PUBLISHING SEASON IS… WHEN?

To be able to earn a living as a freelance writer in this country is damned hard; there are very few people who can do that.

Hunter S. Thompson

So you’re done with your book. It’s as good as you can get it. You’ve cleaned up the writing and the formatting and you’re ready to start sending it out into the cold, uncaring clutches of the monolithic publishing industry.

Scary, right?

I doubt you’ll believe me when I tell you it’s not at all cold or uncaring. In my direct experience, book editors love books, and love the people who write them. There’s been another merger recently that does make it appear increasingly monolithic, but that’s a subject for another post. In any case, people are buying books and reading books, and not even Joyce Carol Oates or James Patterson can write all the books, so they are looking for new books, and (believe it or not) new authors. No one is going to discover the next franchise author unless they find that goofy kid from Maine who turns out to be Stephen King. Deals are being made, people! It’s true.

And I know it’s hard to hear people like me tell you to patiently, laboriously work through literally years of submission and rejection, submission and rejection, over and over again in constant pursuit of that elusive one “yes” that gets your novel published. There has to be a short cut. There has to be a way to game the system, cheat the algorithm… time the query, at least…?

When is the best time to query agents? I have no idea. I’m pretty sure it’s the spring. Everyone works more in spring. But really the best time to query a specific agent is to listen to them and believe them when they say they are open to submissions, and likewise believe them when they say they are closed to submissions.

But I feel like I have to try to offer some insight, so it occurred to me to look at at least one dataset I have available. I pay $25 a month for PublishersMarketplace and at least for that query period I would suggest all authors do the same. This is where you find the agents that are open to submissions and how to submit your manuscript to them. You can find which agents repped your list of comp titles (books close to yours in genre, sub-genre, setting, etc.) and so might be open to that kind of thing, and know the right editors to send it to.

In terms of when is the best time, I don’t have data for when agents are open or closed, or when they sign new clients, but PublishersMarketplace does give me solid data on deals that have been signed; when that deal was reported; and who the author, agent, and editor were.

You have to be inside the paywall to find the page The Latest Deals. I went there and set the filters for 2020 and Sci-Fi/Fantasy. This came back with 86 deals from January 7, 2020 (Boundless by Jack Campbell to editor Anne Sowards at Ace via agent Joshua Bilmes) to December 22, 2020 (Plague Birds by Jason Sanford to Jason Sizemore at Apex).

This is, keep in mind, when the deals were done: signed and ready to be reported to the pubic. This is not when the book was actually accepted by the publisher, not the day the author signed the contracts, etc., so there is some unknown amount of time that passes from that editor asking for a full manuscript to when that deal is finalized and ready to be made public. Add to that the time it takes between querying an agent to signing with the agent to having the agent get a full manuscript request from that editor, and you have an unknown length of time that is at least many months, easily a year or more. For at least one anecdotal case, in her article “For Brandon Sanderson, It’s Back to the Beginning,” Laura Steven wrote:

Before becoming the Brandon Sanderson most of the fantasy world knows today, the prolific author wrote 13 manuscripts without selling a single book. He took a job as a night clerk at a hotel because he could write while on shift. Despite a mounting stack of rejection letters (mostly telling him to be grittier, he says, “like George R.R. Martin”), he persevered. He was rewarded in 2003, when Moshe Feder, an editor at Tor, acquired his novel Elantris 18 months after it was first submitted.

So then after that unknown length of time plus or minus eighteen months, and all those other variables, can we still get anything out of this? We can try.

Here’s how many deals were reported to PublishersMarketplace for the (adult… YA is a separate list) fantasy and science fiction genres in 2020, by month:

January: 11

February: 5

March: 13

(Q1: 29)

April: 5

May: 8

June: 6

(Q2: 19)

July: 10

August: 6

September: 9

(Q3: 25)

October: 6

November: 4

December: 3

(Q4: 13)

I find it not at all surprising that the smallest number is in December, but I am a little surprised by 11 deals being reported in January. Maybe that’s just a sort of back-to-work-after-the-holidays thing. This was 2020, too, so the low numbers in April, May, and June may be complete aberrations thanks to COVID-19. In fact, all of 2020 might be a giant anomaly, so let’s look at 2019 too…

Believe it or not, there were actually a dozen fewer deals reported in pre-plague 2019, but still let’s see how the monthly totals match up

January: 7

February: 8

March: 8

(Q1: 23)

April: 9

May: 4

June: 6

(Q2 19)

July: 9

August: 2

September: 2

(Q3 13)

October: 4

November: 11

December: 4

(Q4: 19)

Most deals in both years were reported in the first quarter (January-March). Both years saw an above average number of deals reported in January and July. Both years saw a below average number of deals reported in August, October, and December. The biggest month for deals in 2019 was November, but in 2020 the biggest month was March. That alone tells me nothing.

I think the best we can get from this is that…

  • I am not a statistician by trade or education.*
  • Deals are reported throughout the year.
  • Editors start their year by signing deals after some unknown number of months of reading, thinking, presenting, P&L-ing, negotiating, and so on.
  • They also get some deals wrapped up before August when New Yorkers typically flee the hot, humid city for an extended vacation. They still do that, right?

Other fun facts:

An agent handled all but one of the deals in 2019, though there might still have been an agent involved, just no name was mentioned.

The reported deals in 2019 were weighted toward fantasy, with 44 fantasy deals compared to 23 science fiction deals, with the remaining 7 a mixture of both or I just wasn’t sure from the brief description. That there were almost twice as many deals made on fantasy novels as for science fiction doesn’t surprise me at all. If anything, that felt like a nice trend up for SF.

If you’re targeting an agent, the top five fantasy and science fiction “dealmakers” of the past 12 months are, in order from most deals to least: Russell Galen (Scovil Galen Ghosh), Paul Lucas (Janklow & Nesbit), DonWon Song (Howard Morhaim), Naomi Davis (BookEnds), and Michael Curry (Donald Maass).

I think one thing all of those agents, and the editors they’ve sold their clients’ books to, will tell you is your job as the author is to write the best book you possibly can, put the grind-work into getting it in front of the right person, and in the meantime be writing an even better book.

Always remember: The only thing we have control over is the quality of our work.

—Philip Athans

 

* If you see anything in these numbers I don’t, please share that in a comment!

