THE RESOLUTION THAT SOLVES ALL PROBLEMS

I watch way too much TV.

And I mean, way too much TV.

remember when I advised that though authors absolutely have to read, and read a lot, and read in other genres and categories than we tend to write in, we should also consume other media including TV, movies, games, etc.? Well, I meant that, but in my case I let things slide entirely too much toward the TV end of the spectrum.

I work from home, primarily as an editor but also as an author, but in the past few years my own writing has taken a back seat to my editing/consulting business—and that’s fine. I love being an editor and educator. I love my online courses, and all my amazing clients. But I would also like to write more—lots more, actually. I also noticed over the past few years that while I was telling y’all to read more, I was reading less—and in this case I don’t count the books I read as part of my freelance editing business, but books for pleasure and personal enlightenment. So this time last year I set a goal on GoodReads to read 52 books in 2018—one a week. And guess what? I hit that goal! That effectively doubled the number of books I read in 2017. This is a huge positive—and shows that behavior can be changed for the better especially if you actually enjoy the thing you’re trying to do more of. I love reading, so reading more was not difficult to wedge into my life.

I also love being an editor—and I try to wedge in as much of that as I can. So then why am I always struggling to play catch up, always behind the schedule eight ball?

I love writing, but then why has my output been limited to this weekly blog post and the occasional poem or short story?

Circling back to the whole working from home thing…

There are great advantages to that lifestyle, and frankly, you couldn’t drag me back into a corporate office environment. But there are drawbacks, too, and the biggest one for me is distraction.

When my daughter wad diagnosed with ADD I read up on the symptoms and it was like a checklist that explained my own life since childhood. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, when kids weren’t diagnosed with stuff, but if they had been, I probably would have been.

Still, I have my little things I’ve learned to do to manage that, but looking back over at least the past three or four years, one thing has cropped up as the root of all attention deficit evils in my work-from-home life, and that thing is the television.

Thanks to modern technology daytime TV isn’t just game shows, soap operas, and I Dream of Jeanie reruns, it’s literally anything and everything you want at your fingertips. So many movies, the Golden Age of TV that’s unfolding daily right now, documentaries on any conceivable subject…

So I go downstairs for lunch and the TV goes on—no, see? I need to start changing my own language: I turn the TV on.

And sometimes I can keep it to a single one hour episode of something, and sometimes I can watch thirty or forty minutes of a movie then turn it off and get back to work, but sometimes I fall into what ends up being an afternoon “off.”

I’m not editing. I’m not writing. I’m not reading. I’m not even keeping up on chores around the house, taking my dogs for a walk, exercising, or anything else.

This is especially problematic when I’m under a deadline crunch (which is pretty much all the time, because I take too many TV afternoons off) and particularly demoralizing when I realize I just blew a work day rewatching something I’ve seen before—maybe dozens of times before.

But something about that screen, man, it just sucks me in.

TV is the one thing—not the device itself but my own relationship with it—that is at the root of all “evil” in my working life. This is the one thing I need to climb on top of right now to make 2019 a big year for me as an editor, author, educator… father, homeowner… everything gets pushed aside by the next full rewatch of a series I’ve seen all the way through at least three times. Why would I possibly do that? What does that actually serve?

Nothing.

But am I overreacting?

I wasn’t sure myself, actually, so I sat down and thought about how many hours I spent watching TV, after looking up the average TV viewing in America. According to Nielsen, the average is about five hours a day, or thirty-five hours a week. That feels already like too much time to me, so when I saw that I thought maybe I was overestimating my TV problem. Surely I was within a margin of error of average. After all, five hours a day in front of the tube (yes… I know they aren’t tubes anymore…) is a lot—too much, really.

But when I was finally honest with myself and sat down and really thought about it and added up each day—weekdays being different from weekends, etc., the number I came up with blew my mind:

75

That’s more than twice the average per week and it means that if I dial my TV viewing time back to average, I gain back exactly a full work week… every week.

And I know that number seems impossible, that that averages out to almost eleven hours a day—and yes, I do sleep with the TV on. If I sleep about 49 hours a week that leaves only 44 hours a week for everything else.

Just. Not. Okay.

Especially since that though there are a few tasks I can do while the TV is on, the one I end up doing the most is eating. I’m not eating right now while I’m writing this. I never eat while reading or editing. But sit me in front of a football game, a movie, or a Game of Thrones marathon, and you better watch your fingers because it’s eat and eat and eat and eat.

So, then, what are my usual resolutions: work harder, write more, read more, lose weight/eat better/exercise at all…

TV is the thing getting in the way of all those things.

So then 2019’s real resolution: Break the TV addiction, and break it hard.

There are things that get in our way as authors—as people in general. We all have challenges and they come, sometimes, in the strangest form, in ways that seem perfectly mundane. TV? Really? That doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Just turn it off and get back to work. I have maybe a dozen servings of alcohol a year—I’m just not a big drinker. Would say, “Alcohol? Really? Just don’t order a drink,” to an alcoholic? That’s not helpful. It’s not good enough. I have identified this as a real problem, and I need to address it as such.

Anyone else out there dealing with something similar? Some force that gets between you and your work?

Identifying it can be half the battle. I named my demon, and now it’s Phil vs. TV for the rest of 2019.

Wish me luck!

 

—Philip Athans

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SUGGESTED READING FOR 2019

Christmas fell on a Tuesday this year, but that won’t stop me from my regular weekly post! To all my Christian friends, Merry Christmas, to all my non-Christian friends, have fun at the movies. But anyway, for a “holiday edition” this year, how about my suggestions for how to spend those book store gift cards you got this year—and please tell me you got book store gift cards. Absent that, there really should be a War on Christmas!

In any case, you’ll find no shortage of book recommendations from me peppered all throughout Fantasy Author’s Handbook, but for this week, I’ll share books I’ve suggested, drawn examples from, or otherwise mentioned in my Writer’s Digest University online courses, starting with…

 

This course came from Writing Monsters  and  The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by lil’ ol’ me. Of course. First advice to all authors: Never pass up an opportunity to put your own books in front of people—any people, pretty much anywhere!

