. evil still have a place?

In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim wrote:

Evil is not without its attractions—symbolized by the mighty giant or dragon, the power of the witch, the cunning queen in “Snow White”—and often it is temporarily in the ascendancy. In many fairy tales a usurper succeeds for a time in seizing the place which rightfully belongs to the hero—as the wicked sisters do in “Cinderella.” It is not that the evildoer is punished at the story’s end which makes immersing oneself in fairy stories an experience in moral education, although this is part of it. In fairy tales, as in life, punishment or fear of it is only a limited deterrent to crime. The conviction that crime does not pay is a much more effective deterrent, and that is why in fairy tales the bad person always loses out.

Though I’d caution anyone to filter the mass news media of its many biases before joining in on “this person is evil,” “that country is a part of the Axis of Evil,” and so on, there is evil in the world. People do terrible things. And fiction, absolutely including fantasy, science fiction, and horror, has always been a way to work through that, as Bettelheim pointed out, and not just for kids being read fairy tales, but by anyone of any age reading any genre of fiction. Stories are how we work through the bad things that people do, making them more human, more complex now than Robert E. Howard generally went for, but the idea that “murder will out,” that evil will be punished, persists.

This is at least true of what Stephen King referred to, in conversation with George R.R. Martin, as “inside evil”: evil contained in human form, like Salome in “A Witch Shall be Born,” but what of “outside evil”… also like Salome, who seems to have been cursed at birth by some higher power? Is there a thing out there in what Lovecraft called “the black seas of infinity,” or Howard: “the black gulfs beyond mortal ken,” that has no concept of happiness, that has no particular personal motivation? King said:

In a way, outside evil is a more comforting concept… the idea that “the Devil made me do it” is a way of shucking responsibility and saying that I’m not there. So I think that we all understand that evil is inside a lot of people, while at the same time I think that what a lot of horror fiction does and what a lot of fantastic fiction does is it allows us to grapple with the outside evil that strikes us…  So there are two kinds of evil, there’s inside evil and there’s outside evil and I think that when we have the stories like the Lovecraftian stuff, we’re trying to cope with the sort of things that happen in our lives that are bad things that we don’t understand.  

And as authors, I don’t think we’re under some special mandate to understand all the things we have to cope with, that we have some responsibility to explain the nature of evil. Sometimes, all we can do is provide our villains with an excuse, then show them doing terrible things so our heroes can, hopefully, win, and as Bettelheim said, “the bad person… loses out.”

Or, anyway, mostly… sometimes… hopefully loses out.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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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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GUARANTEED SUCCESS STRATEGY!

Want to write a massive, runaway international best seller? Want to turn a book you’ve already written into a massive, runaway international best seller? Want to publish one book, see it instantly become a massive, runaway international best seller then immediately retire, rich and famous? Want to see your fantasy novel turned into a theme park because it was such a massive, runaway international best seller?

Well, I know exactly what you should do, and it works every single time, which is why thousands of books a year are massive, runaway international best sellers!

Okay… now I’m writing fantasy!

Of course that’s nonsense. We all have to know that very few books published in any given year become massive, runaway international best sellers. Very few become national best sellers. In fact, very few sell enough to earn out the advances paid to the author. And if you’re operating in the indie sphere and haven’t treated your self-published books like a business, so they aren’t “self-published” but published by a small press that you also happen to own and operate, there’s little chance of you selling more than a few hundred copies.

So then, what does that mean?

There’s no hope for anyone, it’s all just a big fool’s errand, and all the success stories we’ve heard about are lies?

Not at all. There are some publishing success stories that aren’t entirely honest, sure, but there are also a lot of perfectly legitimate success stories out there. I’ve worked with indie authors who sell books in the tens of thousands, which is really good. I’ve worked with authors in the traditional publishing world that sell in the hundreds of thousands, and a small handful that have grabbed that golden ring and are doing really quite well for themselves.