 

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RANDOM LESSONS FROM RANDOM BOOKS

Just a couple weeks ago I said again that writers should always be reading, that we can learn more from reading the work of others than we can in most courses or books on writing. This is true—if we’re actively reading.

I love a good book. I even love mediocre books if they’re at least fun and in some way surprising. And, of course, those definitions “good” and “mediocre” are entirely my own. Sometimes, when I’m reading for pleasure, I do let myself fall into the story. This really is why we read fiction. But still, it can be difficult to turn off the editor’s eye, and maybe harder still to turn off the writing teacher’s eye. So when I’m reading there’s always a corner of my brain asking, “Should I write this down?” or “I wish I’d seen this before I wrote that post on pacing an action scene!” and so on. I’m always on the lookout for lessons, examples of what works and doesn’t. This is the sort of “active reading” we should be doing, at least some of the time. It wouldn’t hurt to go into reading any novel thinking: What can I learn from this?

But what does that kind of reading actually look like?

As an exercise, I went to a shelf right next to my desk and pulled out three novels more or less at random. I have not read any of these yet—they’re just sitting there waiting—so I can’t and won’t try to make us all suffer through some detailed breakdown of everything these authors did wrong or did right. But just to show exactly how much we can get out of someone else’s published work, I’m going to flip through them and see what floats to the surface…

Without Fail by Lee Child (2002)

Here’s how to write the first paragraph of a thriller:

They found out about him in July and stayed angry all the way through August. They tried to kill him in September. It was way too soon. They weren’t ready. The attempt was a failure. It could have been a disaster, but it was actually a miracle. Because nobody noticed.

Lesson learned in starting in media res (in the middle of things). Here is someone who is in big trouble. We have no idea yet who he is and whether or not he deserves to be killed (if anyone deserves to be killed). Is this a group of bad guys trying to kill a good guy, or a group of good guys trying to kill a bad guy? What are they so angry about? Who is “he”? Now, the cover does identify the author and reads: A JACK REACHER NOVEL across the bottom, so we can probably start making some guesses from that. But anyway, who are “they”? There is a character in here, whether or not he’s Jack Reacher. This is not “It was a dark and stormy night.” This is clearly a story about people trying to kill a person. Even in this one little paragraph, the story has started and there are people with at least the emotion of anger in conflict with another person. And that’s what a story is: characters in conflict. Okay, I would have pushed back on italicizing the last sentence—that felt a little too much for me—but see? I’ve now written 215 words of thoughts and questions and one complaint about a fifty-word opening paragraph. 

Shadow Catcher by Tim Champlin (1985)

A western—cool! I haven’t read a western in ages, and haven’t read many all together. I’m going to open up to random page…

“Yeeoow!” Wiley yelled and jumped sideways. His foot hit the loose rocks and he cartwheeled down the steep slope to our left, into a thick patch of cactus some fifteen feet below.

With his anguished wail in my ears, I caught a movement on the ledge where he had been standing. A sunning rattlesnake was uncoiling and beginning to slide away out of sight around the slab.

“Oh, God! Matt! Ohh!”

I took one last, quick look toward the spot where the snake disappeared, and then began a careful descent of the slope.

“Anything busted?” I yelled.

“I can’t move!”

“Where’re you hurt?”

“Everywhere!” came the cry.

Well, this is fun! Here’s a mix of dialog and action from which we can pull a lot of valuable writing lessons. First of all, I have a general beef with stuff like “Yeeoow!” I should write a separate post about that. For me, at least, and I don’t feel I’m alone in this, spelling out the sound of someone screaming, laughing, etc. just comes off as goofy. And not just sometimes, because you want to be goofy (and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be goofy) but really all the time, even when you’re not trying to be goofy. In this case I’m a bit on the fence, because the author may well have been trying to be goofy. Maybe?

Like me, were you stopped by: Wiley yelled and jumped sideways? To me this read: Wiley yelled sideways, and Wiley jumped sideways. I think he meant to say that Wiley yelled then either at the same time or right after yelling, he jumped sideways. Is it as easy as adding a comma? Wiley yelled, and jumped sideways. Maybe. But if we cut the “Yeeoow!” which I really think we should, it might be:

Wiley yelled. He jumped sideways and his foot hit the loose rocks. He cartwheeled down the steep slope to our left, into a thick patch of cactus some fifteen feet below.

I like that better. It puts like action with like action. Then this is mostly fine:

With his anguished wail in my ears, I caught a movement on the ledge where he had been standing. A sunning rattlesnake was uncoiling and beginning to slide away out of sight around the slab.

But maybe instead of this poor rattlesnake verbing all over himself:

A rattlesnake uncoiled and started to slide away out of sight around the slab.

“Oh, God! Matt! Ohh!” Is fine, too, only without the last bit, which sits alongside “Yeeoow!” Make this just: “Oh, God! Matt!”

One issue here, and that’s the word “toward.” Follow the link:

I took one last, quick look toward the spot where the snake disappeared, and then began a careful descent of the slope.

Then it ends strong!

“Anything busted?” I yelled.

“I can’t move!”

“Where’re you hurt?”

“Everywhere!” came the cry.

I like that the author, having established there were only two people there, leaves off the dialog attribution where it isn’t necessary. I had no trouble following who was speaking which line of dialog. You might get a little push back with the non-standard “came the cry,” but I like it. Dialog attribution does not only have to be he said, she asked. You can cry (as in to yell) a line of dialog. You see “he cried” all the time. Why not a little extra pizzazz?

So, a mixed bag there, but lessons learned!

Berserker Fury by Fred Saberhagen (1997)

I’ve collected up the complete Berserker series having read the first one as a kid. I really liked it back then, but have yet to plunge into the rest of the series.

What struck me about this book, just flipping through it, wasn’t the writing but the typography. Here, indie author/publishers please take note. Novels are, mostly, page after page of text. On first blush it can seem as though little or no thought really goes into that. Of course, that’s not true. I’ve written a bit in the past about at least some basic typography stuff, but before you set your book up for a print edition, find a bunch of recent books from major publishers and examine them closely. Unfortunately, though, if you chose Berserker Fury for that reason you’ll be treated to an example of what not to do.

