INVADERS FROM OUTSIDE: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 3

Let’s jump back into that ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales that’s available for all of us to read online and… actually read it! Or, at least, read the first story. I’m going to do that right now, and take notes.

The story is “Invaders from Outside: A Tale of the Twelve Worlds” by J. Schlossel.

We’ve already looked at the first sentence, but now let’s expand that to the first paragraph:

On every hand huge brilliant suns, single or multiple, flashed past with their retinue of small dark planets. Though there was no sound to mark their passage through the heavens, yet one felt that here, indeed, was a roaring inferno. Slowly and steadily did the solar system forge ahead through this veritable whirlpool of mighty blazing suns. It was nothing less than a miracle that the sun should be able to guide his charge of planets safely through this densely star-packed region near the center of the Milky Way. Even though the sun now shone with his greatest possible splendor, he was nothing but a tiny dwarf sun within a region where white-hot giants abounded.

I wasn’t really sure what to make of the first sentence, especially compared against Lester Dent’s (in)famous formula, but there is something about it that I like. The first paragraph seems to build on the opening poetry, presenting us not with a human character (either hero or villain) as our point of view proxy, but the sun itself? And the sun is male, by the way, in case you were wondering.

Honestly, though, I don’t think the Sun as a character was the author’s intent. I think the intent was to establish this as a story about space, as a science fiction story, with a plan to get to a character later. I don’t want to be formulaic and restrictive though my instinct as an editor is to rail against this idea, to insist (as much as I tend to insist on anything) that we begin with a character doing something…

I kinda like this.

And in the end (or at the beginning!) “I like this” is all you need from your readers. Still, the fact that the story continues all the way through without ever presenting a single named character is fuel for vocal complaint, but we’ll keep going!

The next couple paragraphs start to narrow down to a collection of inhabited planets—a group of people doing things (observing ever farther into the universe around them)—and continuing to drill down to the first proper name we get: the Scientific Society of the Twelve Confederate Worlds. Still not a character, but an organization. Come on, J. Schlossel—show me a character!

And as an aside, can anyone see the word that ends the second to last line and begins the last line in the first paragraph of the right column? …missed something through an unavoidable ???-tion, the other members did not?

Another thing that makes me cringe: the “little did he know” moment in which we (the readers) now know something the (as yet unintroduced) character(s) don’t know:

Ignorant entirely of its coming, of the curious zigzag course it followed, or of its desperate purpose, the inhabitants of those twelve civilized worlds went on confidently with their researches and their dreams of eternal peace.

Trying to hold it together already in the face of the impenetrable horror of the omniscient viewpoint. Noooooooooo!

Okay, we’ll remember it’s 1925. The culture will survive this.

Calming down.

So we’re getting an info dump on the Twelve Confederate Worlds but at least we hear that Mars is one of them, so this sun is our Sun. Fascinating stuff this confederated solar system, but fun as it is this is still an info dump. J. Schlossel has decided we have to be taught something, even if his writing is readable and his worldbuilding clever, we’re told the history of the future (or, at least, I assume this is the future) before we get on with the story. I disagree with J. Schlossel on this point. Show me the world within the story, don’t tell me about the world before I can get to the story! Here’s, so far, two good examples of looking at the pulps for what not to do. Instead of what we see in this story, remember:

A POV character is essential: one scene, one POV.

Start with characters doing something, never with any version of an info dump.

Moving into the third page of the story I’m wondering if this is the far future or the far past—I’d be willing to bet, at this point, that the latter is true. I love this setting and could write for the rest of my life inside it, but though there’s mention of an unnamed Martian captain, there is still no character here. J. Schlossel has pushed back so far that we’re reading a sketchy history of some distant past—a sort of fictional article, like a science fiction version of a movie mockumentary.

I’m actually not sure I hate that, strangely enough.

Here’s a “story” that’s (so far) breaking all my most closely held “rules” for writing fiction, but I’m enjoying it?

Yes, actually, the fact that I’m digging the story does matter more than whether or not it passes those tests. See? This is me being flexible in my thinking.

As this goes on I found myself less worried about the writing and more curious about the context of it. As I go deeper into the fourth page of the story it’s clear that J. Schlossel has built a utopian vision of a society that has completely forgotten the concept of war and seem to have a kind of mercantile socialism—at least in the first stages of interplanetary travel, trade is the thing. What does this say about 1925? The Roaring Twenties, the space between World Wars? The brief moment where a lot of the world toyed with the idea of Communism while watching Russia with a mix of hope and suspicion?

Was J. Schlossel a Red?

Or was J. Schlossel (see how I’m avoiding pronouns?) just as tired of war as anyone who lived through World War I?

Then here we see a clearer statement of at least a post-racist, socialist utopia:

The inhabitants of the Twelve Confederate Worlds were not individualists. They had advanced beyond that stage on the day when their separate worlds had united, for on that day each race had given up its deep-rooted dream that its own peculiar species had been created supreme above all others. It was the intelligence, not the form or color of their fellow creatures, that they held in high esteem.

But then the seemingly inevitable question that undercuts any utopian vision:

One question loomed up large: would not this perpetual peace and ease breed a race of cowardly degenerates?