And not a single one of those success stories was even explicable, let alone predictable. If a huge publisher has somehow decided they’re really going to get behind your book, there are things they can do—money they can spend—to get books shipped. They can pay for placement in bookstores and on Amazon, and maybe get you on TV or the right podcasts… stuff like that… to give you a leg up.

But even then, there have been books that have been seriously hyped that fell flat when potential readers stayed away in droves. Reviews sometimes hurt, rarely actually help, and usually do nothing at all. You can do everything right and still fail. You can also do everything wrong and still succeed. Your book can be patently awful and still be a massive, runaway international best seller—and you know the books I’m talking about. Likewise, your book can be brilliant, resoundingly well reviewed, beloved of a small cult audience, and not break even.

I’ve been doing this—working in one way or another in the publishing business—since 1986. You’d think, in all that time, I would have cracked it. That I’d be in possession of the guaranteed success strategy for any novel, especially fantasy, science fiction, and horror novels. I’m sorry to report that no, like literally everyone else, I have not cracked it.

And this is not me giving up, or showing you my charmingly self deprecating side. This is me telling a truth that, as Thomas Jefferson said, we hold to be self-evident: If there was a guaranteed success formula, I would have applied it by now, and so would every editor of every book ever published.

This success formula simply does not exist, and beware of anyone who tries to tell you differently.

No publisher puts money, time, effort, and reputation into a book they hope will be a flop. Likewise, every author goes into publication at least hoping that this is their best effort. Everyone wants to succeed and tries to succeed, and yet most fail.

And it sucks when you fail.

It does.

I’m not even going to try to sugar coat it.

You’ve put maximum effort into something—writing a novel—that is, no matter how you slice it, incredibly difficult. If you’re doing it right you’ve literally opened yourself up and poured yourself into it. Then you’ve worked as hard as you can work to give it the best chance out in the world. You have done the sincere and difficult work.

And no one cares.

This is fucking horrible.

And I know it’s insufficient for me to just say, “Hey, that’s part of it. You win some, you lose most. Get over it and keep writing!”

But you know what? That’s all the good advice I can give you in terms of answering the question, “Will this sell? Will it be a massive, runaway international best seller?”

The educated, experienced, expert answer is: I have no idea, but hey, that’s part of it. You win some, you lose most. Get over it and keep writing!

I do feel, having been doing this as long as I have been, that I know what’s “good” and what isn’t. I know what I like and what I think will sell. I have a good sense of what’s being published and what’s selling, and so on. So if I say, “This is great—this has a great chance out there,” I’m not just blowing sunshine up your skirt. I mean it.

But I don’t know—I can’t know.

“Everyone thinks they have a book in them. The truth is that most people don’t,” wrote Joy Fielding in “What’s the Secret to Writing a Bestseller? Hint: There Isn’t One.” “The truth is that even those who do have a book lurking somewhere inside them will not write a book that more than a handful of people will want to read or pay money to buy. And the hardest truth of all is that no one—and I mean  no one, not your editor, not the publisher, not the critics—has any idea what makes one book sell millions of copies while other, often better, books do not.”

I think you can define a writer as someone who knows they live in a world of random subjectivity but still they persist. And they persist not just at writing, but at being a writer. The amazing Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami said in an interview with The New Yorker:

As you may know, it’s not easy to be a gentleman and a novelist. It’s like a politician trying to be Obama and Trump. But I have a definition of a gentleman novelist: first, he doesn’t talk about the income tax he has paid; second, he doesn’t write about his ex-girlfriends or ex-wives; and, third, he doesn’t think about the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

If you’re reading this and you have a book ready to go out into the world, you very well might have a massive, runaway international best seller on your hands. You might even have a solid midlist genre novel—which is perfectly fine, and I know a lot of good writers who make a good living doing exactly that. You might also make effectively zero dollars. If you’re thinking of writing—in any form, category, or genre—as a get rich quick scheme, you need to seriously reconsider and maybe get into real estate or stock speculation. Writing, at best, is a get rich maybe, and probably really slowly and anyway hope to one day make a living doing it scheme, but for me, anyway, doing it, living in it, associating with fellow readers and fellow authors and editors and book people in general, makes it instantly and infinitely more rewarding than real estate or stocks. Call me a Socialist, but I’d rather be middle class and happy than rich and miserable.