Scene breaks signal to your readers a change in POV and/or place and/or time. In a manuscript to be read by agents and editors, three asterisks on an otherwise empty line will suffice—and they’ll suffice in a printed book, too, though there’s actually all sorts of creative leeway there. In Berserker Fury the strange choice of leaving an empty line then starting with a big bold, sans serif initial cap simply did not work for me. This is especially true since Mr. Saberhagen seems fond of the scene break. This just looks weird to me. It’s distracting, pulling me out of the text to instead puzzle at the design.

So look at that. Three randomly chosen books, randomly chosen pages, randomly chosen examples, and real lessons learned.

Keep reading… and thinking!

—Philip Athans

 

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CONFRONTING THE WEIRD

It’s been a weird year, what with this weird virus making our normal lives weird. It’s weird that kids can’t go to school and their parents can’t go to bars. We had this weird president that made weird decisions, or even more weirdly, made no decisions at all. Then the weird election that went on for days—that was weird. A couple weeks ago the weirdest of the weird right wing in America staged this weird attempted take-over, coup… whatever the hell it was… dressed in weird costumes, until the weird president released a weird video that seemed to make them all just go home, at least a few of them, weirdly, on private jets. Now we have all these weird people being arrested because they made the weird decision to video each other and themselves committing a variety of federal crimes, some of which were particularly weird, and… I don’t know…

Weird.

As authors and fans of fantasy, science fiction, and/or horror, we’re entirely accustomed to living in the weird, aren’t we? We take the real world and make it weird everyday—fictionally speaking. Or we even create weird worlds entirely divorced from reality and populate them with weird people doing all sorts of weird things. Should we be surprised when the real world and the world of the weird collide?

The purpose of the fantasy, science fiction, and horror genres are to identify what scares us or what inspires us, what fires our imaginations or even what plays to our most paranoid fantasies, and package all that—or pieces of that—in a way that’s entertaining and allows us to think about scary stuff from a safe place, or give flight to our most treasured aspirations and revel in hope.

Some people might tell you that some degree of “fantasy” is what’s led to our current troubles. Someone somewhere came up with some—we can only call it—weird stories, reported them as fact, reinforced them through social media, and now we have people acting out violently based on those fantasies.

But this is where that crucial disconnect comes in. When you buy a fantasy novel you know it’s just that: a fantasy novel, which by definition means it’s a work of fiction created as a work of fiction, presented as a work of fiction, and in no way put forward as anything else. And that fiction, unlike fiction presented as news, has enormous value. The invented worlds of fantasy inform the real. In “Playing in Literary Landscapes: Considering Children’s Need for Fantasy Literature in the Place- Based Classroom” Sarah Fisher wrote:

…fantasy authors employ literary elements that distance us from ourselves just enough to reflect and appreciate the landscape. By offering us a literary landscape that evokes the multidimensionality of places through language and form, fantasy writers construct other worlds that starkly contrast our lived experiences and force us to reference our own world for comparison. For children, this is an especially important exercise in separating from the milieu to appreciate their rootedness in place. 

From this safe place we can let our political, social, personal, economic, philosophical, and religious ideas take wing. We can work through things from a distance then invite our readers to interpret our words as they will. Genre authors can explore the idea of what I’ve called the “one weird thing” intruding on a version of the real world and confront what it might be like if we experienced a global pandemic (The Stand by Stephen King) or work up in a society based on political lies made sacrosanct (1984 by George Orwell), or struggle with both a pandemic and the violent overthrow of the government by right wing extremists (The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood). And as Eugene Thacker explored in his brilliant book Tentacles Longer Than Night, we can see what traditional horror or its offshoot, dark fantasy, can bring us:

As different as they are, Poe’s tales and those of Lovecraft deal in some way with what is essentially a philosophical problematic, well-know to students of Aristotelian logic—that everything that happens has a reason for happening, and can thus be explained. This “principle of sufficient reason” not only grounds philosophical inquiry, but some of the basic principles of storytelling as well, especially in those genres—such as horror—where what is often at stake is the verification of something strange actually existing.

In traditional fantasy, characters tend to know going in that strange things (like magic) do exist. Magic and monsters and gods are a present part of the world in which they live. Likewise, many science fiction stories show us a future where the impossible (faster-than-light travel, for instance) is an everyday occurrence. If we could take a day’s worth of TV from January 19, 2021 and bring it back in time only, say, fifty years, the people we showed it too would experience it as science fiction. If we brought it back a thousand years, it might be fantasy.

But in our contemporary context, fantasy, science fiction, and horror show us our past, present, and imagined future with just enough distance that we can safely, without the urgency of the twenty-four hour news cycle, work through ideas and even strategies. What would I do if there was a pandemic? What would I do if Nazis attacked America from within? What would I do if…?

In “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

Whatever is still in store for us this week and in the weeks and months ahead, I honestly feel better equipped to wrestle with its intellectual implications because I have spent a lifetime reading fantasy, science fiction, and horror, knowing it was fiction. But like all fiction, it’s grounded in an individual author’s individual perspective, so now I have something on which to build my own individual perspective.

—Philip Athans

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WRITERS ON READING

I read what you read

                             you do not read what I read

which is right, I am the one with the curiosity

            you read for some mysterious reason

                                              I read simply because I am a writer

—Frank O’Hara, “St. Paul and All That”

I didn’t read nearly enough in 2020. Like the previous two years, I set up a GoodReads challenge to read fifty-two books in 2020—a mark I’d reached in both 2018 and 2019. But somehow in the weird-ass year of 2020, I clocked only thirty books read. I have no idea why, but in the spirit of the Year of Phil, I’ll do no more hand-wringing on that subject and move forward into my new fifty-two book GoodReads challenge for 2021. Of course when I say “reading” in this context, that doesn’t include the many books I read every year in my capacity as an editor. These are the books I read for my own pleasure (not that I don’t find immense pleasure in the books I edit!) or education (not that I don’t find valuable education in the books I edit!).