Schlossel then asks—and this I find fascinating—the next question, which other anti-utopianists fail to ask: Why is that so bad? If you’ve eliminated war, how can not having a killer instinct be bad? If you don’t have anyone to shoot at, why learn how to shoot?

Finally, then, the interloper planet is detected and the Twelve Worlds activates its version of the Emergency Broadcasting System. And here, he just got me:

No attention was at first paid to those who let their emotions run away with them, but later, when the hysteria of the few was spreading like wildfire, it was decided to banish all who were inclined to excessive nervousness to some far off spot until the crisis was either past, or their fate definitely settled.

Let’s get the scared people out of here.

I wonder if that would work for America, 2018?

Although there would be about forty of us left.

Is this the author’s reaction to the difficult (at best) to nail down causes of the First World War? The sense that people overreacted to a few small events and marched off to a disastrous war half-cocked?

I don’t know.

Then the scientists decide this is no big deal, that the approaching planet will miss the solar system, but then the repeated sin of the omniscient viewpoint blows up that fleeting hope:

If their instruments could have seen beneath the snowlike covering, seen what was going on there, the Confederate Worlds would have begun feverish preparations for one of the most desperate struggles that had ever been fought.

Sigh.

Okay.

Moving on.

This is interesting—did J. Schlossel accidently identify dark matter in 1925?

And that approaching world and many others had come from somewhere out there, not from a living, glowing star cluster, but from the outskirts of a dead, intensely black region, from a region, if such a region can be imagined, where all matter is nearly stable, and so all matter almost dead. There were no flaming suns there to give light to that terrible darkness. Each body within the borders of that lifeless region was breaking down. the molecules were disintegrating, the atoms flying free. In the boundless sea of ether the atoms were moving sluggishly away in vast, cloudlike masses. This was the end of the universe.

Science fiction meets science… accidentally? I love it when that happens. And it will happen in this story twice—maybe even three times.

The second is the reveal that the strange planet is actually a sort of starship housing what looks like a cryogenically preserved population of strange, bipedal creatures. The planet is looking for a star to orbit so its atmosphere can unfreeze. Another fascinating science fiction concept described from a distance—and was he the first to think of that? Sending frozen astronauts out into space so they can sleep through the long trip? I’m not sure.

That aside, though, I’m just going to say it right now: This isn’t a story, this is a synopsis for a story (sans characters) and I’m finding myself more and more desperately wanting to take this outline and write this novel myself! Put characters into this, show them doing this stuff in the moment, conveying only what those POV characters know in that moment and attaching the meat to this weird, groovy, Old School SF skeleton.

Anyway, the “story” continues with the strange invaders acting like a disease, colonizing and expanding without any sense of proper resource management. Who, I wonder, in the world of 1925, are these invaders supposed to be? Who was colonizing like this, moving in, setting up cities, pushing out local populations? Or were the Europeans the invaders from outside and the Twelve Worlds are Native Americans?

We get back to the anti-utopian thing with this grim passage:

The Confederate Worlds awoke to their danger at last. Was it too late? They sought in their museums and in the old archives of their early histories for plans of death-dealing devices that their own ancient, blood-thirsty ancestors had used. They discarded their foolish dreams of peace and selected the ideas for the most terrible weapons that they could find and they began to manufacture these with lightning rapidity.

“Foolish dreams of peace”? That’s sad, isn’t it? What I thought started as a call for a more peaceful post-war world seems to have degenerated into a clarion call for what, in 1925, was the as-yet unimagined military industrial complex. Maybe I don’t want to write this book now!

Anyway, the story descends into all out war.

As the war rages, we start to see the principle advantage the Twelve Worlds has, and that’s a superior technology. The aliens still behave like invading germs, and the inhabitants of the solar system fight back first with the advantage of their matter transporters allowing them to move much, much faster than the invaders, who are relying on reverse-engineered spaceships. Then a long-range ray weapon is invented that “seemed the weapon of a child, and yet whatever it touched was destroyed.”

This brings up the old Guns, Germs, and Steel concept that greater technology always wins out against the masses—a theory that certainly seemed proven true in the war still more than a decade in J. Schlossel’s future, as it did in his past with the European invasion of the Americas.

The story then takes a weird turn once the tide of war turns in the favor of the Twelve Worlds where the invaders start to sing: “It was their death song.” This is the only sign of “humanity” we see from the outsiders.

When he planet  “No. 5” is destroyed there’s an interesting bit in which we see the creation of the asteroid belt and a large chunk of it hurled onto the primitive Earth, home of “four-legged creatures,” and “Life there was instantly destroyed.” Was this the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs? Even if maybe it wasn’t an asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, this story predates the impact theory by fifty-five years. And then the survivors of the Twelve Worlds all move to Earth to start over, the dinosaurs now extinct.

That ending was dissatisfying for me because it depends on that terrible old concept that war is inevitable and it’s impossible ever to evolve beyond it because you’ll inevitably be threatened by some other less evolved guy, so let’s all agree not to evolve? I hate that.