I’d rather be writing, either way.

So, yeah, your first book hasn’t found an audience (yet) on Kindle Direct? Hey, that’s part of it. You win some, you lose most. Get over it and keep writing!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

Find me at PublishersMarketplace

Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.

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DON’T JUMP TO CONCLUSIONS, PART 2: WORLDBUILDING

Last week I made the case that telling us a character is “sad” (or angry or scared or happy, etc.) is less interesting to read than showing a character being sad (etc.), and how even then, because that description is coming from a single POV character, that conclusion, “sad” might be incorrect, incomplete, or, yeah, even spot-on.

This isn’t the only place in which good storytelling depends on some degree of uncertainty. The world your characters inhabit, like the emotional responses of the characters around them, has to be described from a POV character’s experience. So if the POV character believes the empire to be evil, that character can think of it as “the evil empire,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is. Consider all the ways in which other Americans (or your fellow citizens of any other country) wildly misinterpret (according to you, the POV character in your own story) what America is or should be or used to be.

If you allow yourself into your writing, so you, the author, are establishing that the empire is evil, okay, then I guess it’s evil. Check that off your list of worldbuilding elements you feel you needed to cover. But hell, I’m just going to say it: that’s boring.

I don’t read fiction to check things off the list of clichés, the list of plot points, the list of facts, or any other lists. In fact, I don’t really care who the author of what I’m reading right now is. Of course I have some favorite authors, but it’s not because of their presence in their own work, but because they do what Tim Waggoner describes in “All the things I wish I’d known as a beginner horror writer”:

Writers don’t tell readers stories. We give them tools so that they can tell a story to themselves. Far too many beginners write bare-bones outlines that are more like scripts. These stories don’t engage the imagination. They’re just words on a page with no life to them. They communicate the simple “this happens, then this happens” of a basic narrative, but don’t give readers enough detail to create a fully fleshed-out fictional reality in their minds.

Great fantasy worlds come alive because characters we find interesting live in those worlds, and live there in an immediate, emotionally charged, and individual way. And that means your world has to be as human and as flawed and as open to interpretation as the real world we all struggle to make sense of. If you’ve created a world of absolute good and absolute evil, or a political force that operates in perfect harmony with the people or in lockstep with the evil dictates of the evil emperor, then you’ve dropped characters into a place that will, however detailed you make it, feel unreal.

In “If the aliens lay eggs, how does that affect architecture?’: sci-fi writers on how they build their worlds,” author Anne Leckie wrote:

There’s a particular style of world-building that’s all about filling in all the details, making sure everything fits logically. In real life, people are chaotic and self-contradictory. While I do believe that, in theory, everything is ultimately susceptible to logic, human cultures and activities are far less simple and obvious than some people seem to assume.

When someone thinks they entirely understand the logic of human behaviour, the world-building is very flat, and the shadows that might have given it depth are filled in with the very schematic, simplistic assumptions the world builder assumes are universal truths.

Just as there’s a deeper “why” behind what villains do, that “why” extends to their effect on the world—the institutions and cultures they create, and the institutions and cultures they come from, that helped form their worldview.

To me, that’s the heart of worldbuilding: a context for the worldview of each of our characters.

—Philip Athans

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Where Story Meets World™

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DON’T JUMP TO CONCLUSIONS, PART 1: CHARACTERS

Continuing on the general subject of point of view (POV) and “show, don’t tell,” let’s talk a bit about drawing conclusions. This, like lapses in POV, often shows up in dialog attribution, often in the form of the dreaded adverb:

“My sword isn’t magical anymore,” Galen said sadly.

