GETTING READY FOR THE WRITER’S DIGEST NOVEL CONFERENCE

It’s Tuesday, October 23, and in three days I’ll be on a plane headed south to Pasadena, California for the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference, which is happening this weekend, October 26-28, 2018. I’ve got two sessions on the schedule this year and my PowerPoints are done, my airline ticket is locked in, and the hotel has confirmed my reservation. I even pre-paid for a shuttle from the airport. I know what book I’m bringing with me to read on the plane and in the downtime that always happens on any business trip. (For the record, it’s Dune: House Atreides by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.) I’m ready! I’m excited to speak there, but I might even be a bit more excited to be attending the conference.

I’ve been working in one capacity or another in the publishing business since 1986—that’s a long time—and I make a pretty swell living dispensing wisdom on all things writing, but there is no way to perfect this, there’s no way to know everything. I certainly make no such claim. I’m pretty much constantly reading about writing: books, blogs, articles, scholarly papers… whatever I can get my mitts on. So when I’m invited to an event like this, I try my best to soak up as much wisdom from the other speakers and from everyone attending through their questions, side conversations, meet-and-greets, and whatnot. Conferences like this one are “wisdom rich environments” that recharge my batteries better than anything else—any book or blog post or anything I write myself.

Check out the schedule here. I don’t get in until Friday afternoon so unfortunately I’m going to miss pretty much all of the Friday programming, but I should get there in time for Robert Crais’s opening keynote. Still, I plan on a full day Saturday starting with:

The Secret of Mission-Critical Storytelling

Larry Brooks

Sooner or later in the process of taking a story from idea to finished draft, the author must commit to something. Advanced authors understand that the larger context of that commitment is really the sum of numerous and unique sub-sets of the narrative, each of which presents discreet sets of criteria for character and drama. And thus we are presented with unique blocks of narrative that allow writers to exist within the big picture and the microcosm of their scenes at the same time, flourishing with artistic freedom as they seek to optimize each subset. This workshop will make this advanced perspective accessible to all writers willing to embrace the mission-driven criteria that make our stories work, one scene and one narrative block at a time.

Then, at 10:15, I’m torn between:

Enrich Your Characters with Real-Life Experiences

Rachel Howzell Hall

Just because you’re writing a mystery series doesn’t mean that your characters must stay the same. Learn how to look for the interesting—in setting, voice, dialogue, in your own life and the lives of others to keep your characters dynamic and the reader turning the page.

…and…

The Changing Face of Publishing: What All Authors Need to Know

April Eberhardt

In this illuminating session, literary change agent and publishing consultant April Eberhardt will lead a candid discussion of the pros and cons of the full range of publishing options available to authors today. In addition to traditional and self-publishing, models such as hybrid, partner, cooperative and craft publishing are increasingly attractive to many authors. We’ll discuss the personal, practical and financial implications of each and how to choose the best publishing path for you.

Then I’ll make another “game time decision” between:

Enrich Your Writing with Vivid Imagery

Jordan Rosenfeld

Start spicing up dull, lagging scenes in your novel. In this session you’ll learn how to transform serviceable sentences with arresting prose and sensory images that convey emotion and theme with subtlety. You’ll learn to mine the depths of your characters, and examine contemporary examples as you tease apart metaphor and simile. Writers will come away from this workshop with a visceral, clear understanding of “show, don’t tell.”

…or…

Delving in the Past

Erika Mailman

Research can be fascinating, but can also lead to distraction and becoming overwhelmed by details. In this workshop, historical novelist Erika Mailman talks about how to sort the wheat from the chaff and create an outline that focuses on a strong story, augmented by the historical background. Come prepared to wrestle an idea into submission and build a loose outline for a novel.

…because I’m still toying with that historical novel idea.

After that… any recommendations for a good quick lunch in Pasadena?

Back from lunch at 1:45, something tells me I would benefit most from:

Not Just Your Hero Needs a Plan

Greta Heinemann

Not just your hero needs clear goals and plans to propel their story forward. Without structure you, the writer, will get lost on your creative journey. This session will discuss tools from Greta’s upcoming Writer’s Wright Journal which help writers make their creative passion a priority in their every day life. Following simple steps writers will outline their own inspiring… not intimidating… career plan and leave the session with tools to hold themselves accountable as they take next steps in their focused, inspired and always productive writing journey.

At 3:00 I’m thinking…

The 7 Elements of a Viable Story Idea

Erik Bork

Multiple Emmy and Golden Globe-Winning screenwriter and producer Erik Bork (HBO’s Band of Brothers) will present the keys to a viable and marketable story idea in any genre and medium, based on the principles in his new book The Idea. Every story idea at its essence is about a problem that needs solved, and Mr. Bork uses the acronym PROBLEM for his 7 Elements: Punishing, Relatable, Original, Believable, Life-Altering, Entertaining and Meaningful. He will highlight the importance and provide specifics on each element, and discuss why writers should focus more on the concept development process than they typically do, ideally vetting their ideas until they have one that professionals would deem “worth writing.”

Then, at 4:15, I’m up with:

Writing Scary

Best-selling author and veteran editor Philip Athans, author of Writing Monsters (Writer’s Digest Books, 2014) and The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction (Adams Media 2010), gets into some hands-on techniques for using wordplay to build suspense, evoke fear, and thrill your readers with a satisfyingly good scare. We’ll look at how people read and how to use that to the best effect. Recommended for authors in any genre that depends on at least the occasional scare: horror, thriller, mystery, science fiction, and fantasy.