But then here’s that weird moment when science fiction predates actual science by fifty-five years—with J. Schlossel describing the mass extinction of the dinosaurs via asteroid impact. Further research shows that a Dutch astronomer had suggested dark matter as early as 1922—and J. Schlossel was probably aware of that work. Still… pretty cutting edge stuff in 1925.

And then a quick Google search for J. Schlossel reveals that his first name was Joseph and he was a Canadian author and “Technocrat” who died in 1977.

All in all, I have mixed feelings about this story, or more accurately, this science fiction mockumentary, but it was absolutely worth a read and got me thinking.

 

—Philip Athans

 

You can jump to the next story here!

 

 

 

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WHAT’S THE WORST POSSIBLE THING YOU COULD DO TO SOMEONE?

I asked that question in one of my college courses some years ago, in front of a group of students all sitting in a room together. You wouldn’t believe—or maybe you would believe—how deeply uncomfortable that question made them, and I mean all of them. Most people either politely refused to answer or came up with some quick catch-all, like “loss of control” or “being injured” or something, frankly, safe.

Only one person had the guts to actually dig deep into that question and I could see the rest of the class turning on him as he spoke. I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember it was pretty rough, sort of a form of mixed physical and psychological torture. But that’s not the point. The thing that worried me was that out of a dozen people, eleven wouldn’t go there. Or wouldn’t go there in public.

But this sort of thinking and the willingness and ability to communicate it to the public (your readers) is what makes writing horror, in particular, but fantasy and science fiction in their many forms as well, actually scary, and not just for the reader but for the author as well. This is what makes horror challenging to write and what turns some readers off it entirely. It’s also the sort of thing that has turned some viewers away from Game of Thrones or got between Harlan Ellison and the mainstream science fiction audience way back in the day.

Though there are certainly personal doors you won’t want to go through, and I respect that, if you can’t sit for a few minutes and consider this question, I’ll go so far as to ask if horror is really the genre for you.

Writing horror means you have to shove your imagination into the abyss. You have to turn your gaze to the darkest places inside you, in your imagination, in your nightmares, in your fears. Tapping into that won’t be easy.

Michael Marano, in his essay “Going There: Strategies for Writing the Things that Scare You” in the book On Writing Horror wrote:

Horror is more than what makes a pulse race. There are other sources of horror besides fear; some are far worse than fear, and far harder to write about. I spoke to a horror writer I admire about a scene he’d written that was so full of anguish and loss that it had made my wife cry. He told me that the scene had been so brutal for him to write, he had cried at his keyboard while writing it. It can be dangerous to capture in words what skulks in the Mirkwood of your head. The nineteenth-century French writer Guy de Maupassant was tortured by what he imagined, and died crazy… a year and a half after trying to slit his own throat.

I’ve written things that have given me nightmares, that I stopped writing and set aside, and picked up only when it seemed like I had to finish it to get it out of me. Writing fiction is hard, on a good day, and that’s true of any genre—and, let’s face it, that’s true of anything worth doing well—but horror in particular means looking into places no one else really wants to see in themselves.

Can you do that?

 

—Philip Athans

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HONORING HONORIFICS

Let’s take this week to go after a certain copy editing bugaboo that I have found extremely common in both fantasy and science fiction. It’s another of those seemingly impenetrable rules governing the proper use of an initial cap.

An initial cap is when the first letter of a word is capitalized, regardless of its place in a sentence. Rules for things like proper names of people and places are easy enough to remember, and I won’t go back into railing against initial caps intended to make a common noun seem more important, but in the case of honorifics, I see authors just all over the place in how they’re handled, quite often inconsistently applying caps within a single paragraph, much less a single novel.

An honorific is used in place of a name to infer respect or high station. We don’t use them a lot in contemporary American society, but all the time in medieval-flavored fantasy.

Going to our old friend, The Chicago Manual of Style(16th Edition),* we find a firmly stated, unambiguous rule:

8.32

Honorifics. Honorific titles and respectful forms of address are capitalized in any context.

 

Her (His, Your) Majesty; Her (His, Your) Royal Highness

Your (His, Her) Excellency

but

sir, ma’am

my lord, my lady

I cherry-picked a few honorifics I see a lot from their longer list of examples. Combining lessons already learned regarding initial caps of ranks and titles, let’s see this in action in a fantasy story:

 

“Approach, Captain,” the queen commanded.

After taking two steps forward, Captain Galen sank to one knee before the beautiful Queen Bronwyn. “I fear I have bad news to report, Your Majesty,” the captain said.

“I am happy to see you alive, at least, sir,” Bronwyn said with a false smile.

“I,” a voice from behind the throne growled, “am not so happy!” Lady MacBetty strode out onto the dais, twirling a silver-bladed dagger in her left hand.

Galen scowled but said, “Good evening, my lady.”

“Take your good evening and shove—” the lady began.

“Enough,” the queen interrupted. “Now, Captain, what of the wars?”

“Twenty thousand men dead at the hands of Duke Jaerik, Your Majesty,” Galen reported, “including His Excellency the grand vizier.”

 

I threw as much in there as I could to show how all these work together.