This tells us Galen is sad about the state of his sword. Information has been conveyed. But as author Chuck Palahniuk pointed out in his essay “ ‘Thought’ Verbs,” “Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.” So then…

With a tear in his eye Galen muttered, “My sword isn’t magical anymore.”

…starts to show him being sad. If the scene is in another character’s POV, maybe that character can start to draw conclusions:

With a tear in his eye Galen muttered, “My sword isn’t magical anymore.”

Bronwyn had never seen him look so sad.

Now it’s clear that Galen’s sadness is being conveyed by Bronwyn’s experience of him in that moment. Is she right? Is that how he feels? The truth is your characters might not even know what they’re thinking in a particular moment, or have the desire or sense of urgency to draw some concrete conclusion. In “The Spirit of History” Ted Pinkard draws some conclusions about Hegel’s not thinking we necessarily draw conclusions:

No one ever conceived of a more sophisticated and dynamic philosophical history than Hegel. His system is built around three fundamental ideas. First, the key to human agency is self-consciousness. For people to be doing anything in any real human sense is to know what we are doing as we do it. This applies even when we are not explicitly thinking about what we are doing. Here’s a simple example: as you are reading this, suppose you get a text message from a friend: ‘What are you doing?’ You immediately reply: ‘I’m reading a piece on Hegel.’ You knew what you were doing without having to have a separate act of thinking about it or drawing conclusions. Without any further thought, you knew that you were not skydiving, taking a bath, gardening or doing the crossword. You didn’t look around and infer from the evidence. You didn’t need any particular introspection. In fact, in Hegelian terms, when you are doing something and you do not know at all what you are doing, you’re not really doing anything at all. Instead, stuff is just happening. To be sure, sometimes we are only vaguely aware of what we are doing. However, even our often more distanced reflective self-consciousness is itself only a further realisation of the deeper and distinctly Hegelian self-relation: all consciousness is self-consciousness.

What if Galen has no idea he’s as “sad” as he looks, and Bronwyn can’t really know just by what she sees (the description of Galen in her POV) that he’s “sad,” per se? Sure, you, as the author, may know exactly what Galen is feeling, but your job is to show that to your readers through the experience of your POV characters. If you do that well, readers will pick up on it and be sad along with them.

Always remember that reading is itself a creative act. Let your readers bring themselves into your work!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

Find me at PublishersMarketplace

Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

In Writing Monsters, best-selling author Philip Athans uses classic examples from books, films, and the world around us to explore what makes monsters memorable—and terrifying.

You’ll learn what monsters can (and should) represent in your story and how to create monsters from the ground up.

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DIALOG AND POV

If you’ve been following Fantasy Authors Handbook for any length of time you’ll know I’m not big on rules for writing fiction. Fiction is an art form, and so has to be open to new ideas, new methods, new voices.

That said, there is one rule, at least for novel-length fiction, that I feel rather strongly about, and that is: one scene, one POV.

If you’re writing in first person, point of view is easy: everything is coming from the experience of the first person narrator: I did this, I saw that, and I felt good about it. In first person writing there’s no room to get into the heads, to hear the unspoken thoughts, of anyone else in the story. This is POV at its purest state.

It can get a bit more complicated in third person: He did this, she saw that, they felt good about it…? If “he” and “she” are separate people in that last sentence, one of them has to be the POV character, so it’s either: He did this, she saw that, she felt good about it or She did this, he saw that, he felt good about it. Why? Because what “he” did is likely clear to the person looking, but its not necessarily clear to the person doing something exactly what the other person saw, and though we can guess at what other people think, we can’t know for sure.