Then the central keynote with Curtis Sittenfeld at 5:30 and I’ll end the day by actually showing up to the Halloween Themed Reception and Book Signing even though the older I get the less I like parties (and I never really liked parties). But going to a conference is also about getting out of your bubble and out of your head, and like I said, I’m going there to learn, too, and not just from the formal seminars.

Finally, a short day on Sunday with Nicola Yoon’s closing keynote followed by my second seminar at 10:30:

Act of Villainy: Breathing Life Into Your Protagonist

Focusing on the Three Ms of writing compelling characters (Motivation, Motivation, and Motivation), best-selling author and veteran editor Philip Athans takes authors of all genres beyond the mustache-twirling, black hat-wearing “villain” to dig deeper into why people do bad things—and power, money, or revenge are not deep enough.

After that I’ll have a few hours to kill before I have to get back to the airport and thanks to Google Maps I’ve already spotted a groovy-looking bookstore in the neighborhood.

I know it’s probably impossible for anyone who doesn’t live in the greater Los Angeles area to suddenly decide, “Screw it, I’m going!” with this whopping two or three days’ notice, but then if you are in LA already or have immediate access to a private jet, here’s a discount code, at least for the former group:

But I hope you’ll at least take a look at the web site, the schedule and speakers list, read up on the various sessions—then put a writer’s conference on your to do list for 2019.

You don’t have to fly to LA or New York (site of the bigger Writer’s Digest event—and lots of others). There are at least half a dozen annual conferences here in the Seattle area and I’m sure this is true of any and every major city in America. Just Google it, for goodness’ sake: “writers conference [your city]” and you’ll get something, and probably something really amazing.

Then, sign up!

And… go!

You will not be sorry. I never have been.

 

—Philip Athans

 

P.S. Expect a full report next week!

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AS OBLIGATED: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 5

Not that I feel obligated to continue this series looking back at a ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales that’s available for all of us to read online… it’s the title of next story!

I’m going to start my look at the short story “As Obligated” by Armstrong Livingston with a little research into the author. If feel as though I’ve been a bit remiss in that area so far, though at least one of the previous authors seemed to be a rather mysterious figure. And though Armstrong Livingston isn’t exactly a household name anymore, it turns out that he had a fairly long and reasonably successful career, though as I discovered in “Mr. Livingston, I Presume? Armstrong Livingston (1885-1948) and the Murder Racket” that:

By the depressed 1930s, however, Livingston’s writing career, like that of the admittedly more high-toned F. Scott Fitzgerald, had taken a downward turn, with only a few more novels by him ever appearing in print. By the time of his death, on February 7, 1948, when he was only 62, his occupation was given as “retired author.”

At first I puzzled over “retired author,” struggling with understanding that there could be such a thing. Then realized I know at least a few retired authors myself. Though I assume I’ll at least be scribbling some mad rantings on my deathbed… I guess you can retire from anything.

Livingston’s background reminds me of William S. Burroughs, himself the scion of wealthy family that did not like his chosen profession one bit, though Burroughs took “bad boy” heir to new levels—way beyond just writing the occasional popular crime novel. The fact that Armstrong Livingston’s father was a prominent criminal attorney surely fueled young Armstrong’s interest in the criminal underbelly of early twentieth century America. This is interesting to consider, the question of where authors come from and how that inspires the genres we’re drawn to. I touched on that here, for myself. If this gets you thinking “Why fantasy?” or “Why horror?” and so on—good! You might just find that bit of introspection of value.

For what it’s worth, I love that Livingston’s wife’s name was Gladys and in the story Sir Geoffrey is married to Henrietta. There are two names you don’t see much anymore. Looks as though the author’s marriage didn’t last, though, much into Livingston’s career as a crime author. According to that site, he published fourteen novels between 1922 and 1938, placing this 1925 short story toward the beginning of his sixteen-year career.

Looking into the author before reading his story makes me wonder how that will affect my enjoyment of it, or how I’ll interpret it, and so on. Will knowing he was a “poor little rich kid” push me into one idea or the other?

I don’t know. I do try to separate the art from the artist—at least when it comes to artists who lived and worked in the distant past, and for me at least, the better part of a hundred years ago tends to be distant enough. But even then, I’m not the type to be suspicious of anyone because their parents had a lot of (or a little bit of) money.

I don’t know… let’s read the story!

Okay… starts with a bald guy. I’m on his side already.

Hey. You have your biases. I have mine. Bald is beautiful!

Question: Do you really have to describe a tub as “his porcelain container” in order to avoid using the word “tub” twice in one sentence? No. No, you sure don’t, and you didn’t in 1925, either. What you do is remove the unnecessary semi-colon and make that two sentences, which is what they are already. Grammar lesson complete!

Ooh—he has a heated towel bar and at least two housemaids—here’s Livingston’s privilege right up front, eh? Well, it is Sir Geoffrey we’re talking about here.

I love the goofy little predicament Sir Geoffrey finds himself in at the end of the first paragraph. Don’t check to make sure there are towels out before you get in the tub or anything. What does this tell us about Sir Geoffrey?

“That’s one to Hodgkins!” he murmured good-humoredly. “I must tell the old chap about it the next time I see him. He’ll be tremendously bucked.”

Bucked? Have to look that one up.

Is this what he means?

3 [with object] informal make (someone) more cheerful: Bella and Jim need me to buck them up| [no object] (buck up) :  buck up, kid, it’s not the end of the world.

