I RANDOMLY GENERATED A RELIGION

…and here’s why, how, and what I ended up with…

This is part of what at this point is just kind of a fun exercise, exploring the idea of writing a randomly generated fantasy novel as part of an effort to maybe write something less dreary than my other writing WNRIPs*.

Before I can really get writing, I needed to randomly generate characters, which I have done using mostly old versions of D&D with a few other RPGs and some writing prompt-type stuff added in. Once those basic characters were more or less set (more less than more really at this point) I definitely need a world for them to live in, so I used mostly Traveller/MegaTraveller books for that, with some Judges Guild stuff from way, way back to add color. I even rolled for a number of religions and used some of those sources to describe them in basic terms. This is where I thought my random worldbuilding was yielding some interesting results, so let’s look at a religion called Ud exactly as it exists in my notes so far:

Ud / Uda (people who practice the Ud religion)

Dualism, fear of punishment, several days per week, loose hierarchy with most decisions left to individuals, emphasis on communal teaching with limited ritual, active among limited races, 22.12 million followers

based on Turkish fairy tale: The Creation (1)

pri peris – good spirits – sky underground /heaven  Bilenneoc

cevtsaeg  dews – evil spirits – underground sky/hell   Que

The path to Bilenneoc, the Halls of Udt, are through mines of copper to silver and finally through a gold mine. In the center of the planet is the earthly paradise.

The entrance to Que, water springs is up through the rain, cevtsaeg get to earth via people drinking rainwater. Thus, Cha, the cevtsaeg queen, entered Tsiv, the first man, but Kyshosoom (the creator god) pulled Cha out, creating the penis, and leaving the addle-minded Cha to take the form of woman. Then, having perfected all creation, Kyshosoom tore itself in half and created the Duality: Udt (good) and Uddu (evil) to struggle endlessly over the souls of all sentient creatures.

There it is, now here’s how I got there.

First, I rolled for a number of religions present in the world (I don’t remember the range I used) and ended up with four. Then I went to the MegaTraveller World Builder’s Handbook (Digest Group Publications, 1989), which I’ve written about here before, because I knew it had tables set up to randomly generate a religion.

Digest Group Publications’ World Builder’s Handbook, 1989

The first table is GOD VIEW, on which I probably just rolled 2d6, and in this case ended up with:

4. Dualism Two mutually antagonistic gods (probably with lingering animalistic associations or titles) exist, each of roughly the same importance.

The next table, SPIRITUAL AIM requires a roll of 2d6-2+(God View¸3), which would be 2d6-2+1 (dropping the fraction from 4¸3=1.333) and I guess I ended up with:

7. Worshippers will avoid being condemned to a place of eternal punishment (presumably, again, by going to paradise).

I shortened that to “fear of punishment,” and moved on to DEVOTION REQUIRED and rolled 2d6-7+Spiritual Aim and got:

5. Several days per week.

Moving on to ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE with the same dice formula but adding Devotion Required I ended up with:

9. Loose hierarchy with most decisions up to individual worshippers.

And, oh, you better believe it keeps going… welcome to Traveller!

LITURGICAL FORMALITY: 9. Emphasis is laid on communal teaching with limited ritual.

MISSIONARY FERVOR: 4. Active among a limited number of sophont races.

Then I had to do a little random math of my own to come up with the number of followers based on the total population of the world broken down into randomly generated percentages and tweaked here and there to add up to 100%.

All that left me with were some broad categories, but broad categories can be the perfect starting point for any part of fantasy/science fiction worldbuilding. Next, I needed a name, so I randomly generated that using a stripped-down version of the old Traveller word generators.

For a while that was all I had, but then I started reading the book Forty-Four Turkish Fairy Tales by Ignacz Kunos. The first story was called “The Creation” and when I got to the end of it I thought it could make for more raw material for one of my randomly generated religions, and the rest comes from that. I replaced the names of the spirits with more randomly generated words, then decided all on my own to flip the whole heaven/hell thing upside down and place the evil realm in the sky and the good realm underground—just to be a contrarian. I then gave them new names because most of worldbuilding is naming things. The creation story in the book was a little twee, basically a version of Adam and Eve, so I thought it would be fun to double down on the inherent sexism by making it even more ridiculous. In the fairy tale, the evil spirit is pulled out of the First Man, creating the belly button. I went in a weirder direction, so I can have a bit more fun with it in the story—because ultimately that’s what all this is about. Will this randomly generated religion make for a fun story? Will characters come into conflict over this creation myth, or any of the other randomly generated aspects of it? Well, that’ll be up to me in the writing of the thing, but here’s what I’m going to do next with the Ud religion:

Nothing.

This is all I need to get started, so this is all I’ll do until the story and most of all the characters, one of whom,

Opuch Amberverse

is a chaotic evil female human assassin

Revelation: What was forgotten is remembered. Comedy/romance. Literal. Utilitarian. Fear of failure. Mature, dirty. Servile/obsequious. Retiring. Even tempered. Vengeful. Very honorable. Craven coward. Normally energetic. Thrifty. Virtuous. Interested in politics.

Averagely pious Ud from Chiobo

…might demand more from Ud. 