Now consider that, if your worldbuilding includes honorifics not in Chicago’s list of examples, the rule still holds:

 

“Approach, Spearmaster,” the matriarcha commanded.

After taking two steps forward, Spearmaster Galen sank to one knee before the beautiful Matriarcha Bronwyn. “I fear I have bad news to report, Your Momentousness,” the spearmaster said.

“I am happy to see you alive, at least, sirrah,” Bronwyn said with a false smile.

“I,” a voice from behind the throne growled, “am not so happy!” Anne MacBetty strode out onto the dais, twirling a silver-bladed dagger in her left hand.

Galen scowled but said, “Good evening, sirress.”

“Take your good evening and shove—” the noblewoman began.

“Enough,” the matriarcha interrupted. “Now, Spearmaster, what of the wars?”

“Twenty thousand men dead at the hands of Imperator Jaerik, Your Momentousness,” Galen reported, “including His Pomposity the grand wizard.”

 

Same rule, different words/different worlds.

Yes?

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

* And yes, I know the 17th edition is out, but I just haven’t gotten around to ordering that yet.

 

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DOWN WITH THE COUNCIL! THE COUNCIL MUST BE STOPPED!

I had a couple other things in mind to write about this week, but then as I was working through assignments for the current run of my online worldbuilding course for Writer’s Digest I was moved to action!

This week we’re talking about government and religion—I know, your parents told you not to do that, but it’s kinda hard to talk about worldbuilding and leave those out. Of the seven students in this run of the course, six people sent in assignments for this week, and of those six, three of them called their governmental bodies the Council.

Okay, so, before you worry that if you take one of my online courses I’m going to bitch about you in public, please know that all three of those people wrote amazing stuff. And I’m seriously not just saying that. I’m always delighted by the quality of the work that comes through these courses, and this week in this class was no different. I’m not complaining about the quality of the writing, just this one thing, this single word that I see over and over again, and not just in 50% of the worldbuilding course assignments but in probably that same percentage of full manuscripts that come across my desk. One after another, after another, after another.

So this is it.

Today I begin a one-man crusade against the Council!

The Council must be stopped!

First off, please refer to my rant against the use of common nouns with an initial cap here. Absorb that, embrace that, be sensitized to that, and also please notice that the Council is the very first entry on my list of (negative) examples.

Before you panic because the Council is all over your work in progress, know that there’s about a 99% chance that your fantasy or science fiction governmental body can work exactly as you describe, because like the talented people in this course who thought through the function of that body and made its decisions and actions personal, so their characters were actually affected by its policies and decisions, most likely all you need to do to fix your Council-infected work in progress is search for the word Council and replace it with… anything else!

I’ve said this before, but let me say it again: Maybe 90% of worldbuilding is naming things. So then why would you want your things named the same as everybody else’s (or even half of everybody else’s) things?

I’ll answer that for you: You don’t!

You want the names of your worldbuilding elements to reflect the creative energy you’ve put into those details and the creative energy and individual artistry you’ve put into your characters, your story—every aspect of your writing.

What to call it then?

My thesaurus app returned:

1 the town council: municipal authority, local government, administration, executive, chamber, assembly, corporation.

2 the Student Council: advisory body, board, committee, brain trust, commission, assembly, panel; synod, convocation.

3 that evening, she held a family council: meeting, gathering, conference, conclave, assembly.

Any of those will do for now.

Thanks to Google Translate here is Council in a few other languages, which one works for you?

Azerbaijani: Şurası

Basque: Kontseilua

Corsican: Cunsigliu

Finnish: neuvosto

Hawaiian: Ka’aha’ōlelo

Malagasy: Filan-kevitra

Samoan: Fono

Sudanese: dewan

Zulu: Umkhandlu

Or, y’know… just make something up!

You can do it! The Council must be stopped! Who’s with me?

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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FIRST SENTENCES IN DETAIL: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 2

I won’t stay stuck on this Amazing Stories series every week, but I wanted to touch back right away after starting out last week with a look at the completely out of context first and last lines. This week, let’s just ruminate on the first sentences and see what we might be able to learn from them.

Remember what Lester Dent says in his Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot: “First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved—something the hero has to cope with.”

First, we can see how these stack up to that, starting with “introduce your hero.”

Of the twenty-one stories in this issue (still amazed at the quantity of content there!), a cursory glance shows that exactly two-thirds of them, fourteen stories, begin either in the first person point of view of a character we can at least assume for now is the “hero,” or identifies a character by name in the first line:

 

As Obligated by Armstrong Livingston

Sir Geoffrey Coombe, Bart., snorted contentedly as his round bald head and his plum white shoulders emerged above the waters of his morning tub; without troubling to open his eyes, he reached over the edge of his porcelain container and groped blindly along the length of the heated towel rail.

Here we meet Sir Geoffrey Coombe, but he’s not quite in the middle of some sort of action scene or anything, is he? Dent says, “and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved—something the hero has to cope with.” But I’m not getting that from this first line!

The Rajah’s Gift by E. Hoffman Price

Strange tales are told of the rajah of Laera-Kai, of the justice he dealt, of the rewards he gave; but the strangest of all these many tales is that of the gift he gave to Zaid, the Persian who had served him long and well.