Your self-study textbook!

But courses like this demand examples from novels and short stories so we can learn from what other authors have done. For this course I mentioned The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke, which I quoted on the subject of technology in science fiction. I also wrote much more about this book here at FAH. I specifically referenced the stories “Domestic Magic” by Steve Rasnic Tem & Melanie Tem (on the subject of magic) and “The Woman Who Fooled Death Five Times” by Eleanor Arnason (regarding fantasy religions) from The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Seven, which I used as a textbook for the original course I taught several years ago at a local community college.

There’s no way I could possibly talk about science fiction worldbuilding and not draw examples, specifically on the subjects of both government and religion, from Dune by Frank Herbert. But also on the same subject, a lighter take from the space opera epic Deathstalker by Simon R. Green. At least as important as Dune, especially in terms of government and politics in science fiction is 1984 by George Orwell, but I got an interesting quote from the lighter Podkayne of Mars by Robert A. Heinlein as well, showing that there’s truth and ideas to be found in virtually any story, intended for any audience.

The difficult subject of culture challenges a lot of people who take that course, and I think an example from Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta goes a long way to illustrating the difference between culture, government, and religion, and it’s a brilliantly written book in any case.

And finally, one of the assignments, regarding cultures, is inspired by a paragraph from George Orwell’s essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,” which can be found in the book Why I Write.

There are amazing resources all over the web that will let us read scans of original pulp magazines, and anyone with even a passing interest in the era will want to check out sites like the Pulp Magazines Project, the Pulp Magazine Archive, Comic Book+, Online Pulps, and the Luminist Archives.

This course is based around the “formula” created by pulp legend Lester Dent, and more on his strange life and career can be gleaned from Bigger Than Life: The Creator of Doc Savage, by Marilyn Cannaday. A fun overview of the pulp era comes to life in the art-heavy The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines by Peter Haining and the amazingly weird Men’s Adventure Magazines in Postwar America by Rich Oberg, Steven Heller, Max Allan Collins, and George Hagenauer.

This course starts with some essential texts that certainly won’t come as too big a surprise based on the title of the course itself, but please tell me you’ve either already read On Writing, Danse Macabre, and Skeleton Crew by Stephen King or have them close to the top of your to-read pile.

But the horror sun doesn’t rise and set on Stephen King alone, so I also drew from varied works of fiction for this course including American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, The Terror by Dan Simmons, Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler, The Strain by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan, and the classics The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

And let’s not forget the short stories, including “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” “Pickman’s Model,” and the rest of the short stories of H.P. Lovecraft you’ll find in any of a number of anthologies, or online; “The Death of Halpin Frayser” by Ambrose Bierce; the story “Wolfshead” by Robert E. Howard, which can be found in the collection The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard; and the story “The Keeper of the Key” by August Derleth, which  can be found in the collection The Cthulhu Mythos. You’ll also want to find the stories “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” and “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison, found in The Essential Ellison; and, of course, “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allen Poe.

And of course there are other books on the craft of horror or fiction in general, including Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by François Truffaut, Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, and Take Joy by Jane Yolen, those last three popping up in most of these courses.

 

And finally, for my newest course, which takes a much deeper, four-week dive into horror, On Writing Horror, edited by Mort Castle; the anthology The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow; and my own Writing Monsters are the actual textbooks for this course, but I also reference the first book of Horror of Philosophy by Eugene Thacker: In the Dust of This Planet, as well as the novels The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, and Hell House by Richard Matheson.

If, like me, you’re planning on an aggressive 2019 reading challenge (I’m going for 52 again this year), this should keep you busy for a while. So then this is me wishing you all a happy holidays, and a safe and happy new year. I’ll see you back here in 2019!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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WHITE MAN’S MADNESS: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 8

Let’s spend this week and at least a couple more on the “novelette” “White Man’s Madness” by Lenore E. Chaney as part of my ongoing series of posts looking back at a ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales, which is available for all of us to read online.

First of all, you might be asking: “What the heck is a ‘novelette’?” A fair questions since that’s a term I haven’t seen much of in the past… I don’t know… lots of years. There is still a Nebula Award given to Best Novelette every year. The Nebulas/SFWA define a novelette as “at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words.” Shorter than that and it’s a short story, a bit longer and it’s a novella. After the 40,000 word mark it’s a novel. My rough estimate of “White Man’s Madness” is 11,870 words, so comfortably in that range. I guess some things never (or at least rarely or slowly) change.

And while we’re “researching” let’s Google Lenore E. Chaney, an author who is not familiar to me.

Turns out she has her own page at the blog Teller of Weird Tales, but even then author Terence E. Haney had to resort to census and other public records for any information on the woman behind the story. There seems to be only two stories comprising her extant body of work. Born in December of 1881, Ms. Chaney would have been forty-three years old when “White Man’s Madness” was published in January of 1925. She seems to have led quite an interesting frontier life, surviving into her nineties.

It’s interesting to me how many authors dipped into life as a writer of pulp fiction, publishing maybe just a handful of stories—even just one—then moving on to other things.  We’ll only have to guess as to whether she stopped writing, or stopped being published. But in any case, even a single issue of a single pulp magazine shows authors who went on to considerable literary recognition—we’ll get to a story by H.P. Lovecraft later in this issue—and authors who appeared and disappeared in a flash.

With that, onward into “White Man’s Madness” by Lenore E. Chaney…

Though I may have poked a little fun at the first sentence of this story, tagging it as maybe a bit too cheerful for Weird Tales in particular and the pulps in general, the first paragraph does go on to hint at conflict. This is a good example of how a short story will tend to live or die by the first sentence, but a novel can get away with an attention-grabbing first paragraph. To my mind, though, a “novelette” is more a short story than a novel, so I’d still have rather seen a bit more of a “bang” in that first sentence.