I love reading, I love books, and I hope you do too. In fact, I insist on it. Writers have to read, plain and simple. We just have to. And this week let’s look to some working authors, living and dead, who agree with me, though at least one author actually bemoaned people reading—at least reading what he thought of as writing unworthy of attention:

[Samuel Taylor] Coleridge’s horror over the involuntary, seemingly autonomous reactions of readers to mass-produced, widely circulating printed texts is well documented. This distaste is perhaps best expressed in his famous footnote to Biographia Literaria, where he writes that “devotees of the circulating libraries” actually engage in “kill-time, with the name of reading”. Coleridge explains this “kill-time” as a “dose… supplied ab extra by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects, and transmits the moving phantasms of one man’s delirium, so as to people the barrenness of a hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose”. Through mechanical means that Coleridge associates directly with visibility (a “camera obscura manufactured at the printing office”), print can spread authorial distemper, when “one man’s delirium” spreads and propagates (or “people[s]”) itself, rendering “a hundred other brains afflicted.” Reading is offered as a healthful “dose” but gives instead mental disease.

This is from the fascinating book Reading Contagion, by Annika Mann, among the thirty books I read and learned from in 2020. In fact, this quote has been sitting in a Word file I call “Random Writing Quotes and Examples.” Anything and everything I read is in danger of having some bit of wisdom copied into that file, to be dragged out for things like this. When I’m reading, I’m paying attention to how this might make me a better writer, editor, and/or person.

Still, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s elitism aside, I think you’ll find that most authors read, and read voraciously. For instance, Truman Capote, when asked in a Paris Review interview if he reads, answered:

Too much. And anything, including labels and recipes and advertisements. I have a passion for newspapers—read all the New York dailies every day, and the Sunday editions, and several foreign magazines too. The ones I don’t buy I read standing at news stands. I average about five books a week—the normal-length novel takes me about two hours. I enjoy thrillers and would like someday to write one. Though I prefer first-rate fiction, for the last few years my reading seems to have been concentrated on letters and journals and biographies. It doesn’t bother me to read while I am writing—I mean, I don’t suddenly find another writer’s style seeping out of my pen. Though once, during a lengthy spell of James, my own sentences did get awfully long.

This William Faulkner quote is all over the Internet, including “40 Famous Authors on Reading”:

Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.

A few weeks ago, I posted this tweet:

Published novels are the best fiction writing courses we can take. Read recent novels from major publishers and break down what they look like—how the words fit on the page, punctuation, grammar and usage… anything and everything you can pull out of them.

…and I’m delighted to report that one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, quoted in “Famous Writers on the Love of Reading” by Jessica Manuel, clearly feels the same way:

I think the first task for the aspiring novelist is to read tons of novels. Sorry to start with such a commonplace observation, but no training is more crucial. To write a novel, you must first understand at a physical level how one is put together…

[Read everything] you can get your hands on—great novels, not-so-great novels, crappy novels, it doesn’t matter (at all!) as long as you keep reading. Absorb as many stories as you physically can. Introduce yourself to lots of great writing. To lots of mediocre writing too. This is your most important task.

And the same sentiment from an author I’ve never read, lest you think this is in some way limited to the world of literary authors:

Reading has been a precious part of my life since my first memories of my mother reading to us before bed each night. Now I have at least one book I’m reading at any time. I’ve been on a cozy mystery kick, but in the past week or so, I’ve been feeling the need to get back to reading romances. Fortunately I have a nice big stack of Love Inspired books in my TBR pile. And I love reading nonfiction—particularly if it’s associated with something I’m researching for a manuscript. I try not to let what I read influence my writing by picking up phrases and imagery that other writers use, but I love to see how my favorite authors use description and dialogue. I use their techniques as a learning tool as I read, thinking, ‘How did they do that? And how could I do it in my own voice?’

…said Jo Ann Brown, author of An Amish Christmas Promise in “5 Reasons Why Readers Make the Best Writers

I have no doubt that for many of us it was the experience of reading that nudged us in the direction of wanting to write ourselves. This was certainly true for me, a voracious reader as soon as I was literate, and for a young Samuel R. Delany as well (from a Paris Review interview):

When I was thirteen, I read War and Peace—the first two hundred pages over two or three days, then I stayed up for thirty-six hours straight to read the rest, with my father coming in every few hours during the night to tell me to put the light out and go to sleep. Interruptions aside, it was a wonderful experience—though I slept all Sunday. That’s the point I decided novels were where it was at.

And one last reminder: Don’t let someone tell you what you have to read! Read anything and everything, inside and out of your genre. I’ve even suggested picking a book from the library shelves with your eyes closed and, whatever it is, reading it. Bertrand Russell, in “New Hopes for a Changing World,” warned against reading as forced labor, and please never think I’m suggesting that for any of us:

Children are made to learn bits of Shakespeare by heart, with the result that ever after they associate him with pedantic boredom. If they could meet him in the flesh, full of jollity and ale, they would be astonished, and if they had never heard of him before they might be led by his jollity to see what he had written. But if at school they had been inoculated against him, they will never be able to enjoy him.

And last of all, hey, guess what… this counts as reading!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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

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2021: THE YEAR OF PHIL

By the power vested in me by myself, I hereby proclaim 2021 to be the Year of Phil.

This replaces and in all way supersedes the previous attempt at the Year of Phil, which, due to circumstances beyond my control, became 2020 instead.

What does the Year of Phil have in store for us all?

Well, I’m so glad you asked.

In the Year of Phil I’m going to complete a bunch of projects, both personal and professional, that had been put off for various reasons, not started because of… 2020… and so on. A bunch of these things, you don’t necessarily care about, like home repair projects and stuff like that.

There are also a bunch of professional things I can’t talk about because of NDAs and other privacy issues, and so on. Let’s just say I’m going to streamline—and in fact have already started to streamline—a lot about how my little one-man-operation operates so I’m working smarter, more efficiently, and so on.

In 2019 I stepped away from Writer’s Digest University and the online courses I’d taught there for years, for reasons that had nothing to do with the work itself, which I loved. Let’s just say things didn’t go well in a difficult transition following the bankruptcy and dissolution of WD’s parent company, F+W Media. One of the great big plans for 2020 was to set up new courses via a new platform. Looking back, I can’t say exactly why this didn’t happen, but in retrospect 2020 might not have been, y’know, the best year to start a new business.

But now it’s 2021, the Year of Phil, and those online courses and tutorials are back on the to do list. It might take a few months to get all that in place—set up a new platform, create new content, and spread the word—but it will happen in 2021. This I swear by the old gods, and the new.