He’ll be “bucked up”?

Writing any version of historical fiction including alternate history? This is why you read fiction from that era if you possibly can. You’ll find little colloquial gems like this—if you’re lucky!

And if you’re not sure how a class-driven capitalist society works:

Of course the task of executing them had fallen to the lot of Hodgkins, the village plumber. Any other arrangement would have been manifestly improper. Hodgkins was a tradition. Ever since plumbing had been invented a Hodgkins had been plumber for a Coombe, just as a Stubbs had always supplied the meat and a Smith the groceries. The system worked excellently for all concerned: the village profited by the patronage of the Hall, and the Hall benefited by good meat and groceries and plumbing. Traditions, properly adhered to, have a practical as well as sentimental value.

Sure.

You can always tell a tradesman by his “sadly maculate” fingers. Look it up—I had to!

Okay, so if the last story was a sort of early version of “torture porn,” this story is shaping up as a sort of “house porn” mystery. They need to turn this into the first HGTV Original Movie!

Now a letter from the Psychical Society. Hmm. Do go on…

I especially like that both Geoffrey and Henrietta are going into the whole concept of spiritualism with a healthy skepticism.

Is the little chapter title: 2. The Bell Bewitched a spoiler? I’d have cut it, myself, for that reason, though I suppose it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination that having put so much loving detail into the presence of the buzzer then introducing the Psychical Society that those two elements, in strict accordance with the principle of Chekhov’s Gun, will come together soon enough.

This little scene where Sir Geoffrey asks after the repairs to his bathroom bell is rich with gender and class bias that tells us a lot about these characters and the world they inhabit, though I’m not quite sure that was Livingston’s intent in 1925. Having established that Sir Geoffrey is rich, all this just kinda plays out as expected, but reading it in 2018 the old man comes off as kind of a prick. I was delighted to see the reaction from Mrs. Smith, though, on page 30 when he goes off on her and she’s offended, though doesn’t stand up for herself in the moment. And Henrietta let’s him have it, too. We’re seeing Sir Geoffrey’s true colors in time of stress and the ladies in his life aren’t having it… at least, not entirely.

But still, even if you were writing a story now and these were your characters and this time and place your setting, the conversation would really have to follow along similar lines, wouldn’t it?

Anyway, here’s where the story obviously turns:

“I was thinking of your Psychical Society,” she said dryly. “I thought you might like to tell them about your bathroom bell, because Hodgkins swears it is bewitched!”

This is an interesting if a bit ham-fisted example of how sometimes it works to allow a character to say out loud that thing that transitions from one plot point to the next. This is a sort of sequel scene—and I’ll recommend an interesting article on that concept by K.M. Weiland—where characters discuss some bit of action (the bell not working, then the letter, then the bell still not working despite efforts to fix it) that has happened then formulate some new “plan” in response, thereby moving the story to the next plot point.

The story does take an unexpected turn along with the turn in Sir Geoffrey’s health. It fFelt, to me at least, like a well-timed twist—and Hodgkins is dead! Shocked!

I’m being flippant, but honestly, that bit did actually surprise me. I see you, Mr. Livingston. Keep ’em coming!

So then Sir Geoffrey is called out on the mat by the widow Hodgkins, who has convinced herself her husband essentially died of embarrassment at not being able to fix the baronet’s bathroom buzzer. There’s a guilt trip, eh?

Ooh—nice. The creepy reveal of Hodgkins having heard the bell ringing as he died—the same night Sir Geoffrey fell ill in the bathtub and tried to ring the bell. What to make of that? These men are spiritually linked in some kind of elemental master/tradesman bond? That’s… weird.

Ooh, It’s a Weird Tale.

Get it?

(Sorry.)

Love the call-back to the Psychical Society with the letter at the end. And all in all I found “As Obligated” to be a fun, very old school, kinda gimmicky “surprise ending” story that keeps the supernatural elements in check, with everyone maintaining what I just called the persistence of the logical pretty much throughout. The “punchline” even hints that after a bit of a shock—maybe a brief case of the willies, Sir Geoffrey and Henrietta put the question of the plumber’s ghost out of their minds forthwith:

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

Thank you, Mr. Livingston, wherever you are!

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

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THE PERSISTENCE OF THE LOGICAL

Yesterday I took an extra long lunch break and finally got a chance to watch the movie Annihilation, which I have to admit (like most movies) I missed in theaters—and yes, I haven’t read the book, either. We can’t all read all the books after all… But that aside, I liked the movie and one part of one scene in particular got me thinking…

With at least a partial spoiler alert, Annihilation imagines that a meteor brings some kind of life form or physical effect to Earth that causes a growing zone of weirdness they call the “Shimmer.” All efforts to explore or explain this thing meet with disaster, so of course a new team—scientists this time instead of soldiers—is sent in. The team eventually finds the abandoned building used by the previous military team as a base camp and there’s a video card there that shows one soldier cutting open another soldier’s stomach to reveal what appears to be his intestines moving inside his body like worms or snakes—as if they had a life of their own.

The team’s medic, Anya, refuses to believe that the soldier’s guts are moving on their own, and passionately argues—desperately argues, you might even say—that it was a trick of the light, an optical illusion, a sign not of physical but psychological changes in the soldiers. The rest of the team urges her to believe her eyes—almost demands that she accept the unacceptable, that she embrace the impossible.

In that moment, though, I liked Anya’s explanation better. I suppose this could be because I’m a committed rationalist myself. You’d have to work really hard to actually get me to believe in ghosts or monsters or… gutimals? Intesticreatures?