Paragraph two and we get the dreaded “weather report,” something you’ll want to avoid like the plague—unless you do what Ms. Chaney has done here and give it a personal connection to the POV character. The “little wind” helps illustrate that Martin has been drinking. Now there’s some story going on, not just “atmosphere.”

The fact that the story is set (at least on page one) in the Peruvian Andes, reminds me of this bit from Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot in which he expands on his advice to start a story in “a different locale:”

A different locale? Easy. Selecting one that fits in with the murder method and the treasure—the thing that villain wants—makes it simpler, and it’s also nice to use a familiar one, a place where you’ve lived or worked. So many pulpateers don’t. It sometimes saves embarrassment to know nearly as much about the locale as the editor, or enough to fool him.

Here’s a nifty tool much used in faking local color: For a story laid in Egypt, say, author finds a book titled Conversational Egyptian Easily Learned, or something like that. He wants a character to ask in Egyptian, “What’s the matter?” He looks in the book and finds, “El khabar, eyh?” To keep the reader from getting dizzy, it’s perhaps wise to make it clear in some fashion, just what that means. Occasionally the text will tell this, or someone can repeat it in English. But it’s a doubtful move to stop and tell the reader in so many words the English translation. The writer learns they have palm trees in Egypt. He looks in the book, finds the Egyptian word for palm trees, and uses that. This kids editors and readers into thinking he knows something about Egypt.

Do we need to wonder if Lenore E. Chaney had ever visited the Peruvian Andes? I bet she didn’t, but at least according to Lester Dent, she didn’t need to. Let’s keep that in mind as the story progresses. Is her “different locale” well realized—or at least sufficiently faked?

I love that we start with a problem caused by the POV character himself. Let’s assume for now that John Martin is our hero. Here, our hero has become separated from his mule (with his keg of chicha) and his travelling companion due to his own drunkenness. This is a pretty straightforward, simple example of a protagonist with some kind of flaw. John Martin, as we see him pretty much right away, is an imperfect person—and that makes him feel like an actual human. I like it!

Now let’s pause at this paragraph and talk about show vs. tell:

He walked faster and faster, breaking now and then into little runs until his laboring heart and gasping breath slackened his pace, for the little fear, that had been only a trifling uncertainty at first, was growing by leaps and bounds within him, clutching with horrible fingers at his quivering brain. His head ached and his bloodshot eyes burned like flames.

Time and again I caution authors to show the experience of emotions—what is that emotion doing to the POV character’s mind and body?—rather than tell us that the POV character is scared. Is it as easy as leaving in Lenore Chaney’s description of the effects of rising fear on John Martin but deleting the specific call out?

He walked faster and faster, breaking now and then into little runs until his laboring heart and gasping breath slackened his pace. His head ached and his bloodshot eyes burned like flames.

That, in the context of the rest of the story before and after, I think, is enough. But at the same time I’m reluctant to cut some interesting language like “clutching with horrible fingers.” This is where it gets hard. Yes, definitely trust your readers to pick up on the cues you provided to share John Martin’s emotional state, but that doesn’t mean blindly deleting words like “fear.” In my Advanced Horror course I provide a list of “banned words” that includes “fear,” but those exercises aren’t meant to impose a strict rule on all of the rest of your writing forever and ever, just to get authors thinking of ways around simply falling back on the easy thing: She was angry. He was scared.

In this case, for instance, maybe letting us know that he’s running around and has a headache because he’s scared is necessary. Maybe he has a headache and is scrambling around because he’s drunk. I could see how that distinction might have been exactly what Lenore Chaney was making right there.

Reading on, it isn’t until the second column of the second page that we learn why Martin and Jackson are leading their pack mule through the Peruvian Andes. They’re in search of what I guess we can assume is shown in the illustration that starts the story! Ah, spoiler? No, not really. I get that this wasn’t just going to be a whole novelette of a drunk guy lost in the Andes. But still, this is Lenore Chaney starting her story with action—at least a drunk staggering around and getting separated from his companion—and not with the logistics of planning the trip and where they’re going and why. We’re dropped into the story in media res—in the middle of things—at least, in the middle of the Peruvian Andes.

I’ve said before that the only story structure you really need to know is that the villain starts the story and hero ends it. In some cases, though the villain still does something to get things moving, it’s a mistake on the part of the hero that really starts things moving, or at least results in the villain and the hero getting together in the first place. By the end of page fifty Martin has cast the unnamed “Indian” in the role of villain, but it’s clear that he and Jackson were dumb enough to follow him in the first place:

What fools they had been in the first place to set out with that Indian! Martin remembered now how the fellow’s eyes had gleamed as he urged the undertaking upon him. Why, he had practically talked them into the whole thing, hinting at treasure and leading them off the main trail on to this obscure one, on which they had met not a single traveler during the whole of their journey.

That Indian had been a traitor!

I love that this is all happening in Martin’s head. We have no objective sense of the Indian’s motives. Maybe he’s completely on the level, but Martin was dumb enough to get drunk and wander off ahead. We don’t know because Martin doesn’t know. We’re in his POV, we know only what he knows, and are limited in our own understanding of the situation by his personal grasp of the “facts” as he’s experienced and interpreted them. This is what we (editors!) mean by “one scene, one POV” and it’s relation to “show, don’t tell.”

And on the subject of show, don’t tell, there’s something amazingly charming about the single sentence paragraph:

He was lost!

You can try to get away with that in a novel aimed at an adult audience in 2018, but… good luck. Still, it just made me smile, and in the end that’s more important than any rules or trends, isn’t it?

That aside, I do like Ms. Chaney’s description of just how screwed our man Martin is right now. And going back to Dent’s advice about establishing “a different locale,” she brings some real menace to the Peruvian Andes and conjures that atmosphere, as I’ve advised myself, by appealing to as many of the five senses as she can:

As he thought of these things he was conscious for the first time of the awful silence that reigned about him. Not a whisper, not a sound anywhere, except the sound of his own labored breathing, which sounded harshly in his ears. Involuntarily he tried to muffle that panting breath. The effort made his ears ring and he staggered slightly, as a sudden nausea came over him.