It’s also been a very long time since I’ve written anything—or really published anything—and that has more to do with a now happily resolved medical issue, some of the inefficiency in my editing and consulting business, and a weird COVID (etc.) ennui that settled in in mid-2020. Still, I have written some, and feel pretty good about writing in the months ahead. I will release one writing book in the first quarter of this year, for sure, then a revised print edition of Completely Broken. A second writing book that will dive into a specific part of writing fiction and offer hands-on advice is slated for the third quarter. Currently thinking that will be something like One Scene, One POV… but let’s tentatively hope for third quarter 2021 on that one, and in the fourth quarter maybe a collection of short fiction and poetry… I don’t know yet.

I will also finally make progress on a fantasy novel WIP that has been hanging unfinished for a very long time. I had a couple of creative breakthroughs on that—plot and motivation holes that had the idea penned up for ages finally filled—and I feel it coming together in my head in a big way.

These books might just be the leads in two new publishing imprints from me, Fantasy Author’s Handbook and Af&p… but not 100% sure on the business plan there yet.

I’ve already started exercising and eating better and in general at least trying to be more positive, more forward-thinking… all that good stuff. And I know that’s true of a lot of us in the first week of a new year. And even in years without a global pandemic it’s been difficult for me to hold to those resolutions. But I can make it through the rest of COVID—hell, I work from home anyway—and as long as there isn’t something worse on the horizon—just don’t think about it!—all these positive changes and goals are meeting me at a point where I’m physically healthier and therefor psychologically healthier, than I have been for… yikes… six years?

But that’s looking back. In the Year of Phil, I look forward.

It’s January 5th—a time to make goals and try to grab hold of our lives. I think it’s more important to at least try to point to a positive future full of new writing and editing and other creative projects after the year we’ve all just been through than whatever “normal” used to feel like.

Keep your eyes here and on Twitter (@PhilAthans) for further information on courses, tutorials, live events, and book launches… who knows what amazing stuff might come out of the Year of Phil.

And hey, listen:

It’s not just the Year of Phil.

Let’s proclaim, by the power vested in ourselves by ourselves, that this is the Year of [insert name here]. The Year of Everybody.

Write in 2021. Publish in 2021. Expand your horizons in any way that helps, pleases, or excites you in 2021.

We can do it!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

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

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BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXVI: STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE

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.

Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules by Steven James is one of those writing books people kept recommending, in general, and specifically for me. I finally read it over the past few weeks and am glad I did. Though there is an undeniably contradictory message that runs throughout, there’s an wealth of specific advice that any genre author, in particular, will find of immense value.

First, let’s get through that contradictory message, which might be jarring to a lot of readers. I feel as though I can dispel it quickly and easy enough that anyone will be able to brush past it and get to the good stuff, which describes the overwhelming majority of the book.

Story Trumps Structure has been held up as something like the “Pantsers Bible.” If you aren’t familiar with the distinction between “pantsers”—authors who start writing with no plan and complete a full novel “by the seat of their pants,” and “planners”—authors who laboriously craft impeccably detailed outlines then slavishly adhere to them from beginning to end—well, good. It’s a goofball distinction that matters not at all to anyone.

Everyone who puts pen to paper to write a novel is some part “planner” and some part “pantser.” Maybe your outline resides in your head, making you a pantser who has planned without writing down the plan. Maybe your outline, like every outline I’ve ever written myself, is so heavily revised by the time I get to the end of a rough draft that to an outside observer I’m a pantser who jotted down some notes that were then largely ignored. Let’s call planner/pantser a spectrum and leave it at that.

Steven James calls pantsing “organic writing,” which introduces another theme running through the book, which is attaching slightly different words to describe, in some cases, elements of Fiction Writing 101. And for the record, there is nothing wrong with Fiction Writing 101! We all start somewhere, and again, the specific advice in Story Trumps Structure  provides great places to start.

A key concept in James’s organic writing is to ignore anything resembling a formula. This isn’t terrible advice, and I’m equally wary of any true formula, as he describes them, that would give you exact page numbers where this element must happen and are actually outlines with blanks for the characters’ names and so on. By all means, let’s leave that kind of stuff to Hollywood.

Bu I have to tag James with some real inconsistency in message here, since he rejects formulas outright, then goes on to rewrite some of the longest standing formulas as bullets points you must keep in mind while organically writing without a formula. For instance, James writes:

Rather than straightjacketing your story by forcing it into three acts or trying to make it “character-driven” or “plot-driven,” ask if it has an orientation, a crisis or a calling that disrupts normal life, relentless escalation, and a satisfying ending.

Which is a perfect definition of the classic three-act structure:

Act One: an orientation, a crisis or a calling that disrupts normal life

Act Two: relentless escalation

Act Three: a satisfying ending.

Okay, fine. Then he ends the section entitled “Let narrative forces, rather than formulas, drive your story forward” with a one-page formula that certainly doesn’t get into hyper-proscriptive detail, but maps quite nicely with most if not all of the formulas I’ve seen for novels and short stories. See how three questions he advises you to ask in Chapter 8: Emergence, maps to the Lester Dent Master Plot Formula I’ve featured here and in online courses for years:

James: What would this character naturally do in this situation?

Dent: The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.) Does everything happen logically?

James: How can I make things worse?

Dent: Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)

James: How can I end this in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable?

Dent: The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn. The mysteries remaining—one big one held over to this point will help grip interest—are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.

For me, the obvious takeaway is to learn this stuff—basic plot structure like my own “the villain starts the story, the hero ends it;” Aristotle’s three acts; and the rising tension, increasing difficulty, and logical next scene that Dent and many, many others have written about—then forget where you learned it and proceed without referring back. Again, okay. I don’t think Steven James is being hypocritical, it’s more indicative of how he got there himself. It’s interesting that agent Donald Maass touches on this in his foreword to the book:

You see, there are big chunks of the craft that most writers do without thinking. They’re good at explaining what they’re conscious of but unaware of what they do intuitively. They avoid mistakes and add flourishes as they write because it just feels wrong—or right. A draft passage on the page smells bad or looks good in the way food does as soon as you open the refrigerator door. Before you’ve picked it up, taken a look, peeled off the plastic cover, and sniffed… well, you just know. Either it’s good to eat, or it will make you sick.

James got there, learned to feel/smell his way through his books, and is now telling you how to get there too. Great! That having been swept aside, I’ll reiterate that I am recommending you read and study and think about this book. I’ll end with a few selections of great advice then let you read Story Trumps Structure for yourself:

Stories are transformations unveiled—either the transformation of a character or a situation, or, more commonly, both. If nothing is altered, you do not have a story, you simply have a series of images or a chronicle of events.