But then these women are in this clearly weird, rules-breaking “Shimmer,” so… should Anya start to believe her eyes? Or should she continue to hold to her intellectual understanding of the world around her, supported by hands-on experience as a paramedic?

Watching Annihilation bumped into my own recent researches deep into the nature of horror literature in preparation for my Advanced Horror Workshop—reading into the rules and tropes of the genre and what horror does for and/or to us as readers, as writers, and as a culture.

This, for me, is a primary question in terms of horror as a genre and effective horror in general. I like to call it the persistence of the logical.

This is when characters—at least some of the characters—in a horror story maintain a logical or mundane explanation for whatever weirdness is going on, sometimes even past where that logic might hold up.

As Annihilation shows, though, sometimes this steadfast adherence to the logical can get in a character’s way. And more often than not—as is the case with Anya—the characters who do try to convince people that no, in fact, this house is not haunted or there absolutely is no such thing as werewolves, ends up either the first to die, or acts as a villain or antagonist, holding back the hero’s efforts to deal with what in the Advanced Horror Workshop we call the One Weird Thing. And that refusal causes additional trouble for everyone else.

In “The Peril of Being Disbelieved: Horror Fiction and the Intuition of Women,” Emily Asher-Perrin drills down to a particular trope in which not just a character, but a specific character—a young woman—is not believed:

Why didn’t you believe her?

She told you she heard something, or saw it out of the corner of her eye. She told you she was scared, that she didn’t want to go into that boarded up house or creaky old cabin, that she didn’t want to keep making out, that she didn’t like this corner of the woods. She told you she was scared and you laughed at her. She told you she had a bad feeling and you thought it was adorable. She whined at you and she tugged at your sleeve and sometimes she even begged you to leave it, to just go home deal with it all later. You thought that made her a wet blanket, or worse, a tease. As though that somehow mattered more than the sanctity of her life. Or yours.

But she was right. And you were wrong. And if you had just listened…

In these cases (and Emily Asher-Perrin is absolutely correct in her assessment that, particularly in horror movies, there are lots of cases of this character being a woman dismissed) the persistence of the logical is a bad thing. It’s a way to impose order not just on a disordered world, but on women who are then marginalized as “hysterical.”

Though there’s no reason for us to continue the gender bias that Emily Asher-Perrin rails against, there are good storytelling reasons, especially in horror, for characters of any gender to begin with a healthy skepticism, and even continue being skeptical even past the point at which that stops being helpful. After all, we aren’t always helpful.

In her article “Our Age of Horror,” Pam Weintraub touches on the idea of characters as living, breathing, mistake-prone people who sometimes do exactly the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time:

Horror has always made good use of our deep aversion to what Lovecraft called ‘the oldest and strongest kind of fear’: the unknown. This is one of the ways in which horror (like the folktale) can display a sort of archetypal conservatism. In general terms, the best way to survive a horror setting is to be supremely, boringly sensible: don’t talk to strangers, don’t stay the night in a foreign town, don’t go to the aid of anyone who looks sick, don’t go into that crumbling old building. If a very attractive stranger tries to seduce you, it is almost definitely a trap. Respect tradition, do not commit sacrilege, listen to the advice of elderly locals. At the heart of a lot of horror is a conservative craving for the predictable and the known. The unpleasant atonal dissonance you’ll hear in every horror score reflects, through the collapse of harmony, the disintegration of familiar and comforting patterns out there in the world.

God forbid everyone make the smartest decisions at every turn. Where would a story come from if not for the mayor refusing to close the beaches in Jaws, or people immediately and completely adapting to the chaos of the Shimmer, or no one being driven insane by the unspeakable horrors of the impenetrable cosmos?

You need skeptics like me to tell you there’s no such thing as vampires, right before one of them rips my throat out. The case has to be made for a trick of the light, swamp gas, or hoaxes. The more something defies or knocks back logical explanation the more unsettling it is when it’s finally made clear that this house really is haunted, there really is a monster from outer space in the high school gymnasium, or the Shimmer really is mutating everything it touches.

I don’t believe in anything. Work me into your horror stories, then punish me accordingly.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXIII: ON WRITING HORROR

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.

 

After being asked by Writer’s Digest to put together a new online course called Advanced Horror Workshop (which starts up for it’s inaugural run on October 11, just a week from this Thursday) I went out into the world, as I tend to do any time I’m asked to write or speak on a given subject, to do some homework and gather some added wisdom. After all, I don’t have all the wisdom.

My shorter Horror Intensive course is specifically built around the writings of Stephen King, and his brilliant On Writing—a book I adore, by the way—but for this course I wanted to get a wider view on the genre and was delighted when I ran across On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association (Revised Edition), Edited by Mort Castle.

I’ve written here before on the subject of how I make notes in the margins of books I read (at least sometimes) and how I tend to see every book as research for something or other. In this case, starting into a book that I knew I was specifically reading for research, I practically covered it in red ink. Quotes from a number of essays have found their way into the online course, but I also ended up with bits tagged BLOG POST! and PULP. And throughout, notations like: FIND THIS BOOK or READ THIS!

This is my old school manual hyperlink system in action.

The book itself is a collection of essays written by members of the Horror Writers Association, and have appeared on their web site and other places, brought together by editor Mort Castle and published by our pals at Writer’s Digest Books in this revised form way back in 2007. That does mean there are books, movies, and games from the past eleven years or so that are skipped over, but that I can forgive, as can anyone who reads books. That said, I didn’t find any part of On Writing Horror in any way dated. What made a horror story scary in 2007 will make a horror story scary in 2018.