This is hearing giving way to or causing feeling. It’s not just about what the place looks like, but what it sounds like and feels like to be there, filtered through the direct experience of one POV character.

Lenore E. Chaney had some skills!

And so then how is that single POV character doing?

He must not think of his own pitiful insignificance in the face of these awful solitudes; he must not think of the thousand and one dangers that lay about him. He raised his chin and tried to square back his drooping shoulders to make a pretense of the courage that he did not feel.

He’s freaking out but, admirably, is trying to get hold of himself. Here’s a real man, not a cardboard hero who’s always ready for anything, but a guy who’s way, way over his head and he knows it but is still “hero” enough to at least try to get it together. This is good stuff.

Just to remind us, though, that it is 1925 and this a pulp magazine, hyperbole drops in for a quick visit:

Fire—what a wonderful thing it was: the gift of the gods to men!

Sure.

It’s… great stuff.

I’m going to have to leave off at the end of Chapter 1 for this week, a chapter that ends with a suitable cliffhanger—actually a literal fall off a cliff then a period of unconsciousness then Martin being lifted onto a litter by some unknown someones before he falls unconscious again—until Chapter 2…

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

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BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXIV: SAVAGE PASTIMES

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy (and science fiction and horror and all other) authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for any author, so worth looking for.

Mentioned in the footnotes of Steven Pinker’s tomelike The Better Angels of Our Nature was a book whose title and subject matter caught my eye, so as I do with dozens of books—maybe a dozen a month, actually—I tossed it onto my Amazon list then just thought, screw it, I’ll order it. And it only sat on my “to read” shelf for a few weeks before I picked it up and was immediately taken not just with its message, but with the author’s easy, readable style. In Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment, Queens College professor Harold Schechter makes a case, like Pinker’s, that “the good old days” were not as good as some people would have us think. And this is reflected in the media of the time.

If you’re one of those people—and “those people” seem more and more to be “almost everybody” in the hyper-aware state of affairs that is America in 2018—who think that the world, or at least Western culture, is disintegrating under our feet, that discourse has reached an all time low, that the country if not the world is being ripped apart by escalating violence, and that things used to be better at some idealized point in the past, whatever that Golden Age might be for you, well…

You’re wrong.

Yes, you can see violence in media. Yes, you can see violence in real life—just turn on any TV news channel at any time on any given day. But in the same way that Pinker made a convincing case that real violence is continuing the sharp decline begun in the 1990s, so too does Schechter make a convincing case that violence in fiction of various media, especially fiction aimed at children, is actually on the decline as well.

At the end of the first chapter of Savage Pastimes, Schechter asks a question that, to my mind, is this book’s statement of purpose: the question he will then go on to try to answer:

The current uproar over media sensationalism rests  on two premises: that popular culture is significantly more vicious and depraved than it used to be, and that we live in uniquely violent times. Everyone seems to accept these propositions as the obvious, irrefutable truth.

But what if they were wrong?

He then begins to dig deeply into our shared mythic tradition, and it doesn’t take much digging to start to find the blood and guts that poured out of ancient myths and up through Grimm’s fairytales. Broadsides detailing real life murders, replete with gruesome drawings, were the mass market scandal sheets of the supposedly straight-laced Victorian era.

In what I think is the whole point of the book, Schechter writes, in Chapter Four, on a page that features an old woodcut depicting a crowd of people attending the autopsy of an accused killer as cheering spectators, guts spilled out on the floor to be lapped up by a dog:

Those who deplore the current state of American society and accuse the media of pandering to, if not actually creating, an unwholesome obsession with violence would do well to learn something about cultural history. A look at the cheap newspapers and crime literature so popular during the pre-Civil War era demonstrates quite clearly that things were no better in the past. Not only was violent crime rampant in the good old days, but the prurient need to hear every juicy detail was just as widespread and intense as it is now.

The book is short, and I’ll admit I found some of its reporting lacking perspective. For instance, in the margins next to this:

Their manners may have been crude, but in the area of ghastly violence medieval peasants were clearly connoisseurs, who appreciated nothing better than a nicely performed quartering, disemboweling, or beheading.

I wrote: “Okay… but WHY?”

In fairness, though, how can a literature professor writing in 2005 run a psychological profile of European peasant culture of seven centuries or so in the past? Still, I bet someone else has…

To this end, though, later in the book, Schechter cites George Stade, who wrote:

“People are fascinated by representations of murder because, in the first place, they want to kill someone and, in the second, they won’t. Surely one function of narrative is to allow in the imagination what we forbid in the flesh.”

And Schechter goes on to state that:

In short… fantasy violence isn’t a substitute for sex. It is a substitute for actual violence.

This matches with my own admittedly scientifically-lacking “study” of the effects of violent video games on American violent crime rates that shows an almost perfect match between the release of a violent video game to a decrease in the rate of violent crime in America. We are violent animals, but we’re also smart. We can replace war with football, actual torture with the Saw movie series, and actual violent crime rampages with Grand Theft Auto, and in effect we have.

The book makes it clear that while in the past, violent entertainment actually offered real violence done in the moment to real people: public executions and torture, the aforementioned public autopsy, bear baiting, and other animal torture shows…

That we react with such horrified incredulity to the mere description of the victim’s suffering is significant in itself, suggesting that—for all our exposure to virtual violence—we are actually quite sheltered from the real thing and have a very limited tolerance for it. Our popular culture may be saturated with synthetic gore, but at least we don’t spend our leisure time watching real people have their eyes put out, their limbs pulverized, their sex organs amputated, and their flesh torn to pieces with red-hot pincers.

Yikes. I second that.