The truth is, if you like long hours in solitude, emotional turmoil, constant self-criticism, and bouts of heartrending disappointment, you’ll make a good writer. And if you can actually tell an engaging story, you might just make a great one.

In each scene the protagonist will move forward from goal to setback(s) to a decision that drives things forward. Your character will seek something, fail in a way that makes things worse, process what just happened, and then proceed into the next scene of the story. Four steps: seek, fail, process, proceed.

Don’t ask yourself, “Should I include a subplot?” but, “How best does this story need to be told?” If you can even identify a subplot, it’s likely it hasn’t been woven into the story well enough.

A character without an attitude, without a spine, without convictions, is one who’ll be hard for readers to cheer for and easy for them to forget. So to create an intriguing character who faces meaningful and difficult choices, give her two equally strong convictions that can be placed in opposition to each other.

Easy choices make for weak fiction.

Read this book!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

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

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REVISION SEARCH PATTERNS

When someone or something is missing, authorities will set up a search pattern or search grid in an effort to systematically comb an area for that missing person or thing, clues to their whereabouts, and so on. You can and should do the same with your first draft.

I’ve made a list of words or phrases to look for, and before you start to panic, realizing this is going to take a long time, I urge you not to panic, and reinforce that, yes, this might take a long time. If you’ve written a short story, it will be much less time than if you’ve written a 250,000-word epic fantasy novel, but this once again falls under the header of “no one told you this was going to be easy.” This is as important a step in your own revision process as anything else.

It starts simple. Just search for the word or words from the list below. When (if) you find that word in your manuscript, stop and read around it so you can see it in context. Next, think about it. Is it okay? It very well may be. Or maybe you groan and say, “Ugh, I can’t believe I did that.” Next, think about how to change it for the better.

But in any case, do not set up a search-and-replace routine. This is not a blind, fast process, this is an eyes-wide-open, careful process that requires your attention, creativity, and honesty.

And when I say honesty, I mean, be honest with yourself about your own “tweaks” as I call them. We all have words we over-use, things that drop in without our being conscious of them. I’ll share a few of my own here. If you’ve heard from an editor or beta reader that you tend to use, like me, “just” over and over again, just (see what I did there?) add it to your list, search for it, and force yourself to see the word in the sentence. If you’re reading through, you probably won’t notice it at all, any more than you noticed it while you were writing in the first place. The point of this is to confront yourself with over-used words, passive constructs, lazy writing, and so on.

I’ll separate these into sections and refer back to previous posts that will get deeper into certain concepts, starting with my writing tweaks

actually

just

seemed to

sort of

Why do I use these words or phrases too much? I have no idea. And the “why” doesn’t even matter. They just seemed to show up and I just sort of have to actually find them and make them go away, or leave them when they’re correct and say what I want to say how I want to say it. Next: The Hobgoblins of Genre Writing:

abruptly

immediately

instantly

suddenly

These are perfectly “legal” words that still should be used sparingly if at all. Don’t believe me? Read this post and I hope you will. If you read this instantly you will immediately get it and suddenly you’ll want to abruptly stop using these words. These can often be handled by simply deleting the offending word, letting the relative suddenness of an action or event be conveyed by context. Another slightly less challenging search result will look for this passive construction:

was (-ing)

This will likely be a laborious search, especially if your novel is written in third person, but painful as it may be, do it anyway! What you’re looking for here is what I call “someone was verbing.” Though you’ll have to flip through a lot of perfectly correct instances of “was” to find these, once you get to “Galen was firing arrows into the ogre horde,” the change to “Galen fired arrows into the ogre horde,” is easy to complete. You might have a slightly more difficult time with the passive constructs:

could feel

could hear

could see

could smell

could taste

These are also perfectly correct phrases, but they often have a tendency to push your readers back from your story in that you are describing the POV character smelling something instead of showing him smell something. Not the easiest distinction to grab, but find more on that here. Like “was verbing,” once you find these, the edit is usually as easy as turning “Bronwyn could hear the banshee scream,” to “Bronwyn heard the banshee scream.” Voila!

The next one can be tough as well, which is the search for the word “that,” particularly:

that were

that was

But look at all instances of “that.” Like “was” you’ll find “that” all over the place and most of the time it will be exactly the right word in that context. But start by reading my full rant on “that”, then think about it in more or less the same terms as “something was verbing.” Can you say what you’re trying to say more directly, thereby showing this thing in the POV character’s direct experience rather than as an after-the-fact report of the POV character’s experience?

And lastly, a couple of bonus search items…

very

There are editors who will try to remove any and every instance of the word “very” from your manuscript and though I’m not one of those editors, more and more I’m starting to think they might be onto something. Have you described something as “very quiet”? Could that be “barely audible” instead? Chances are there is an existing adjective that means the “very” state of another adjective. Could “very large” turn into “huge”? 

And speaking of large:

large

Search for that. Take it out. I don’t know why but it just reads as awful to me. “There was a large door at the end of the hallway.” Okay, that’s fair, but read my anti-large diatribe and maybe join me as a member of the Anti-Large League of America.

And there are more. Please replace “nodded his head” with “nodded.” You’ll also have to search for “nodded her head,” and “maybe nodded their heads,” but really, what else but your head do you nod? What else but your eyes do you blink? And so on. This was actually the subject of one of the very first Fantasy Author’s Handbook posts.

I know this sounds like a lot of passes through—all of them as individual searches and none of them easily handled by the same replacement, but spend this time. Your writing deserves it, you deserve it, your editor and your readers deserve it. Do the work!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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APPEAL TO ALL FIVE SENSES—WITH EXAMPLES!

I’ve written before about how we want to try to appeal to all five sense in our writing. Not all five senses in one paragraph, mind you, and especially not in one sentence—that would be quite a challenge. But pick and choose from all five as you’re crafting a scene. What is the dominant sense this particular scene might most benefit from? What about the place in which you’ve set the scene demands the POV character first or primarily experience it through one sense or another?