Contributors to the book include mega-stars like Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Harlan Ellison; horror mainstays like Ramsey Campbell, Joe R. Lansdale, Jack Ketcham, Yvonne Navarro, and Bruce Holland Rogers; and I found a lot of wisdom in essays by authors newer to the scene (at least in 2007!), authors (like Richard Dansky) that I’ve read (and worked with) in different genres, and authors I’ve never heard of but whose essays prompted me to write READ THIS! next to the titles of their books. Reading On Writing Horror is a process of discovery, on a number of levels.

For starters, here are the essays I pulled out for recommended readings for the four sessions of the Advanced Horror Workshop:

Session One—The Nature of Horror: What Scares Us and Why

  • “Going There: Strategies for Writing the Things that Scare You” by Michael Marano
  • “Reality and the Waking Nightmare: Setting and Character in Horror Fiction” by Mort Castle
  • “Innovation in Horror” by Jeanne Cavelos

Session Two—Characters: Heroes, Villains, and Victims

  • “Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death” by Ramsey Campbell
  • “Such Horrible Things” by Tina Jens
  • “More Simply Human” by Tracy Knight

Session Three—Monsters: Things That Go Bump in the Night

  • “Take a Scalpel to Those Tropes” by W.D. Gagliani

Session Four—Writing Scary: Techniques for Maximum Horror Effect

  • “The Dark Enchantment of Style” by Bruce Holland Rogers
  • “A Hand on the Shoulder” by Joe R. Lansdale
  • “Keep it Moving, Maniacs: Writing Action Scenes in Horror Fiction” by Jay R. Bonansinga
  • “Splat Goes the Hero: Visceral Horror” by Jack Ketchum

If you’re considering taking the course and that sounds like a lot of reading over a month, well… I said it was “advanced.” Be ready to work!

And those were hardly the only eleven essays I culled from. I found something of value in all forty-eight essays (yes—there are that many), including the foreword and editor’s introduction, which, yes, like prologuesyou should read!

Here are some random gems I pulled out:

 

To make the unnatural seem natural gives the writer the chance to explore new layers of allegory, irony, and even satire, within the complex arena of dark fantasy. The essence of our genre is not solely to tell a scary tale, but also to deeply unsettle and disturb the reader.

—Tom Piccirilli “The Possibility of the Impossible”

 

Writing about evil is a moral act, and it won’t do to recycle definitions of evil—to take them on trust. Horror fiction frequently presents the idea of evil in such a shorthand form as to be essentially meaningless—something vague out there that causes folk to commit terrible acts, something other than ourselves, nothing to do with us. That sounds to me more like an excuse than a definition, and I hope it’s had its day. If we’re going to write about evil, then let’s define it and how it relates to ourselves

—Ramsey Campbell “Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death”

 

Horror fiction deals in aberrations—aberrations of nature and circumstance, of fate and destiny, of the cosmic and the exquisitely human. Of these facets, the most memorable and compelling are the human beings who populate the writer’s fictional world. Through their eyes, the reader is able to behold existence from a unique and unexpected perspective. The reader is able to live another human’s endeavor in order to understand, avoid, or defeat an unimaginable reality, a loathsome monster, or a mind-bending situation.

—Tracy Knight “More Simply Human”

 

It’s also important—and this goes for realism, too—to engage all the senses. Not just sight and sound—these are the easy ones—but smell, taste, touch. Remember, we’re dealing with somebody’s pain here; we’re engaging the reader in someone’s experience of pain. And you can’t do pain properly without touch. The reader has to feel what the character feels when the blade touches the body, presses into the body, invades the body, and then finally roots around in there. In this kind of writing, it’s every inch of the way or nothing at all.

—Jack Ketchum “Splat Goes the Hero: Visceral Horror”

 

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.

—Michael Marano “Going There: Strategies for Writing the Things that Scare You”

 

Whether or not you sign up for the Advanced Horror Workshop, if you’re writing horror or any genre that brushes up against horror, that calls for suspense or “scary parts” at all—fantasy, thrillers, mysteries, science fiction—this is a book you need to read, mark up, absorb, and reference.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

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JUST A BIT ABOUT MAGIC SYSTEMS

Magic systems—how magic works in a fantasy setting—is a pretty big subject, and one I’m not delusional enough to think I’ll “cover” in one blog post, but let’s at least dip a toe in that water, seeing how important it is to the fantasy genre—in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the presence of magic is the defining feature of the genre.

Magic is what makes a story a fantasy story in the same way that some imagined technology is what makes a story a science fiction story. That’s not to say, of course, that that means all fantasy has to be full of lots and lots of magic, any more than a science fiction story has to be loaded down with tons of gadgets and gizmos. I’m, personally, just as happy in a “low magic” setting like, say, Game of Thrones as I am in a decidedly “high magic” setting like the Forgotten Realms world. The quantity of magic is, to me—and I have a feeling this is true of the vast majority of your potential readers, too—secondary to the story itself.

In my online course Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing, I start things off, week one (of four) talking about technology (in science fiction) and magic (in fantasy), with this statement:

Every story is about characters in conflict, and everything about the setting should be purpose-built to move that story forward, not the other way around. Though you do want your readers to be awed by your magic, and lust after your technology (I want a light saber so bad…) it’s compelling characters and a surprising and satisfying story that will keep those readers in your world from prologue to epilogue. Invent just enough magic and technology—just enough “world” in general—to move your story forward.