Likewise this would seem to indicate that our “hero” is Laera-Kai—or will it turn out to be Zaid? That doesn’t matter, to me at least. What’s most important, and what we’re looking for in this weird exercise in going back to the fundamentals, is that it begins with characters. We read stories to inhabit a person, not a setting, not a theme or an idea, but a fellow traveler who will take us on a journey through that setting, winding through a plot, to hopefully leave us a bit smarter in some way or another (theme).

White Man’s Madness by Lenore E. Chaney

Hour after hour John Martin staggered up the steep trail, singing bits of ribald songs picked up here and there throughout a rather free and easy past.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see John Martin staggering up a hill in any other condition but “free and easy,” but where I think he might pass Lester Dent’s vague test is that he’s “singing bits of ribald songs picked up here and there throughout a rather free and easy past.” Is that hinting that John Martin’s present is neither free nor easy? Since this story was published in Amazing Stories, I think it’s safe to assume it is not.

Red and Black by Irvin Mattick

Yong Lo was a reptile with an artist’s soul.

Bonus points for the character’s name immediately up front, but I’m getting the feeling that Yong Lo is not the hero but the villain of this piece. As such, should it even be on this list? Still, I might actually go so far as to rewrite Dent’s formula to read:

First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the villain and show him being villainous. Hint at a mystery, a menace, or a problem to be solved by a hero to be named later.

It is my firm belief that the only story structure you really need to embrace is that the villain starts the story and the hero ends it.

When We Killed Thompson by Strickland Gillilan

My, how I used to lie awake nights, staring into the darkness of the attic, wishing we hadn’t done it!

Ah, the classic opener in which we’re told up front that something went terribly wrong then the story circles back to show that play out. This is a bit old fashioned by today’s standards and could be read as a spoiler. Now we know that the as yet unnamed narrator will live to regret what’s about to happen, so at least we know that things won’t work out well in the end—but the bigger spoiler, for my money, is that now we know the end of his/her emotional arc as well. Whatever happens, it ends in regret.

On the Highway by Cargray Cook

My twenty-first birthday.

Pregnant with possibility… I guess. I’m assuming the unnamed narrator is the hero, but I could be wrong. This reads passive to me. Is that really the strongest detail to start with? We’ll have to actually read on to really judge that, I guess, but somewhere Lester Dent is shaking his head.

The Ocean Leech by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.

I heard Boucke beating with his bare fists upon the cabin door and the wind whistling under the cracks.

It’s a reasonable guess to assume that the first person narrator is the hero and Boucke might end up as a minor player, bringing news of some kind of emergency. I think this covers what Dent was asking for, more or less, and at the very least hints that something’s afoot. It has action in it. And by action I mean: a character is doing anything. And “beating with his bare fists upon the cabin door” at least implies some urgency.

Luisma’s Return by Arthur J. Burks

Christophe, who called himself Henri I, Emperor of Northern Haiti, was the greatest monster in all history.

I bet this Christophe guy, like Yong Lo in “Red and Black,” is actually the villain of the story. That works for me, but unfortunately, he isn’t doing anything right away. This definitely makes me fear for an info dump to follow, in which we have to be educated on the life and sins of the Emperor of Northern Haiti before anything like a story begins. I hope I’m wrong!

A Changeling Soul by Victor Lauriston

Flora, hesitant, whispered: “It is—impossible.”

Now you’re talking—and starting with a woman, no less! That is a rare treat for these old science fiction magazines. I fear that we’ll find Flora fading into the background as things progress, but for this week let’s at least hold out hope that the “hero” of “A Changeling Soul” is actually a “heroine.” That aside, the fact that she’s clearly amazed by something makes me want to read the next sentence, so as first sentences go, it’s a success!

The Valley of Teeheemen by Arthur Thatcher

When Benton realized that Virginia and Holton had disappeared, he thought quickly of the best course to pursue.

And hopefully that’s all we get of the planning session!

The Remorse of Professor Panebianco by Greye La Spina

“Cielo, what an enormous crystal globe, Filippo!” exclaimed Dottore Giuseppe del Giovine, regarding the great inverted glass bell that hung over the professor’s dining table.

Whether Filippo or Giuseppe turns out to be either the hero or villain of the story, props for starting with a character speaking and/or doing something. And here we’re also being introduced to a thing that might end up being a McGuffin, or… who knows? We’re going have to read it to find out. Also, right away, I’m taking a wild guess that this story is set in Italy.

Arhl-a of the Caves by C.M. Edy, Jr.

When Arhl-a opened her eyes, darkness had settled over the universe.

Female protagonist number two! Down with the patriarchy! See, I told you the content of pulp stories wasn’t as casually misogynistic as the covers often were. Here we have our heroine named right up front (as well as in the title!), and something clearly bad is happening. Darkness settling over the universe can’t be good, right?

The Festival by H.P. Lovecraft

I was far from home, and the spell of the eastern sea was upon me.

Spoiler alert, I’ve read this story before and know where this is going but still, we begin with “I”—call him as much a “hero” as you might tend to find in a story by our old pal Howard Phillips, and in his own fashion he begins by setting a mood.