This is one of those pieces of creative writing advice that can be easier said than done, so I thought an example of each, from an author of note, might be useful. Read these and think about how that one sense dominates each of these moments…

SEE

That others were wearing watches hardly surprised him. The water clock had demonstrated that a calibrated timepiece added another dimension to life, organized its energies, gave the countless activities of everyday existence a yardstick of significance. Conrad spent hours in the attic gazing at the small yellow dial, watching its minute hand revolve slowly, its hour hand press on imperceptibly, a compass charting his passage through the future. Without it he felt rudderless, adrift in a gray purposeless limbo of timeless events. His father began to seem idle and stupid, sitting around vacantly with no idea when anything was going to happen.

—J.G. Ballard, “Chronopolis

HEAR

The sound of the gun-fire from the front penetrates into our refuge. The glow of the fire lights up our faces, shadows dance on the wall. Sometimes a heavy crash and the lean-to shivers. Aeroplane bombs. Once we hear a stifled cry. A hut must have been hit.

Aeroplanes drone; the tack-tack of machineguns breaks out. But no light that could be observed shows from us.

We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don’t talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have.

—Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

SMELL

The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat- and snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burnt cooking fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.

Lingering odors of machine oil contrasted sharply with the taint of harness dressing and leather. Yet somehow, through all that reek of human beings and their associates—dogs, machines and cooking—came another taint. It was a queer, neck-ruffling thing, a faintest suggestion of an odor alien among the smells of industry and life. And it was a life-smell. But it came from the thing that lay bound with cord and tarpaulin on the table, dripping slowly, methodically onto the heavy planks, dank and gaunt under the unshielded glare of the electric light.

—John W. Campbell (writing as Don A. Stuart), “Who Goes There?

TOUCH

He wanted to say: no, Idabel, dear Idabel, I am your good true friend. And he wanted to touch her, to put his arms around her, for this seemed suddenly the only means of expressing all he felt. Pressing closer, he reached and, with breathtaking delicacy, kissed her cheek. There was a hush; tenuous moods of light and shade seem to pass between them like the leaf-shadow trembling on their bodies. Then Idabel tightened all over. She grabbed hold of his hair and started to pull, and when she did this a terrible, and puzzled rage went through Joel. This was the real betrayal. And so he fought back; tangled and wrestling, the sky turning, descending, revolving, they rolled over, over. The dark glasses fell off, and Joel, falling back, felt them crush beneath and cut his buttocks. “Stop,” he panted, “please stop, I’m bleeding.” Idabel was astride him, and her strong hands locked his wrists to the ground. She brought her red, angry face close to his: “Give up?”

—Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms

TASTE

The Negro in the checked suit came toward him in long, loose strides, pressed the gun against his chest, then reached under his coat. His hand came out with Pete Anglich’s gun. He dropped it behind him on the floor. He shifted his own gun casually and hit Pete Anglich on the side of the jaw with the flat of it.

Pete Anglich staggered and the salt taste of blood came under his tongue. H blinked, said thickly: “I’ll remember you a long time, big boy.”

—Raymond Chandler, “Pickup on Noon Street

Did I have to reach a little to find an example for taste? I suppose so. Of our five senses it tends to be the last one we resort to. Let’s be honest, do you taste anything you haven’t already looked at, felt, smelled, and made sure wasn’t making any noises?

At least, not after the age of about three or so?

Anyway, remember that your POV characters are the vehicle for your readers’ experience of the story. The more you can do to make them exist as fully formed humans who do more than see and do, the more real they will become for your readers, and the more real your story will become as a result.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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

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WRITING OUR WAY OUT OF 2020

I was talking with an author this morning and as has become something of a rule for all conversations now, the subject of the pandemic and “2020” in general came up. In my efforts to move on, personally, from the challenges of the past year, not waiting for the calendar to flip over to 2021, we talked briefly about how 2020 and COVID dropped a lot of us out of our routines and maybe reminded us of how tenuous at least some aspects of our lives actually are, how easily some outside cause can come in and turn our little worlds upside down. But as survivors, at least so far, of this pandemic, what can we—what should we—pull out of this mess in order to make sense of it and force it to show some silver lining or positive outcome?

The author I was speaking with said that he was frustrated by a lack of new content on TV, and that drove him to sit down and write. This led me to wonder what new art is going to come of this?

What has time in quarantine, even if it’s the, maybe, hour a day gained from losing the daily commute time, so the work day is stripped down to only its essential functions, leaving an excess of leisure time while at the same time the plague itself is cutting off avenues of leisure—theaters and nightclubs and sporting events closed to audiences, and so on—generated out there that we haven’t yet seen? Will we see more writing, more art in general, released in 2021 than we would have if 2020 had been a “normal year”?

I hope so.

And this isn’t some way for me to make a weird and impossible case that an uncontrolled global pandemic was a good thing, but bad things happen, good things happen, and sometimes nothing in particular happens, and ultimately we’re only in control of our reaction to those things. And as authors of fiction, as artists in any medium, we need to be aware of those reactions.

Richard Russo, in “The Lives of Others,” wrote:

Like most authors, I unconsciously classify everything into two categories: what might one day be of use, and everything else. It’s an embarrassing habit, selfish in the extreme, but it’s also a kind of triage, necessary because you can’t pay equal attention to everything and be an artist. You learn, over time, to identify not so much what’s important as what’s important to you. What’s likely to bear fruit and what isn’t. 

Will extra writing time, and the filtered-through-2020 fiction (prose, filmed, and otherwise) that comes from it, help us pull away from some of the negativity that we were awash in even before COVID? “Identity politics divides us. Fiction connects,” Elif Shafak said in his TED Talk: The Politics of Fiction. “One is interested in sweeping generalizations. The other, in nuances. One draws boundaries. The other recognizes no frontiers. Identity politics is made of solid bricks. Fiction is flowing water.”

Or will the opposite be true? When times are difficult, will people concentrate on the solutions to immediate problems, setting aside the creation of art, which suddenly seems frivolous? Or if we’re all been feeling bad, has that made us less able to do something that makes us feel good, like writing? Has COVID and the election and so on turned a lot of us into tortured artists when we hadn’t been before? If so, I’m worried now that the hoped for mini-Renaissance post-2020 may be just a pipe dream. After all, as the brilliant James Baldwin said, “No one works better out of anguish at all; that’s an incredible literary conceit.”