When his overview of the history of violent media continues into the Penny Dreadfuls and Paris’s Grand-Guignol. This description of one such play brought to my mind the ending of Frank Darabont’s film version of Stephen King’s The Mist:

In The Final Torture, for example—one of the most famous and frequently performed of the Grand-Guignol plays—a French marine stationed outside Peking during the Boxer Rebellion has his hands cut off by the Chinese. Making his way back to his besieged embassy, he displays his mutilated stumps to the head consul, D’Hemelin, and—with his dying breath—describes the unspeakable atrocities being perpetrated against foreigners. To spare his daughter a fate worse than death, D’Hemelin shoots her in the head—only to be rescused by allied forces, who burst into the embassy seconds after the unfortunate diplomat executes his beloved child. D’Hemelin promptly goes insane.

Everything old is new again, eh?

Harold Schechter’s point is that violent entertainment has always been there, and the purpose it appears, at least, to serve is to give us both an outlet for violent fantasies and a safe experience of violence that actually has the opposite effect from the feared “desensitization” we’re so often warned of, reality be damned.

In my online horror courses, both the Horror Intensive and the new Advanced Horror course, as well as in my Pulp Fiction Workshop, I try to keep the question of violence and gore open. Each individual author is free to find their own comfort zone when it comes to the content of their fiction, be it violence/gore, explicit sex, language, and literally anything else. That’s not for some Board of Review to decide, and though there are publishers that have created their own set of guidelines, and individual agents or editors that will have their own unwritten rules—their own comfort zones—guiding their decisions on what to represent or publish, thankfully there is no Board of Review in the publishing business, so your comfort zone, whatever it may be, will find an audience with a similar comfort zone—or an audience willing to read outside that—and we’ll all be able to stake out our own claims as authors and readers. I’m glad we have books like Savage Pastimes to remind us that we aren’t descending into anything as a culture, but that we share some tendencies with our parents, grandparents, and more distant ancestors—and those tendencies don’t always look like Care Bears.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

 

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CHEKHOV’S G17 Gen5 MOS GLOCK

Like all weird little writing quirks, of which there are many, not all authors fall into this particular trap, but I see it—please believe me—time and time and time again, and that’s a careful hyper-specificity for firearms.

It’s strangely rare that a character pulls “a pistol” on someone, or aims “a rifle” at something. Instead, we poor beleaguered readers are “treated” to a specific and often inexplicably detailed inventory of each character’s varied and robust personal arsenal, and almost always that level of detail is not at all necessary, because it never pays off.

I’ll refer you back to my post on the concept of “Chekhov’s Gun,” which is the author and playwright’s oft-paraphrased admonition that, “If a gun is hanging on the wall in act one, it must be fired in act two,” which means that if you show your readers (or viewers, etc.) a specific detail, make sure that detail pays off in some way.

Your readers, often unconsciously, are making a sort of mental list of details as they read your book and though they may not be able to articulate why, when a significant portion of those details—or even one key detail—isn’t somehow resolved, those readers will be left with at least the vague feeling that something’s lacking, something’s missing, something didn’t quite connect.

So then why do your readers ever need to know the specific brand and model, or worse, the specific brand and model of accessories, of any given character’s firearm?

Of course, there are all sorts of ways in which a specific gun is important to a story. If a murder is committed and the autopsy finds that the victim was shot by a .38, for instance, then a suspect is apprehended and a pistol is found in his glove compartment—but it’s a 9 mm. Okay, now that matters. But it still doesn’t necessarily matter that the gun in the glove compartment is a Sig Sauer P320 and the murder weapon was a Ruger LCP Standard, because once a .38 is found, connected to a possible suspect, they’re going to be looking at that specific gun, not that make and model of gun, to match it to the bullets found in the body, right?

So then, if one character pulls a handgun on another character and threatens him, and that character being threatened thinks, Oh no, that’s a Glock G42—what does that mean? Does it mean that’s the gun he found in his wife’s purse? Okay—that might matter to the story then. How did this bad guy get his wife’s gun? Is it his wife’s gun, or just another Glock G42? There’s story in there—I get it. It matters. But if all the gun is there for is to hold that character in place while something happens, the fact that it’s a Glock G42 does not matter and instead becomes a detail we’re now waiting to see paid off.

Please tell me this makes sense.

In The Ballad of Black Tom, author Victor LaValle calls out specific firearms, in part, I think, to show us the time period and to illustrate a specific moment in a specific city’s history:

Theodore Roosevelt became president of the Board of Police Commissioners in 1895, and, though serving for only two years, he begun the process of modernizing the force. As a result, the officers had a bevy of weapons as they prepared to take the three tenements. Each man wore his department-issue revolver, but now, from the rear of the emergency trucks, an arsenal appeared. M1903 Springfield rifles; M1911 Browning Hi Power pistols for those who wanted to go in with a gun in each hand. The Browning Model 1921 heavy machine guns were set up on the street. Each required three men to take it down from the trucks. They were set in a row; each one’s long barrel faced the front stoop of a tenement. They looked like a trio of cannons better for a ground war than breaching the front doors of a building.

When the 1921s were set down, they were so heavy chips of tarmac were thrown in the air. At the sight of the heavy machine guns the whole neighborhood gasped as one. These guns were designed to shoot airplanes out of the sky. Much of the local population had fled countries under siege, in the midst of war, and had not expected to find such artillery used against citizens of the United States.

But then by this point in the book we’re well aware of the setting and time period, so I’ll ask: Would this have worked just as well without the make and model numbers? A machine gun is a machine gun when it’s pointed at your front stoop, right? And the model numbers never do come back into the story in any way.

I just finished reading The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, a brilliant novel set in that war-torn city during the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. The novel follows four characters, one of whom, a woman who calls herself Arrow, is a sniper sworn to defend her city from the “men on the hill,” who also employ snipers to harass the city’s increasingly desperate inhabitants. Here is a woman who depends on her rifle, who is trained in its use, and who is caught in a moment in time where this thing is not a toy, employed in the furtherance of a hobby like deer hunting, but is a matter of life and death. And yet at no point does Steven Galloway, through Arrow’s tight and intimate POV, feel the need to tell us exactly who made that rifle, when, and how it’s different from any other rifle.