Something tells me H.P. Lovecraft and Lester Dent were more at odds, artistically, than they were simpatico. Lovecraft tends to start with grim foreboding then spiral into cosmic madness, revealing the “mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved” a bit more slowly. And the problem is only very rarely solvable.

Phantoms by Laurence R. D’Orsay

The only man who knew the story was Carson, and he never told it.

Hm. Is Carson the hero? Assuming “Phantoms” tells the story Carson never told, he’s at least a survivor of whatever it is that’s happened. But here’s another version of what we saw in the opening line of “When We Killed Thompson.” This feels less spoiler-ey, though, since we know at least Carson lived to (not) tell the tale, but have no sense of how he was affected by it except what we’re left to interpret from the fact that he never told it. And I like being able to bring some of my own active interpretation into a story, so I’ll just say I like this one, and am curious to see what Carson’s been hiding.

So then the rest of the stories started with something other than a character, hero or otherwise, so fall outside Lester Dent’s advice, but so what, really? Lester Dent has left us some interesting pointers, but let’s not allow anyone to force us to write to a template. Let’s see what the other third did here.

Invaders from Outside: A Tale of the Twelve Worlds by. J. Schlossel

On every hand huge brilliant suns, single or multiple, flashed past with their retinue of small dark planets.

This issue of Amazing Stories falls back far enough toward the beginnings of what we know as modern science fiction that starting up in space was probably eye-catching enough for SF readers of the time. There’s a poetry to this, too, that I really like. Screw the hero, let’s hear it for the solar system!

The Electric Chair by George Waight

The facts were carefully hushed up at the time.

Our third spoiler-ish opening, but I think this goes wrong by not attaching any sort of character to it. No one in particular is hushing up whatever it was, so we’re left with what, to me at least, feels a bit more like idle curiosity as to what might have been so bad that it was “hushed up at the time.”

The Fireplace by Henry S. Whitehead

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!

Wings of Power by Lady Anne Bonny

The moon’s stealthy searchlight extended long, ghostly fingers into the darkened bedroom on the second floor of a fine old house that huddled between encroaching warehouses on a street that had known better days.

I need to do a little research to see if Lady Anne Bonny was the author’s real name* or if this is some dude writing under a frilly female pseudonym. That wouldn’t be at all out of the ordinary for the time. But let’s give Lady Anne the benefit of the doubt for now and credit Amazing Stories for not being 100% all male author, all the time. Whoever she was, though, I think Lady Anne packed a bit more information into that opener than one sentence should be tasked with carrying. And though her imagery is fun, if quaint, she’s starting with a version of the weather report, which I just… don’t…

Out of the Long Ago by Seabury Quinn

Two letters in the afternoon mail; both requiring answers.

Well, whoop-de-doo for the afternoon mail! Okay, I’m being unfair to one of the most successful authors of his day. This opening does promise that something interesting will be in both of two letters. But we have no idea who sent those letters and who received those letters. Hero? Villain? Both? Neither? I have questions, but I don’t feel desperate to find out what’s in those letters because they came to me in the abstract.

Fog by C. Franklin Miller

Some men are like the throb of a kettledrum.

I like to fancy myself one of those men. Anyway, I may as well be for all my wife and kids seem to hear what I’m saying.

Quick: Is that a metaphor or a simile?

The Specter Priestess of Wrightstone by Herman F. Wright

The ruins of historic old Wrightstone Castle still rear their crumbling towers above the dreary Hampton Bog, near Manchester, a fast decaying but fitting memorial to the foul deeds and fiendish proceedings that have taken place within its bleak walls.

It’s hard for me to criticize this when something similar is my favorite opening paragraph of all time. See The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Ms. Jackson did it better—much better—but if we compare just the two stories in this issue of Amazing Stories that start from the POV of a building, this one is better than “The Fireplace.”

 

Okay, then, fundamentals learned:

  • Lead with character—so your readers have a point of view to follow.
  • That character should be the hero if you agree with Lester Dent, or the villain if you agree with me. And you’re free to agree with both of us. I know I do!
  • Action = any character doing anything. Pounding on a door counts. It doesn’t have to be the middle of some violent fight scene.
  • Mood, if well conveyed, can replace action.
  • Opening with an info dump, a weather report, or an object in the abstract is not good.

What else?

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

* Turns out Anne Bonny was a real-life pirate. Might need to read this story to see if it was presented as if it were written by her. But then who did write it? The plot thickens!

 

 

 

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FIRST & LAST: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 1

In his famous Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, author Lester Dent offers a lot of advice—some slightly oddball and some with real lasting value. This week, let’s look at the opposite ends of his “formula” in terms of how to start a story and how to end it.

Dent says: “First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved—something the hero has to cope with.”

And ends with: “The snapper, the punch line to end it.”

So how did actual pulp authors of (more or less) his era stack up to that advice? Rather than cherry-pick examples of the best or worst, I thought it would be interesting to find a random pulp magazine and look at just the first and lines from every story. So without further ado, I give you just the first sentences of every story in the January, 1925 issue (Volume 5, Number 1) of Weird Tales, edited by Farnsworth Wright.