Far be it from me to argue with the likes of James Baldwin, but maybe there is something to that literary conceit—at least I hope there is. And we should all keep in mind that 2020 wasn’t all bad—was it? I had some happy times, and did some work that was valuable to me in the past eleven and a half months, even after the start of the pandemic. The added time—if you were able to add time, and not everyone has been—might have given you the freedom not to wallow your anguished life but maybe that time was used to create something joyous and expansive and amazing? I hope so, and anyway, none of us should ever feel forced to write a “COVID novel,” whatever that might look like.

But hey, guys, 2020 happened, and it happened in various ways to all of us, and all of us can at least try to use it in some way. Tade Thompson, author of The Murders of Molly Southbourne, reminds us:

“I bring everything I know to whatever I write, and I believe the same of other writers. A person’s complete life experience forms the basis of authorial voice, in my opinion. To hold back any part makes a narrative feel contrived.”

I honestly can’t wait to see what amazing works of art are forced out of this past year. It will probably take a decade to really understand that, but if what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, I think we’ve all come out of 2020 with +1 Strength.

Hell, maybe even +2.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

Find me at PublishersMarketplace

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

Hey, I had a couple poem published in 2020—that was positive!

Here’s one:

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CHARACTERS SHOULD “MENACE” THEMSELVES

I’ve been reading Steven James’s book Story Trumps Structure, and that, combined with ongoing work with editing clients, has got me thinking about story structure, plot, and the driver behind all of those things: character motivation.

James starts his book by saying, literally on the second page of the text: “You do not have a story until something goes wrong.” I could not agree more. He then goes on to more or less eviscerate anything resembling a “formula” for fiction—and though I agree in spirit, I’ve found some versions of a formula to be useful tools to remind us of certain things that Steven James then goes in to remind us of himself. What’s clearly a major thrust of Story Trumps Structure is what he calls “complications”—obstacles thrown up in a character’s way that push a story forward.

In his “Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot,” pulp author Lester Dent offers really all of the same advice, jammed into a formula that on first read is a step-by-step guide to writing a 6000-word hardboiled detective story. And it is that, but in all the time I’ve conjured up Dent’s advice I’ve tried to reinforce that the formula itself is really a list of things to remember that all come down to essentially exactly what Steven James is saying: throw stuff in front of your characters that make them have to be better people in order to overcome it, or show themselves to be ordinary people by failing to do so.

See? Not scared at all!

Lester Dent uses words like “menace” and “grief,” and his advice assumes these various obstacles come from outside the hero: the villain knocks the hero out and ties him up, some innocent victim is kidnapped, some valuable thing is stolen, a booby trap has to be disarmed before the train arrives at the crossing… that sort of stuff.

Those external complications are essential to any genre story—at least to some degree—but this is where an author like Lester Dent shows the limitations of his time and the pulp magazine business model he worked under. As co-creator of Doc Savage, most of Dent’s writing (under the house name Kenneth Robeson) centers around a highly super-capable hero making his way through a monthly villain’s labyrinthine schemes—all exterior complications, all grief caused by some outside menace.

But it’s just as important—maybe even more important—to remember that whether you call them complications, obstacles, grief, or menace, your protagonists might very well be conjuring them up from within themselves. And even when they encounter the villain’s booby trap, their own internal limitations should add an extra layer of “menace” to the proceedings. If, once the booby trap is discovered, Doc Savage quickly and easily disables it, that’s not much of a complication—it’s a temporary delay, and doesn’t do much to ramp up your story’s dramatic tension. But if the booby trap is partially sprung because Doc had no idea it was there, then he goes through a period of panic because he has no idea what’s even happening at first, then figures out the trouble he’s in and has no idea how to get himself out if it, then tries something that makes it worse, and finally figures out how to get out of the trap but gets out having been injured, shaken, or otherwise affected by the trap—now you’re onto something.

This is the suspense that comes from uncertainty. Doc is uncertain as to whether or not he can survive this, your readers are uncertain as to how much worse this might get for him. And the result is dramatic tension.

Uncertainty comes from a character’s essential humanity. No one is perfect. Doc Savage might be a heck of a strong and smart guy, but the fact that he’s slipped into obscurity, especially compared to other super-capable characters like, say, Spider-man, is because he’s often barely recognizable as a person. He rarely, if ever, gets himself in trouble.

Sara Century’s article “In Defense of Bad Decisions in Horror” touches on this idea:

Critics of It Follows generally point out any number of terrible choices made by the teen protagonists of the film as their reason for disliking it, but we’re talking about teenagers here. How many bad choices did we make as teens? All of them. Every choice. Your teen years are nothing but the bad choices made by an underdeveloped personality. If that isn’t true of you, then congratulations. We’re so happy for you.

Characters need to be a product of their age, environment, upbringing, genetics, biases, traumas, desires, phobias, cultural blind-spots… all the things that make us people. I’ll let  the four authors of the Aeon article “The Value of Uncertainty” flesh this out for me:

Human experience, we believe, reflects nothing so much as the operation of predictions and uncertainty estimations along many dimensions and at many levels of processing. When all goes well, a wide range of predictions and estimations of their reliability (uncertainty) allow us to leverage everything we have been through, a whole life of experience and learning, to quickly detect those sensory patterns that matter to us, assess the reliability of our own expectations relative to the current sensory evidence, and (hence) to behave in ways that help bring about desired and beneficial patterns.

But there are dangers here too. Our predictions about the world can be mistaken or misled in various ways. Our hidden biases can sculpt how we perceive and behave in the world in ways that result in the world conforming to our mistaken view. In effect, making our mistake into a reality, which only reinforces our belief in that bias. Vicious cycles, such as these, in fact characterise many forms of functional (‘psychogenic’) illness and some forms of psychosis.

Hunger, homelessness, loneliness and chronic pain are all examples of situations and states that continually produce volatility (difficult-to-manage negative surprises). Sustained exposure to such volatile situations and environments—where the outcomes of actions appear inherently unpredictable—leads to an inevitable decrease in confidence in one’s ability to bring about the outcomes they expect. At that point, our predictive brains begin to infer an inability to exert successful control, and this then forms a damaging part of the model that guides our future actions.

Sometimes we see this in the simplest, most pulp fictioney form, like Indiana Jones’s crippling fear of snakes. We can be more subtle than that, but as authors of any genre of fiction, we have a responsibility to our characters to make them imperfect humans, whether they like it or not.

—Philip Athans

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