I called out this as an example of even when Arrow is interacting with the rifle, we don’t know what kind of rifle it is, much less the brand name of the scope:

The sniper puts the cellist in his sights. Arrow is about to send a bullet into him, but stops. His finger isn’t on the trigger. This isn’t a detail she would usually notice, or care about, but she can see it in her scope, and it makes her pause. His hand isn’t even in the vicinity of the trigger. His right hand holds the uppermost point of the stock, and his shot is clear, but his left hand isn’t on his rifle. It hangs down to his side, out of her view.

Throughout, Arrow lives not in her rifle, but in the totality of her life. This is her experience, not shopping at her local Cabela’s:

This is how she now believes life happens. One small thing at a time. A series of inconsequential junctions, any or none of which can lead to salvation or disaster. There are no grand moments where a person does or does not perform the act that defines their humanity. There are only moments that appear, briefly, to be this way.

She thinks of this in the context of pulling the trigger and ending a life. Before she ever killed, she had assumed this would put her life at a clear crossroads. She would behave in a way that demarcated the sort of person she had become. She expected to feel altered somehow from the person she was, or hoped to be. But that wasn’t the case. It was the easiest thing in the world to pull the trigger, a nonevent. Everything that came before, all the small things that somehow added up without her ever noticing, made the act of killing an afterthought. This is what makes her a weapon. A weapon does not decide whether or not to kill. A weapon is a manifestation of a decision that has already been made.

This is the story of a woman experiencing this war, not a rifle experiencing its war. This is personal, not procedural. This is about experience, not inventory.

Whether or not you, yourself, are a gun owner or enthusiast, or are pro- or anti-gun control, as an author of fiction, choose your details carefully, guns included!

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE FIREPLACE: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 7

Time to jump back into my series of posts looking back at a ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales, which is available for all of us to read online. We’re making some headway here, moving from “The Rajah’s Gift” to “The Fireplace” by Henry S. Whitehead.

In Part 2 of this series, looking just at the first sentences of each story, I gave author Henry S. Whitehead some crap about starting his story from the point of view not of a character but…

When the Planter’s Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, burned to the ground in the notable fire of 1922, the loss of that section of the South could not be measured in terms of that ancient hostelry’s former grandeur.

Is this from the point of view of a building? This story opens like a newspaper article and honestly, that’s not a good thing. To my tastes, this is the worst first sentence of the lot. Back to the drawing board, Henry S. Whitehead!

And reading on through the first long paragraph, the feeling that this begins, at least, more like a newspaper or magazine article about a tragic fire holds true. It’s a stylistic choice that no few authors have adopted, since—at least back in the olden times of newspapers and magazines—this could lend a certain air of realism to the proceedings. Presenting it as a news item makes it feel somehow more real, right?

Sure, maybe. Is this just a personal preference of mine getting in the way of my enjoyment of at least the first page of “The Fireplace”? That’s it, exactly. I have trouble with that device, and maybe it’s because I never really grew up reading the paper, or experiencing the world in that way. Of course I read non-fiction of all stripes, and have for the better part of my life, but I’ve compartmentalized those things on my brain maybe a bit too thoroughly: This is what a newspaper article sounds like. This is what fiction sounds like. And never the twain shall meet.

I’ll volunteer to be the first person to admit I need to stop with “never” in my intellectual life so okay, Henry, I’ll stick with you. And sorry about trying to send you back to the drawing board. Anyway, he can’t go back to the drawing board because he died eighty-six years ago last week (November 23, 1932), only seven years after this story was published.

Henry S. Whitehead, a Harvard classmate of Franklin Roosevelt’s, had a fairly short career in fiction, but like many pulp era authors, a rather prolific one. His first short story (“The Intarsia Box”) was published in 1923 and eight more short stories followed, most published in Weird Tales, until we get to “The Fireplace.” His stories have been collected into books starting with Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales in 1941 through to 2012’s Voodoo Tales: the Ghost Stories of Henry S. Whitehead. He’s another Lovecraft collaborator (“The Trap,” “Cassius,” and “Bothon”)—starting to see that trend in Weird Tales? I think so.

Back to the story:

Starting with the fire that claimed the lives of two prominent Southern gentlemen, which was thought to have started in the fireplace (ah ha—a callback to the title in paragraph two!) we pick up with what is clearly our POV character, “a certain Mr. James Callender,” arriving at the hotel ten years before the fire. He seems to be a nice enough guy, giving the “grinning negro porters” a generous tip. Whitehead also slips in a reference to “the festival season of Christmas” as a reason for the porters to expect a bigger than average tip—a clever way to say, “It’s Christmastime,” the significance of which calls back to the date of the fire and takes on even greater significance later in the story.

Our horror story reader’s ears prick up when Mr. Callender specifically asks for “the room with the large fireplace”—the room where the two men are killed. You know it’s going to be haunted. How is it not haunted? But then the fire happens ten years in Callender’s future, so…?

What is the significance of Callender curling up by the fire to read Arthur Machen’s “House of Souls”? I’m not sure. I haven’t read it, but we all can, for free, via Project Gutenberg. I’m going to bookmark that and read it later.

Anyway, Callender gets wrapped up in the book and is startled by a late-night knock on his door. I love the description of him reading—marking his place in the book to answer the door. There’s no reason to be surprised that a Harvard graduate from the first third of the 20th Century was a reader, but that fact is tangible here.

Ooh, spooky—he opens the door and there’s no one there. See? Told you that room was haunted. It has to be haunted. This story is in Weird Tales for God’s sake. But Mr. Callender doesn’t know that so he experiences what I discussed here a few weeks ago as the Persistence of the Logical:

He opened the door, and was surprized to find no one in the corridor. He stepped through the door, and glanced right and then left. There were, he observed, turns in both directions at short distances from his door, and Mr. Callender, whose mind was trained in the sifting of evidence, worked out an instantaneous explanation in his mind.

Way to stay enlightened, Mr. Callender! But seriously, this is exactly what I was talking about in that post, and it worked just as well decades later for Jeff VanderMeer.