Invaders from Outside: A Tale of the Twelve Worlds by J. Schlossel

On every hand huge brilliant suns, single or multiple, flashed past with their retinue of small dark planets.

The Electric Chair by George Waight

The facts were carefully hushed up at the time.

As Obligated by Armstrong Livingston

Sir Geoffrey Coombe, Bart., snorted contentedly as his round bald head and his plum white shoulders emerged above the waters of his morning tub; without troubling to open his eyes, he reached over the edge of his porcelain container and groped blindly along the length of the heated towel rail.

The Rajah’s Gift by E. Hoffman Price

Strange tales are told of the rajah of Laera-Kai, of the justice he dealt, of the rewards he gave; but the strangest of all these many tales is that of the gift he gave to Zaid, the Persian who had served him long and well.

The Fireplace by Henry S. Whitehead

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.

White Man’s Madness by Lenore E. Chaney

Hour after hour John Martin staggered up the steep trail, singing bits of ribald songs picked up here and there throughout a rather free and easy past.

Red and Black by Irvin Mattick

Yong Lo was a reptile with an artist’s soul.

When We Killed Thompson by Strickland Gillilan

My, how I used to lie awake nights, staring into the darkness of the attic, wishing we hadn’t done it!

Wings of Power by Lady Anne Bonny

The moon’s stealthy searchlight extended long, ghostly fingers into the darkened bedroom on the second floor of a fine old house that huddled between encroaching warehouses on a street that had known better days.

Out of the Long Ago by Seabury Quinn

Two letters in the afternoon mail; both requiring answers.

On the Highway by Cargray Cook

My twenty-first birthday.

The Ocean Leech by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.

I heard Boucke beating with his bare fists upon the cabin door and the wind whistling under the cracks.

Fog by C. Franklin Miller

Some men are like the throb of a kettledrum.

Luisma’s Return by Arthur J. Burks

Christophe, who called himself Henri I, Emperor of Northern Haiti, was the greatest monster in all history.

A Changeling Soul by Victor Lauriston

Flora, hesitant, whispered: “It is—impossible.”

The Specter Priestess of Wrightstone by Herman F. Wright

The ruins of historic old Wrightstone Castle still rear their crumbling towers above the dreary Hampton Bog, near Manchester, a fast decaying but fitting memorial to the foul deeds and fiendish proceedings that have taken place within its bleak walls.

The Valley of Teeheemen by Arthur Thatcher

(Actually the opening line of Chapter 13 in the second part of a two-part serial:)

When Benton realized that Virginia and Holton had disappeared, he thought quickly of the best course to pursue.

(Attention novelists: The first sentence of each chapter is just as important as the first sentence in a short story!)

The Remorse of Professor Panebianco by Greye La Spina

“Cielo, what an enormous crystal globe, Filippo!” exclaimed Dottore Giuseppe del Giovine, regarding the great inverted glass bell that hung over the professor’s dining table.

Arhl-a of the Caves by C.M. Edy, Jr.

When Arhl-a opened her eyes, darkness had settled over the universe.

The Festival by H.P. Lovecraft

I was far from home, and the spell of the eastern sea was upon me.

Phantoms by Laurence R. D’Orsay

The only man who knew the story was Carson, and he never told it.

 

And now, the last sentences:

Invaders from Outside: A Tale of the Twelve Worlds by J. Schlossel

The survivors of the Twelve Confederate Worlds made their way to the Earth, the least injured of the planets, and there they began anew, in a strange environment, to build the civilization that had been wrecked by the invaders from beyond the Milky Way.

The Electric Chair by George Waight

When they reached him, he was quite dead.

As Obligated by Armstrong Livingston

Sir Geoffrey, a little shaken, stared at the letter. He continued to stare until his wife reminded him that the eggs were getting cold. . . .

The Rajah’s Gift by E. Hoffman Price

Yet once, at least, though he did not know it, the rajah had made a futile move: the shot of Al Tarik had missed; and there was no wound on the Persian’s body.

The Fireplace by Henry S. Whitehead

The fingers had sunk deeply into the bluish, discolored flesh, and the coroner’s jury noted unusual circumstance when they sent out a description of the murderer confined to this peculiarity, that these marks indicated that the murderer (who was never discovered) possessed very long thin fingers, the index fingers being almost or quite as long as the middle fingers.

White Man’s Madness by Lenore E. Chaney

White man’s madness—ever it leads to sorrow and to death.

Red and Black by Irvin Mattick

His dismembered, clenched fist remained aloft in the locked handcuff, next to his other arm by which he swung, bleeding to death from the handless right arm dangling over Yong Lo’s strangled body.

When We Killed Thompson by Strickland Gillilan

But a fear had lodged in my emotional system that had not, until that withered native had said “cah”, been wholly absent from me.

Wings of Power by Lady Anne Bonny

“I shall make her consent to marry you,” he said, pointing to the laboratory table, “by means of the wishing machine!”

[TO BE CONTINUED]

(Goes back to that advice, again, that a chapter can (should?) also end on a kind of cliffhanger or a version of Lester Dent’s “punch line.”)