So whatever your relative quantity of magic, however it works, ultimately, the story’s the thing. But then how to invent a system of magic—something that (sorry, folks) does not actually exist in reality—that feels “real”? I’ll fall back on what by now you’ve heard me repeat at least a few thousand times: forget realism, what you’re going for is plausibility.

As soon as someone waves his hands around and a lightning bolt shoots out, realism is right out the window. But if that character conjures a lightning bolt in the same way every time, and we (your readers) see it working consistently throughout the story, then it feels plausible—it works within the imagined rules of this fantastical world.

Those rules can, of course, be anything you like—a low magic world where casting the simplest spell is nearly impossible and so a true rarity, or a high magic world in which spells fly through the air like the average game of D&D—but those rules can be difficult to establish, and even more difficult to adhere to.

In the same way that a lot of stories, even most stories, start with theme—with the thing you have to say—magic systems (and other components to your worldbuilding) should start with some thought as to what you want it to do for you, story-wise. What are you tying to say with it, or what does it highlight and/or challenge in your characters? As author D.P. Prior wrote in “My Dysfunctional Relationship with Fantasy”:

I struggled with “the rules” of magic for quite some time, perhaps nowhere so much as with the tendency to slavishly rationalize things that, for most of us who haven’t pored over medieval cabalistic grimoires (cough), are inherently occult and mysterious. I wanted magic to be magic, not some kind of pseudo-science. I wanted demons, spirits, divinity—Arioch and the Lords of Chaos, not the mechanistic meta-narrative that explains away all such phenomena in the manner of Doctor Who.

Start with a magic system that makes sense to you, to your story, to your characters. And then comes the real work, as author David Mack writing in the Portalist confronted in “Does Realism Matter When Creating a Fictional Magic System?

There are a lot of variables to consider when developing a magic system for a game or a literary or cinematic series. Who is able to wield magic? What is the source of its power? How much training is required to become a magic-user? Does it involve incantations, material components, and/or specific gestures? Is it dependent upon details of time and place?

I had to consider all of those questions as I codified the rules for the fictional magic system used in my new Dark Arts novel series, but perhaps the most important question of all was this one: What are magic’s limitations? Knowing what magic could not do proved more important than trying to imagine everything for which it could be used.

And that’s great advice. If magic can do (effectively) anything and (effectively) anyone can use it (effectively) any time they want to… well, that’s a storytelling challenge to say the least. It’s Superman vs. Superman in a battle to an inevitable stalemate. And I think we can all agree that most readers of fantasy don’t come to our writing looking for that.

And a final caution: Certainly spend time and energy, and most of all creativity and originality in setting up the rules for how magic works in your world, but keep in mind, too, that there’s an invisible line between plausible and regimented, or between believable and soulless. Keep in mind what David Farland wrote in “Making Better Magic Systems, Lesson 1”: “…most authors tend to fail as writers of fantasy and science fiction primarily because they don’t arouse a strong sense of wonder.”

Make it plausible, but keep it magical!

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

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THE ELECTRIC CHAIR: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 4

Hopping back into that ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales that’s available for all of us to read online it’s time to read the next story: “The Electric Chair” by George Waight.

We’ve already looked at the first sentence, so, like last time, we’ll expand that to the first paragraph:

The facts were carefully hushed up at the time. Strange stories, it is true, began to be whispered in the clubs about the eccentricities of Dr. Ainsworth and his electric chair, but nothing definite ever leaked out. Now that that weird scientist is dead and buried, the true story of what happened in his laboratory can be made public for the first time.

Last time, when we read J. Schlossel’s “Invaders from Outside,” I got on his case about writing in a journalistic, “telly” style, and sounds like Mr. Waight is headed in the same direction. This is definitely journalistic in feel. A good reporter doesn’t want to “bury the lead.” Good fiction authors, on the other hand, want to take their readers on a journey that starts somewhere interesting then ends with the death of the weird scientist after his eccentric experiments in electric furniture. But let’s not judge too early! And though I, personally, prefer to begin in the middle of something scary/weird/exciting as it’s happening, at least in “The Electric Chair” we’re starting with the promise that something scary/weird/exciting is about to happen. Let’s call that a (distant) second choice for opening a short story.

The story is set in 1919, which sounds like a long time ago to we residents of the far-flung future, but was only six years before this magazine was published. I’ve often advised against fixing actual dates to science fiction stories but that only counts if you’re looking forward, and, say, trying to show the world of the year 2001 from the perspective of 1968. You end up getting in a certain amount of trouble if your story lasts at all. See Blade Runner, Terminator, 1984, Space: 1999, etc. But if you’re going six years in the past, that’s, obviously, not a thing.

This kind of sounds like a Hollywood log line:

…if a man were confronted with a mystery stranger even than the mystery of death, he would choose death rather than face the greater mystery.

I share the expressed doubts of the brain specialist on that score.

I’ll admit to a general fondness for short stories with mini chapter breaks, like this one. It feels somehow… I’m not even sure… really struggling to find the right word here… quaint, to me? Comfortable? I don’t know, but I bring it up here as a reminder that each and every one of your readers will come into everything they read, including your work, with some set of general fondnesses like that, as well as general dislikes. There’s no rule to either follow or break on this score, so toss those numbers in there if it feels right to you, or don’t if it feels wrong.