I love the reveal that follows. This is precisely how to do it:

Mr. Callender, smiling at the whimsical idea of his, turned back into his room and shut the door behind him.

A gentleman was sitting in the place he had vacated. Mr. Callender stopped short and stared at this intruder…

See how simple that is? Mr. Callender is fine, the world is as it should be.

New paragraph.

The unexpected thing is just there. Henry S. Whitehead didn’t feel the need to point that out with something like:

Though it was completely impossible and so therefor had to be the result of some supernatural force, the ghost of a man was sitting in his chair—a ghost, I tell you!

Well, you know what I mean. How do you write a “jump scare” in prose horror? Just drop the unexpected thing right in there, as simply stated as possible. The guy is just there. Boom.

Despite that, Callender calms down quickly and stays in the logical. He doesn’t go right to “this is a ghost.” Somehow this guy got into his room, and though startled, Callender takes the man at face value, dropping hints to us that something’s weird about this guy by describing the older fashion of his suit.

This goes to the heart of suspense. In most cases suspense comes from an imbalance of information. One character knows something the others do not, and/or your readers know something the POV character does not. In this case, we know there will be a fire in that room that kills two men ten years from now, but then this guy seems to be fifteen years in the past, or twenty-five years ahead of the fire? Callender doesn’t know any of this, though, so now we’re nervous for him. When is he going to get that something really creepy is going on? That question right there equals “suspense.”

I like the way the ghost (though admittedly, I don’t actually know this is a ghost yet, do I?) disarms Callender by being really chill and reasonable.

Here’s a question: Is the overly formal way both men speak to each other actually a relic of the time—meaning that real gentlemen of the 20s would talk like that—or is this an author struggling with making characters talk to each other like people actually talk to each other? That’s a tough question to answer, so I’ll just leave it out there and maybe circle back to that in a post of its own. Anyway, it got me thinking—and that’s exactly why we (all writers) need to read, and read a lot, because what other writers are doing (or have done, however long ago) can get us thinking about how we’re writing ourselves.

The “ghost” gives his name as Charles Bellinger—not one of the two men killed in the fire in the opening paragraph. Hm. Interesting. My expectations have been subverted. I have been surprised. And then I’m immediately surprised again when Mr. Bellinger says, “I may as well add to this, since it explains several matters, though in itself sounding somewhat odd, that actually I am dead.” Surprises coming at a nice clip. I like that.

Clearly, December 23 matters—it’s the same day the fire happens in the future. Remember that reference to the porters’ tip at the beginning?

So then, sixteen years ago, Bellinger was here in this room with the two victims of the future fire, who are still alive in Callender’s present day. Weirdness!

The story now goes into the ghost of Mr. Bellinger telling Mr. Callender a long story. I struggle to forgive that. I get it, and though having a ghost tell the back-story is better than an “omniscient” narrator just info dumping it, it’s only one click better. It would be a fun and, I bet, enlightening exercise to brainstorm ways to make this story of Bellinger’s feel as though it’s happening “in the now” so Callender experiences it in a more visceral, emotionally involved way. Feel free to do that exercise, it will build a skill you’ll want to use next time you start a scene in which two characters sit in comfy chairs and tell each other a story when they should be experiencing a story!

I do like Bellinger’s creepy description of the moment of his own death, but again, showing that rather than telling that would have been better!

Okay then, so here’s the source of the haunting. After accusing one of the other men of cheating at cards, Bellinger is stabbed and killed. The other prominent Southern gentlemen (including the two victims of the fire that will eventually destroy the hotel) decide to cover up the murder, so they’re all guilty of the crime. Got it!

Whitehead dances around the gory stuff a bit as the men cut Bellinger’s body up and burn him, piece by piece, in the huge fireplace, thereby disposing if the body. O, Murder Most Foul!

This word choice here struck me as… folksy:

My not inconsiderable winnings, as well as the coin and currency which had been in my possession, were then cold-bloodedly divided among these four rascals, for such I had for some time now recognized them as becoming.

Rascals? Dude, they just murdered you, chopped up your body, burned it, and stole all your money. Rascals?

If you say so.

Bellinger then goes into the details of the rascals’ only big mistake, which is their idea to hide his other belongings rather than disposing of them in the river or at some other remote locale.

The strange limits to Bellinger’s abilities once “materialized” add a little worldbuilding to the proceedings, as we start to learn at least a little of the limits of how ghosts work—but this will give me trouble at the very end of the story. Rules have now been established for how ghosts work, or, at least, how this ghost works. Those rules now need to be followed, right? More later.

Bellinger knows, somehow, that Callender is an attorney and asks his help in bringing his killers to justice, though sixteen years have passed since the crime. Callender agrees and Bellinger disappears.

Callender dutifully launches his investigation—probably my least favorite part of any ghost story—but in this case it feels organic to the story, however “organic” it can be that a ghost has hired a lawyer. Still, I’m with you, Henry S, Whitehead!

But then Callender gets busy with other work and sets aside the investigation, only coincidently booking the same room, now on the 23rd of December.

And the ghost of Bellinger, apparently unable to sue for legal malpractice, strangles poor Mr. Callender and stuffs his head in the fireplace grate. This is accomplished by Bellinger’s own strangely long-fingered hands even though earlier in the story he needed Callender’s help lifting the corner of a rug to reveal the hidden belongings. Which requires more strength, lifting up the corner of a rug or strangling a grown man who we have to imagine struggled for his life? I’ll refer you to that disturbing scene in the movie No Country for Old Men in case you’re still not sure.

Follow your own rules, people! If a ghost can’t lift the corner of a rug and says flat out that knocking on the door was pretty much the limit of his ability to interact with the world, that same ghost can’t strangle someone.

No other mention of how we then get, ten years later, to the death by fire of two of the “rascals.” I guess Bellinger was stuck waiting for these guys to book the room again on the same day?

I liked this story a lot, right up till the end, and not just because of the inconsistent abilities of the ghost.