POV is the one element that newer, less experienced authors struggle with. I see it, and try to correct it, time and time again with the authors I work with. Some get it right away, others struggle to see breakdowns in POV happening in their own writing. And, like anything that might fall into the category of a (I cringe to use the word…) mistake, it can be difficult to spot even for the most experienced author, at least in the occasional or smaller lapse in POV.

In terms of a bigger issue with messy POV all over the place, that’s where a capable and experienced editor comes into play. But that doesn’t mean POV is impossible to learn, or impossible to see in our own writing. This week, let’s look at one of the places that slips in POV can be the most evident, and that’s thoughts and actions adjacent to or as part of dialog attribution.

Dialog attribution is simply: which character is saying this line of dialog? This…

“Hi, this is me talking,” Galen said.

…tells us Galen said “Hi, this is me talking.”

We can add a little emotional or intellectual context (thoughts) to that:

“Hi, this is me talking,” Galen said, hoping everyone recognized him now.

That puts the scene in Galen’s POV because it’s revealed that he’s hoping something. If the scene has been previously established as coming from Bronwyn’s POV, a simple add can keep us from going inside Galen’s head:

“Hi, this is me talking,” Galen said, clearly hoping everyone recognized him now.

“Clearly” indicates that this is Bronwyn thinking, and she’s assuming he’s hoping everyone recognized him, but she can’t necessarily know that the way Galen can know what he’s thinking in his POV.

It’s in this spot that POV tends to wander, because we often want our readers to know what our characters are thinking, and want to coordinate the action of the unfolding plot. For instance:

“I came alone,” Bronwyn lied, knowing backup was a single safe word away.

“Good, because if there’s anyone else here, I’m blowing myself up,” Galen replied, his finger on the detonator, which only he knew was actually plugged into nothing.

So then in this exchange, only one of the bits that follow the dialog are okay. A decision has to be made as to which of these characters is the POV character. Is it Bronwyn, who knows she has backup but has no idea Galen’s bomb is fake? Or is it Galen, who thinks Bronwyn came alone and knows his bomb is fake?

If we (your readers) know both these things there’s no suspense. We know Bronwyn is fine either way: she can summon help with a safe word, and anyway, there’s no bomb. But suspense comes from an imbalance in information: Galen (the POV character) knows something Bronwyn (not the POV character) doesn’t know, or you’ve previously written a scene in which something about Bronwyn is revealed that Galen (as current POV character) doesn’t know, so his thinking she came alone makes you worried for Galen.

In any case, your readers should be worried, one way or the other: Galen doesn’t realize he’s about to get busted, or Bronwyn thinks she can’t use the safe word or Galen will blow them both up.

The story lives in that disconnect, so if you’re lazy about POV, you’re dong damage to your story. Look first at the actions and thoughts around dialog to make sure that we’re only seeing inside the experiences (she saw, he thought, etc.) of one character in each scene.

—Philip Athans

 

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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WORK IN PROGRESS OR WORKS IN PROGRESS?

If you follow me on GoodReads, or this blog for that matter, you know by now that I switch between four books at any given time. I switch off between one science fiction, fantasy, or horror novel; one “literary” work of fiction, poetry, or plays; one non-fiction book; and one graphic novel or comics collection. By letting myself respond to my own moods I find I read more often, and so read more books in a given year (not counting the books I edit as part of my job, which, yes, continues to be to read books!). If I’m not in the mood for SF, I grab the non-fiction book. Not in the mood for non-fiction? There’s a graphic novel or comic collection right next to it, and so on. I’ve been doing this for years and it works for me—and I know I’m far from the only person who does this.

So then if I can switch between books—and switch between TV series and movies and other media—who says I can’t work on multiple writing projects at the same time, too?