I want to go back in time ninety-three years and delete the word surprizedly. Please contact me if you have the necessary time machine. That aside I do kinda dig George Waight’s fin de siècle Europhilia and the gentility of these gentlemen. I would love to be described as “affability itself.” Wouldn’t you? It’s a little early, but screw it, let’s break out the port, get these women out of here, and discuss the grave matters of the day!

I’d like to draw your attention to the description of the room, and link you back to a discussion of “atmosphere”:

Sinclair had never entered the laboratory before. His first impression was a swift recollection of schoolboy days, when he had worked in a room that presented just such an unbroken array of bottles and balances and strange-looking instruments, except that here there seemed to be more of them. His attention was attracted by a line of cases on the right of the room apparently containing a series of waxworks, of which he did not immediately appreciate the significance. It was as he was moving over to examine these that he first became aware of a strange sensation of dizziness stealing over him. The room darkened and he felt that he was about to fall. The voice of his host sounded for a moment as from an immense distance before it trailed off into nothingness.

Notice how little actual detail there is in there. No numbers are specified, no measurements given. The list of objects in the room belong to general categories, one of which reveals the POV character’s lack of understanding of them: “strange-looking instruments.” But for me, this is key: His first impression was a swift recollection of schoolboy days… The exact size and composition and contents of the place are secondary (if that) to the emotional connection Sinclair has to it—the space evokes a memory. The space is about his feelings for the person who inhabits it.

I’m going to stick with this paragraph to go back through some other things. Though I do like the old fashioned feeling of the writing and wouldn’t change it, it is clear to see where our man Waight might just have been padding the word count:

His attention was attracted by a line of cases on the right of the room apparently containing a series of waxworks, of which he did not immediately appreciate the significance.

This being rather firmly in Sinclair’s POV (fairly unusual for the time, actually) there’s no need to tell us his attention was attracted by something. Describe it, and we get that the description is coming from him, so clearly his attention has been drawn to it.

This sentence just has extra words:

It was as he was moving over to examine these that he first became aware of a strange sensation of dizziness stealing over him.

Most contemporary editors would trim it back so it would read:

As he moved over to examine them, a strange sensation of dizziness stealed over him.

But again, if I were editing an anthology in which this exact story appeared I would never make that change, though I would suggest it if George Waight wrote this story today and it was set in 2018 (or 2012) rather than 1919. The language is a changing, evolving organism—that’s for sure. And there are places and reasons for pulling back and writing in a previous style. I’ve done it myself with a series of jungle pulp stories I’ve written for Pro Se Productions, the first of which is available now. That’s a thing I did for a specific reason in a specific venue and not a voice I’ve adopted as my “normal.”

Then there’s:

The room darkened and he felt that he was about to fall.

This is another example of telling us he felt something when just describing the feeling is enough since we’re in his POV.

The transition from Chapter 2 to Chapter 3 is a classic example of what Lester Dent would call “A surprising plot twist to end the [second] 1500 words” and his first admonition for the third 1500 words: “Shovel the grief onto the hero.”

This got me thinking—is this about the halfway mark?

Nope—it’s about a third of the way in, actually, and I estimate the story at about 5300 words. Anyway… this was written and published before Dent wrote his formula, but here’s a solid plot twist at about the one-third mark. Maybe that will mean something to us later.

I’ve never encountered this before: the nightmare of a dream. Is that something people used to say, or is George padding again?

Though I think some harsher contemporary critics would rail against the “Before I kill you, Mr. Bond,” speech that Ainsworth gives here, in this case it’s a necessary evil… or is it?

Could he have just reminded poor Sinclair of the story of the German soldier and left him to draw his own conclusions? I might have done it that way, myself, putting the whole thing on Sinclair and making Ainsworth a crueler villain for it.

Or am I just a sick bastard?

Speaking of which:

He went across the room and came back with a glass case containing a model in wax of a man’s head. The nose had completely rotted away, the teeth were entirely outside the mouth and festooned round the protruding tongue like a necklace. It was difficult to imagine anything more revolting.

That’s pretty badass for 1925.

This whole thing with the threat of exotic diseases is really clever, adding a layer to the Let’s Make a Deal aspect of this experiment in torture. It also forces me to revise my previous thought that I’d remove all of Ainsworth’s explanations. It’s definitely become more necessary with this twist, otherwise previously unknown to Sinclair, and adds a layer of sadism to the villain. And, after all, we want to see our villains being villainous, don’t we?

That said, have we accidently run across an early example of torture porn? “The Electric Chair” was published eighty-three years after Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” so maybe not so early at that.

For what it’s worth I maintain that this sentence:

Suddenly the rat rolled over on the floor of the cage and commenced to struggle violently.

…is just as good without the offending word:

The rat rolled over on the floor of the cage and commenced to struggle violently.

Just sayin’.

Boy, doesn’t take long for Sinclair to run through some options then flip the switch. Personally, I would have lingered on this a lot more and gotten deeper into Sinclair’s life. We’re given only a cursory sketch of a character here. He’s a war veteran, he’s not married… He doesn’t even mention poor Mildred by name in his considerations of the dangers of diseased love. We don’t really know what he has to live for, what plans he might formulate to either escape the trap in the first place or, should he choose the syringe, what he might attempt in terms of both identifying and treating the disease (though let’s all take a moment to bask in the glory of modern medicine not available to Mr. Sinclair of 1919) and bringing Ainsworth to justice.