How does this pay off? Callender is murdered for what reason, really? Couldn’t Bellinger have just materialized and talked him into relaunching the investigation? We don’t know if that happened and if Callender refused because we aren’t shown that scene. Bellinger just strangled him with his weird long fingers. The story to that point depended on our wanting to see justice for poor, mistreated Bellinger but now we’re left thinking, Fuck you, Bellinger. I guess it takes a rascal to know a rascal.

I don’t know, Henry S. Whitehead… did you just run into some kind of pre-set word count limit? Seems to me he just bailed out of this one.

Still, some lessons to be learned from “The Fireplace,” especially in terms of how not to end a short story!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

 

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RULES ABOUT WRITING RULES FOR WRITERS

Do I really have to write a post in response to “Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules for Novelists”? Does that need to be critiqued again? Am I required to jump all over him like a lot of the Internet has already done in the past week or so?

Let’s answer all those questions with no, then, taken in order: …but I’m going to anyway; …so I won’t critique it but will try to add and/or clarify as best I can, not being Jonathan Franzen, myself; and …I guess I sorta did already, responding to some tweets from Chuck Wendig then feeling bad about it after seeing some more tweets from Joe McDermott.

I’ll come at Franzen’s rules from a place of love. If you haven’t read them, they can be found at Lit Hub. G’head and read through them if you haven’t already then come back.

Many, if not most of the responses to this I saw online fell back on the idea that there are no rules for fiction—or any creative endeavor—and anyone who tries to impose any rules on anyone in any context is terrible and should be shamed into silence. A few people were just kinda having a laugh about it. And some people picked through and did what I think we should all do, which is take them in the spirit in which they were offered, either in response to a direct question or as an effort to help, and, y’know… just try not to be pricks about it.

And as for that first group, those who feel there are not now nor shall there ever be rules for novelists, I both agree and disagree with you. After all, working through a similar list of “commandments” from novelist Henry Miller, I offered my own list of rules. Here they are again:

PHIL’S TEN COMMANDMENTS OF WRITING (AFTER HENRY MILLER)

  1. Work on one novel at a time until finished, while also writing the occasional poem, short story, article, and weekly blog post.
  2. Start on your next novel only when you feel you’re done with your last novel, and take a break from the new novel only to revise that last novel according to editorial advice or flash of inspiration, then get back to the new novel as soon as you can.
  3. Write in ecstasy, edit with intent.
  4. Work according to the best program of your own devising, built honestly and sincerely around the realities of your individual life, which can and should—even must—include writing.
  5. Write something… anything… but write!
  6. Clean up yesterday’s writing then write the next section, which you’ll clean up tomorrow before adding tomorrow’s new text. Do no further revision until the rough draft is done.
  7. Keep human! Interact with other humans everyday, in whatever way you can, and from time to time, take a full week off.
  8. Rejoice in the act of writing itself.
  9. Give yourself a break and realize that sometimes you have to set aside the project at hand, but you can, and will, come back to it as soon as possible.
  10. Write the book you care the most about—the story that speaks to you, that won’t let you sleep at night, that won’t go away.

 

Mine are based on Miller’s, meant as a direct response to that list. But at the same time I think you’ll see me working reasonably hard to walk back from the strict interpretation of the word “commandment.” I try not to engage in “you always have to…” or “you can never…” when talking about creative writing. Maybe the problem started for Mr. Franzen with that word: rules.

“Commandments,” to me, anyway, from both myself and Henry Miller, felt hyperbolic enough that it came with an implied sense of the ridiculousness of applying a strict set of rules to a creative endeavor, much less a creative life. If that article had been called “Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Pieces of Advice for Novelists,” I’d like to think he would have seen less pushback. In fact, that’s really the way I read them—at least the second time.

I think, also, that trouble came from his lack of context or further explanation, so we’re left to puzzle through what he actually means by “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.” That can be read as all fiction that isn’t “frightening” (horror?) is bad, but I’m sure that’s not what he meant. Is he talking about something like I wrote about in terms of sometimes having to peer into your darkest corners? What does “You have to love before you can be relentless” have to do with writing a novel? I honestly don’t understand.

I’d like to find a few that I agree with, or that, at least, I can interpret as something helpful—and that’s much, much more important than any otherwise unknown intent on the part of Jonathan Franzen. Take this list not as some author whose books you may or may not have read or may or may not have liked demanding that you write only a certain sort of book in a certain sort of way—I honestly don’t see that there anyway—but as free-floating ideas that you can play with on your own, bending, stretching, or discarding as you see fit.

And by the way, you don’t need me to give you permission to do that, any more than you need Jonathan Franzen to tell you when, exactly, to use “first-person voice.” And anyway, in that rule (#4) he’s pretty much saying: third person unless you want it to be first person in which case, first person, which is easy enough to take as: think for yourself, but do things in your writing as a result of thinking not just because you think you’re supposed to or because someone told you you’re not supposed to so here comes that second person future tense epic fantasy novel!

See how I twisted that around to serve my own purposes? Like that.

So then here’s one I think he got right:

The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.

Everything you write, including fiction, and including genre fiction, is inherently autobiographical because you are the only person you know, for sure, how to be. Your emotions are the only emotions you are absolutely qualified to experience. Everything else, everyone else, you have to observe, interpret, and invent. Whether or not this constitutes a rule, per se, I’m not sure. I think it ends up being true—it’s a default position with which I agree, but if it serves as advice it’s to remind you to be yourself and not think you have to provide some kind of literal transcript of a character’s life.

I think?

Now I’m actually getting confused.

What if I just boiled it down to…

I agree with 1, 4, 6, and 8.

I disagree with 3.

I’m not sure I understand 2, 5, 7, 9, or 10.

Whatever. Your list might be completely different.

Look, rules are good for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage. Learn those rules and break them as you wish, but on purpose, not because you just don’t know. Other “rules” or “commandments” from anyone, including me, should be taken as suggestions, as inspiration, as food for thought, and so on. Don’t fall into lockstep, but also don’t shit on them. We’re just trying to help as best we can.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

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