Well, turns out I can. This, what you’re reading right now, is a “writing project” for me, and one I work on every week. I also have a short story I’m noodling my way through, a fantasy novel that currently exists in pieces—scattered scenes and an outline—and I’m revising another novel that’s finished. I’m also working on two ghostwriting projects I can’t tell you about, and fairly easily switch between this novel, that novel, the other short story, and a weekly blog post, with considerable ease. And as it is with reading multiple books, I know I’m not alone in having multiple writing works in progress at the same time. “In Revising One Sentence,” Lydia Davis wrote:

Sometimes I have four or five, or more, stories in progress at once. It is nice to feel that there is too much to work on rather than nothing at all—the blank page. Some stories, not quite finished, may get pushed out of the way in all this activity and may be forgotten for a while—even months. But sooner or later I come back to them and finish them, and it does not hurt them to let this time pass. I see them more clearly.

This is true of science fiction legend Connie Willis as well, who said in “Science Fiction and Schmaltz: A Conversation with Connie Willis” in Clarkesworld: 

Despite appearances, I am an incredibly slow writer. I’ve just produced a lot of stuff because I’m really old. I’ve always been able to keep working, I think because of the way I work, which is in pieces. If I get stuck on one story, I work on another. If I get stuck on one part of a novel, I write some other scene or the ending or something and then come back to the place I was stuck in a couple of weeks. Or I work on something else altogether.

Can’t get motivated to tackle the next chapter of the novel? Write a poem instead. Not inspired to write a poem? Tackle a short story. Feeling a bit burned out on fantasy halfway through an epic fantasy novel? Start writing something else. If you have an idea for a horror novel but think you can’t start in on it until you’re done with the epic fantasy… says who?

James Baldwin said, “Every form is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass. None of it comes easy.”

And he was right. Writing is hard, and writing well and continuing to write even as the world seems to be completely ignoring you is harder still. And projects do have a tendency to stall, sometimes permanently. If you can at least take an occasional break from the incredibly complex novel for the occasional short story, or to do a little worldbuilding for the science fiction novel, or put your notes together for an essay collection… you’ll stay writing. And when lightning strikes and that long awaited big idea hits you and gets you back into the fantasy novel—back into it you go!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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REMEMBERING MATT ADELSPERGER

If you know me from TSR/Wizards of the Coast and the Forgotten Realms novel line, you’ve seen the work of Matt Adelsperger, who died yesterday, very suddenly, and far too young.

I worked with Matt at both TSR in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and at Wizards of the Coast here in the Seattle area, for all of the fifteen years I spent there. Much of the last half or so of that time, Matt worked directly for me, as a dedicated art director for the book publishing team, and I was so lucky to have him, I can’t even tell you. What he brought to those books—a meticulous sense of detail, abundant creativity, and amazing relationships with some of the greatest fantasy illustrators of the past thirty years—was impossible to calculate.

In fact, I was once cornered by my boss, who told me I had to revise the annual job evaluation I put together for Matt to add some negative stuff. The human resources people, apparently, didn’t like it when these things were all positive. But I only had positive things to say about Matt’s work.

When I eft the company, Matt organized team renunion lunches, made sure I was still included in things like our fantasy football league, and in general made sure we stayed in touch. We talked football, Survivor, where to find Chicago-style pizza in Seattle, movies… everything.

Here is a picture of Matt with my wife and daughter, when we met up for our last fantasy football draft.

The rest of the images are samples of Matt’s amazing design work. He really was one of the best book designers of his time.

 

He was my friend and I will miss him forever.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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WRITE SOMETHING OF VALUE TODAY

I am a to-do-lister. I live (more or less) by the to do list. Every day, on my calendar, which, thanks to the kind folks at Apple, syncs between my computer and phone, I have, usually at 9:00 am—but that’s just kinda arbitrary—an event called “to do [date].” Today’s “to do 7/27/21,” for instance, includes the to do list item, “FAH Post,” which I am endeavoring to cross off right now. This list includes various editing and ghostwriting goals—a certain number of pages or chapters or words to finish today to stay on track toward various deadlines.