Interesting that in the final chapter we switch over to Ainsworth’s POV—assuming Sinclair has just killed himself. Had the story, up to that point, not been so firmly grounded in Sinclair’s POV, that switch would have been much less effective. One scene, one POV, always!

Lester Dent calls for: “Final twist, a big surprise. (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the ‘Treasure’ be a dud, etc.” and our man Waight delivers with the revelation that the chair, syringe, and gas are all harmless. It’s not the world’s most creative, clever, or surprising twist, but maybe it felt a bit more fresh in 1925.

And then, according to Dent: “The snapper, the punch line to end it:”

When they reached him, he was quite dead.

Ah, the old “died of fright” gag. I think that was probably old in 1925, too, no?

So kind of a fun little exercise in 20s torture porn—building off World War I post traumatic stress and the rather timely danger of infectious disease.

“The Electric Chair” seems to have slid into obscurity, along with its author. I tried to find anything about George Waight but couldn’t. The only listing I’ve found for him is for just this one story, apparently the only thing he ever published—at least under that name. Back in the pulp days it was common for authors to adopt a list of pseudonyms. But even then, by now, most of those have long since been “outed.”

Alas, thank you, George Waight, wherever you are!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO YOUR READERS

The story or novel is done. It’s out there, people are reading it, maybe people are commenting on it…

So now what?

And not “now what” in terms of marketing or creating your “platform,” but what, beyond the book itself, do you owe your readers—if anything?

I’ve said myself that particularly for genre authors, being a part of the genre community is a must, but I’m happy to qualify “must” as: as much as you want to, if you have the ability to be a part of any community at all.

But even if you’re shy, anxious around strangers—or just don’t want to be the author-about-town at San Diego Comicon, at least be a fan, yes? Can you write effective fantasy if you don’t actually like fantasy? Of course not. I’m not a romance fan, and guess what: I don’t write romance. I have at least that much of a sense of responsibility to the romance community that I won’t try to just wedge myself in there, dismissive of people who have made that genre their life’s work because… I don’t know… I read somewhere that romance sells well. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but where I come from you don’t bum-rush the stage.

So you read fantasy, love fantasy, write fantasy—you get it. The fantasy novel is out. Now what?

Pretty much everyone will tell you that you now have to start a three year campaign of flogging the ever loving shit out of it in order to build your platform and to get every last goddamn Kindle download there is to get.

Do you really have to do that?

“I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan, unburdened by the weight of ceaseless evaluation,” Wisława Szymborska wrote. “Sometimes the book itself is my main subject; at other times it’s just a pretext for spinning out various loose associations.”

This is sort of a fancy way of saying “write for yourself”—that you are your first audience. And as for platforms, maybe with all the weirdness (to say the least) around the last election, a serious social media backlash is in progress anyway. In “The New Reading Environment:  Each this is not to say or in other words a dull sword wielded against willful misunderstanding” the editors of n+1wrote:

It can be difficult to like one’s readers on social media. Their reactions can be glib, disingenuous, mocking, cruel, pedantic, self-righteous, derogatory. Every ideal reader you may find there will be matched by another determined to find your faults — your worst metaphor, your least graceful aside, the word your editor wrote in, the Getty Image selected (not by you) to run with your story, with its horrible title. It seems like everyone on Twitter is New Grub Street’s Mr. Fadge, the editor of The Current whose calling card — “flippancy, the most hopeless form of intellectual vice” — was “looked for with eagerness by that growing class of readers who care for nothing but what can be made matter of ridicule.”

So maybe building that social media platform has become exactly what not to do. I’ve all but abandoned Facebook, myself, have never been on Instagram and I’m not sure what Snapchat is. I still rely on Twitter to at least sort of get and/or keep the word out on what I’m up to even though I’m fully aware of others’ abuses of that system. One of the things I like about Twitter is that it’s exceedingly ignorable. I have the app on my phone and flip through it from time to time and happily engage as the spirit moves me, but when anyone starts talking about politics I just keep flipping. Oh yeah, and I block people/bots/companies at the drop of a hat. I don’t care how many followers I have as long as they’re actual people and those people have the simplest sense of common decency.

So that’s me, as much as I have any authority to do so (and in reality, I have none), letting you off the branding platform social media hook.

As authors, our responsibility to our readers begins with writing the best novel we possibly can.

And, frankly, it can end right there.

Be a part of the community—the genre community and/or the community of the written word in general—but only up to your comfort zone. Ignore unsolicited advice. If you would rather be writing than Skyping into a book group somewhere politely decline the invitation. You do not need to make friends with anyone, let alone everyone. And for the love of all that’s holy (and literature in all its forms is, to me at least, holy) you must not change anything you do based on “metrics”—whatever the precise fuck that is. Never write, read, or chase after reviews of any kind in any venue. Reviews are for the reviewers, not you, or your readers. If you do want to talk about books—I do!—be positive about other authors’ work.*  Never read “comments” on any web site anywhere ever. Never respond to angry genre vigilantes, dissatisfied consumers, clinically insane haters, or other critics—or friendly genre faithfuls, obsequious hangers on, clinically insane stalkers, or other fans. If it occurs to you to write just one quick sentence explaining yourself to an anonymous Amazon review, just stop, take a deep breath, and use that number of words to start your next novel and move ever forward.

That’s your responsibility as an author. All of the rest is optional.

 

—Philip Athans

 

* And okay, so just yesterday I wrote a snarky “review” on GoodReads—something I basically never do. Obviously not never, never, but essentially never. I’ll put together something more about critics and reviews in the weeks ahead that might address that some.

 

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