Out of the Long Ago by Seabury Quinn

And Alice Frasanet, fox-trotting, bridge-playing, tea-drinking Alice Frasanet, laid her fluffy, empty little head against his breast.

On the Highway by Cargray Cook

Oh, my God, I amthe dead man!

(Okay, I have to say right away—that one is my favorite!)

The Ocean Leech by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.

I looked away towards the black topsail masthead.

Fog by C. Franklin Miller

On the bottom lay a lump of putty!

Luisma’s Return by Arthur J. Burks

He died a few years ago, in Cap Haitien, insisting, even on his deathbed, that his story was true.

A Changeling Soul by Victor Lauriston

Heedless of Sundry’s astonished stare and wild questionings, the newPhilip Kingswell caught a passing car, bound for the West End—bound for Flora.

The Specter Priestess of Wrightstone by Herman F. Wright

The present Count Wrightstone, Sir Mandeville Wright, is now residing at London.

The Valley of Teeheemen by Arthur Thatcher

“Good-bye to the land of Teeheemen,” echoed her companion.

The Remorse of Professor Panebianco by Greye La Spina

I, who believed I would never experience the emotion of regret, shall suffer remorse for that weakness until I die!

Arhl-a of the Caves by C.M. Edy, Jr.

And there in the heart of the jungle, with only the moon looking on, the girl found her place in the out-stretched arms of the man and the evening breeze softly kissed the reunited pair.

(Do I even say this? The character recognition software read “arms” as “anus.” Might have changed the whole ending there. Proofreading, people. Proofreading.)

The Festival by H.P. Lovecraft

Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.

Phantoms by Laurence R. D’Orsay

For Carson was as hard-headed a man as you could find in the country, and his pride was that he wasn’t superstitious.

 

Kinda weird without any other context, but we’ll start to try to make sense of this starting next week. And hey—how about this idea:

Because the kind folks over at archive.org were kind enough to scan this and make it available to anyone who wants to read it—what if we all read this whole issue of Weird Tales together, coming back to it from time to time as a way to touch base with what coaches would call “the fundamentals”—the basic skill set required of the genre author?

That could be fun!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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WHAT’S IN A NAME?

I work with a lot of young/aspiring authors and time and again I find them suffering over the subject of naming characters and places. Placeholders abound, names from other works like the Forgotten Realms or Game of Thrones start to sneak in, or sometimes they just fall back on real world names so you get something almost as clunky as Sir John Johnson or Nancy, Queen of the Witches.

Choosing the right name for your characters and the places they inhabit is one of the many hard parts in the bottomless sea of hard parts that is writing fiction—and science fiction and fantasy in particular. It’s a bigger subject than one post, so when I had an opportunity to be a part of the Writer’s Digest’s Fourth Annual Science Fiction & Fantasy Virtual Conference this coming weekend (my bit’s on Saturday the 21st) I jumped at the chance to finally tackle the name question in greater detail.

I really hope you’ll be able to be there, and ask questions, but either way, if you are struggling with names,  I have dived into this pool here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook a few times:

The Name Game

This one focusses on one oddball idea for changing vowels around—but it’s mostly about trying things and keeping names that work and throwing away the ones that don’t.

Lester Dent’s Wave Those Tags

A series of posts that dig into some long-lost advice from our favorite pulpster. Like his plot “formula” there’s some good advice here surrounded by a few odd turns. Use with care!

Please Stop Using Initial Caps as a Substitute for Creativity

Find and destroy those placeholders—and do it as soon as possible. Even if you didn’t intend them to be placeholders. This is the must-read of the bunch since it’s something I’m seeing practically all the time.

Read, Think, Repeat

In this post I outed myself for my tendency to take notes while reading. In that spirit, I circled this passage in Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune as an example of a story reason behind a generic or “placeholder” name:

The stir as they came down and circled over Sheeana’s Desert Watch Center awakened her.

Desert Watch Center. We’re at it again. We haven’t really named it… no more than we gave a name to this planet. Chapterhouse! What kind of a name is that? Desert Watch Center! Description, not a name. Accent on the temporary.

As they descended, she saw confirmations of her thought. The sense of temporary housing was amplified by spartan abruptness in all junctures. No softness, no rounding of any connection. This attaches here and that goes over here. All joined by removable connectors.

This example will make it into the additional material for my newly revised online course Worldbuilding in Fantasy & Science Fiction, which starts up again on July 26, but tends to run maybe every couple months or so. I added a whole session on geography that deals with naming both places and people. Here’s a little taste of that from the course material:

Otherwise, in more exotic settings it may actually be best to simply string letters together that sound interesting. But even then, be cautious of your readers’ ability to track new words. If character and place names are more than three syllables long, you might want to rethink—if they’re more than four syllables, please do. Also be as clear as you can in regards to pronunciation. This might seem like no big deal—until someone gets the audio book rights and a poor beleaguered narrator has to figure out your goblin names, none of which include vowels because you thought it would be clever to decide that goblins hadn’t invented vowels yet.

Yeah… guilty as charged.

Or, you can just take an existing name and add -onius, -ainous, or -anous to it.

 

—Philonius Athanous

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