I also remind myself to exercise and read and do other thing designed to keep myself healthy and on top of my adult life. All sorts of things will find their way on there, and at the end of every day I can see what was accomplished, what needs to be pushed to tomorrow (or the weekend) , and what, lets face it, probably wasn’t going t happen in the first place, like “DAILY Exercise,” which almost never gets checked off.

Don’t judge me, man—I’m busy.

Since I’ve been doing this, which is a long time, going back to well before I started using the online calendar app, I’ve had various writing goals locked on to my to do list—and all too often missed day after day. I’ve tried actually scheduling time every day—blocking it out on my calendar—as writing time, like Kazuo Ishiguro told The Paris Review he does:

I usually write from ten o’clock in the morning until about six o’clock. I try not to attend to e-mails or telephone calls until about four o’clock.

Or less concrete blocks, like Connie Willis describes:

I try to write mornings and then do everything else in the afternoons. And I usually split my writing time into blocks: half an hour on research for the time-travel novel, then an hour on the novel and an hour on something else. If things start going well, then I just keep going, but if not, then the switching out helps me to be productive.

And I’ve definitely set word count goals, based on advice from some of my favorite authors, like Ray Bradbury and J.G Ballard, who got quite specific:

Every day, five days a week. Longhand now, it’s less tiring than a typewriter. When I’m writing a novel or story I set myself a target of about seven hundred words a day, sometimes a little more. I do a first draft in longhand, then do a very careful longhand revision of the text, then type out the final manuscript.

Two hours in the late morning, two in the early afternoon, followed by a walk along the river to think over the next day. Then at six, Scotch and soda, and oblivion.

I’ve tried looser goals, even one-word to do list items like “Write,” or even blocked out whole days to “Write as much as possible,” like it seems works for Nnedi Okorafor, who said:

I tend to write first drafts swiftly and nonstop, putting it aside to cool only when it’s complete (which means it carries everything in it; it’s out of my head and on the page).

I’ve had marginal success with short-term projects with all these different approaches. Most recently I’ve hade “Write for 30m” (m = minutes, not meters, for you Olympics fans) stuck on my to do list and that gets checked off maybe once or twice a week. I don’t know that I actually function well in a short time limit. That was a bad idea for me to begin with.

But this is the sort of trial and error I hope everyone out there is doing. If you’re happy with how much you’re writing and happy with the quality of your writing, then absolutely keep doing what you’re doing, but if you want to challenge yourself to write more, if you’re having trouble finishing stuff, try all these ideas. If you look at the work of the authors I’ve quoted above it’s impossible to say that any one of them are wrong, even while seeing at a glance that they’re all doing it at least a little differently from each other. It should be kept in mind, too, that these aren’t authors with “day jobs,” so writing time and work time are one and the same.

So then what’s on my to do list today, writing-wise (other than “FAH Post”)?

Write something of value

This is what I’ll be going for through at least the month of August. What I want is to write something I believe has value—that has value to me—every day. If that takes thirty meters—check that: minutes—so be it. If it takes an hour and a half, great. If I spend the afternoon writing, hooray. If I get seven hundred words or seven thousand, I’m doing great. If it’s part of a novel or my next book of writing advice or this blog or a poem or a short story or an outline or notes… if it feels valuable to me, then: success!

Why do we write in the first place? Is it to check items off our to do lists, to have written some number of words? In The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, Norbert Wiener wrote:

Lord only knows that there are enough problems yet to be solved, books to be written, and music to be composed! Yet for all but a very few, the path to these lies through the performance of perfunctory tasks which in nine cases out of ten have no compelling reason to be performed. Heaven save us from the first novels which are written because a young man desires the prestige of being a novelist rather than because he has something to say! Heaven save us likewise from the mathematical papers which are correct and elegant but without body or spirit. Heaven save us above all from the snobbery which not only admits the possibility of this thin and perfunctory work, but which cries out in a spirit of shrinking arrogance against the competition of vigor and ideas, wherever these may be found!

Looking back on all the writing I’ve done that wasn’t rushed to an exterior deadline, all the writing I’ve done that I’m actually proud of, that’s the feeling I’ve had. Not that I achieved some number of words or minutes, but that I wrote something that made me think, Hell, I can do this.

And if your to do list contains any other items you can’t actually do, you’ll want to take a second look at them, too.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

Find me at PublishersMarketplace

Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

In Writing Monsters, best-selling author Philip Athans uses classic examples from books, films, and the world around us to explore what makes monsters memorable—and terrifying.

You’ll learn what monsters can (and should) represent in your story and how to create monsters from the ground up.

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STAY OUT OF YOUR STORY

I’ve said this before and will say it again here: the most important rule for contemporary authors of fiction is one scene, one POV (point of view). Beware the temptation of so-called “third person omniscient,” which is better described as “third person lazy.” Our readers have certain expectations, even if few of them can expresses them, or have any interest in expressing them. Most of all, though, what readers of fiction want is an experience. We want to live in the world of that story, from inside a character, experiencing that story on a human level—because the human level is the only level on which we humans can experience anything. 

A scene’s POV character is the “narrator” of that scene, but not in the literal sense. Let’s face it, very little if anything about literature is conveyed in the literal sense. But your POV character is the character your readers are feeling along with—feeling both physically and emotionally. This empathetic relationship is the key to the whole thing. Author Allan Gurganus, in an interview in The Paris Review (Spring 2021, Number 236) said, “Empathy is a writer’s pilot’s license. Without it, you are grounded. You aren’t creating characters. You’re judging them.”

Without that empathetic relationship, your writing becomes procedural rather than personal, so your “story” becomes merely a list of events: this happened, then this happened, then this happened, but without someone inside those events who cares in some way. Readers need someone who is scared when this happens, happy when this happens, sad when this happens, and so on. Without that, you’re just making a list of events, and what we’re really communicating in fiction isn’t events but feelings. George Saunders put it this way:

We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties—the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her.

That empathetic relationship relies primarily on the absence of the author. All reading starts with a one-way communication: from author to reader, but then—and this is especially true of fiction—it requires readers to pick up where the author leaves off and fill in the full life of the story themselves. This is why and how your experience of reading the same novel will be different from mine, and why it’s so fascinating when we see differing opinions or interpretations of novels we love, hate, or found to be somewhere in between.

The best authors disappear, even while at the same time presenting a work only they could have written. The best novels are conversations, separated by time and space, between an author and a reader—those two people, and those two people only, in all the world. But the more we put ourselves into the story, by dropping out of our POV character’s voice, out of our POV character’s immediate experience of the world of the story, the more we interrupt our readers’ part in the process. In Making Shapely Fiction Jerome Stern wrote, “You want your people to live on the page, but you can’t make them live by writing about them. Readers need to hear the characters speak for themselves.” I’d add that readers need to feel the characters feeling.

Dropping out of our POV character’s direct experience of the story to suddenly add in some “top down” view—little did he know, or but she didn’t see the monster behind her—that could only come directly from the author, breaks the empathetic connection between character (standing in for author) and reader. This is not only something we shouldn’t try to do, but something that will always—and you know how much I dislike words like “always” or “never” when it comes to any creative process—have a negative effect on our readers’ experience of our work. Chuck Palahniuk said it this way:

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

No one cares what you think, what you’re going through. We want to know what your characters think, what they’re going through, and as readers we’ll all sense, to some degree or another, where author and character overlap, and we’ll be some degree of wrong or right about that. If you’re afraid of being misunderstood, if you need your readers to know exactly where you stand, fiction may not be for you.

Of course, sometimes we do need to think our way through things: making sure details match up so a character’s eye color doesn’t accidentally change over the course of a novel, and stuff like that, but those are the small things that serve the much greater goal of providing an emotionally-grounded experience and a human connection flowing from author through character to reader.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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