—Philip Athans

*Works Not Really In Progress

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I should have ported in some of the World Builder’s Handbook stuff to…

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WHEN THE MOMENT PASSES YOUR STORY BY

How many times have I cautioned against following trends with your writing? Well, “current events” can be just as tricky.

When I sat down in December 2019 to write the short story that follows, a lot of what was going on in the news was centered on our border with Mexico, and this little scene here just sort of passed through me. I sent it out to maybe a dozen or so literary magazines, all while the news cycle was shifting over to COVID, and anyway, no one I sent it to wanted it and I eventually just gave up on it. But I think it’s pretty good, so what the hell, here it is. I’ll let the world decide if it’s still relevant or any good—at least I can’t reject myself on my own blog!

He’d Come This Far, and Had Nowhere to Go Back To

“I think you really have to just turn around and go back home, son.”

The Mexican kid looked me right in the eyes—they almost never do that. He shook his head.

“So you can understand me?” I asked. “You speak English?”

He blinked once and I took it for a nod.

He was taller than me. Maybe six feet—tall for a Mexican. He didn’t turn around and go back home.

“You just gonna stand there?”

Fucking kid just stared at me.

I bounced the rifle in my hand a little but still didn’t point it at him. If he saw the firearm he sure didn’t seem to give a shit.

“You know I know how to use this,” I said anyway.

The kid was sweating, but not because he was scared. I knew he wasn’t scared. You can tell when someone’s scared—anyone can tell that. He was sweating for the same reason I was. It was hotter than the hubs of Hell out there.

“Fucking hot,” I said out loud.

Was that a nod? Did he nod at that?

“Go ahead, if you want to,” I said, glancing down at the half-empty gallon jug of water in his left hand.

He didn’t take a drink.

“You know you’re just gonna have to turn around and go back home, son,” I said. “Wherever that is.”

He just stared at me.

“What are you… nineteen… twenty?” I asked.

The Mexican kid blinked—maybe just to get the sweat out of his eyes.

“Come on, kid,” I said, eying his jug of water again. I wanted some. “Go on now.”

Fucker just stood there.

“How long you been walkin’, anyway?” I asked, just to get the kid talking.

It didn’t work.

“You from Rio Bravo?” I asked. It was the closest city. “Nuevo Leon, at least? Tamaulipas?”

He didn’t even blink.

“Fuck, son, you okay?” I had to ask.

He blinked and in that one blink he told me he was fine and it was none of my goddamn business where the fuck he was from and if he was thirsty he’d drink his own water whether or not I told him it was okay. His old, dust-brown tennis shoes planted in the sand said he wasn’t going to turn around and go home or anywhere else.

“Shit,” I replied.

My palms left sweat on the rifle grip and I hoped he didn’t see that.

“Holy shit, kid,” I said, and I laughed a little. “Are we havin’ a real life Mexican standoff?”

He blinked. Yes. Sí.

I glanced back at my truck, parked about a quarter mile behind me.

“I could maybe give you a lift back to Rio Bravo,” I said, but even as I said it I wondered, Can I? It would mean crossing south, if I hadn’t already. I’d be the illegal alien then.

I took by his complete silence that he didn’t want a ride into Rio Bravo, or anywhere else. Still, I felt like I had to say, “Well, shit, kid, I ain’t takin’ you into Donna, that’s for sure.”

He glanced up at the sky and I took half a step back and looked up at the sun. Fuck, was I thirsty.

“Look, kid,” I said while I thought about maybe pointing my rifle at him anyway, “it’s not like I can arrest you or anything. I mean, I’m—we’re more like… more on the order of a kind of neighborhood watch, y’know? But…”

But what?

“Shit,” I whispered.

I wasn’t going to shoot that kid. I was never going to shoot any of them.

“I don’t wanna stand out here all day,” I said, because it was the truth. “What is it… three o’clock? Hottest part of the day is still to come.”

He blinked and to me it looked like he said he didn’t care how hot it was going to get. He’d come this far, and had nowhere to go back to.

I tipped the barrel of my rifle to the sand at my feet and said, “Fuck it.”

He took one step forward.

I kept my eyes on him.

“Fucking…” I said. “Don’t sell drugs or rob people and shit. Get a job. Get your papers, yeah? As soon as you can. Legal like.”

He blinked: I will. But maybe: I’ll try.

I looked back at my truck and said, “Fuck.”

He started walking, so I didn’t turn around.

When he passed me, I said, “I can’t give you a ride. Not into Donna.”

He didn’t look at me. I watched him walk, steady, one foot in front of the other, for a dozen yards or so. I looked up at the sun, high in the clear blue sky. I mopped the sweat off my forehead with an equally sweaty forearm then slung the rifle over my shoulder.

“Fuck it,” I said to the kid’s back. “Come on, I can get you as far as Edinburg, but you’ll be on your own from there.”

The kid stopped walking, looked over his shoulder at me, and nodded.

—Philip Athans

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Where Story Meets World™

Look to Athans & Associates Creative Consulting for story/line/developmental editing at 3.5¢ per word.

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CENSORSHIP IS ALWAYS BAD

Do I have to say that here? On a blog that speaks directly to authors?

Probably not—thankfully not—but every once in a while terrible people who might actually think of themselves as really good people try to silence someone else who might be either terrible or really good or some combination of either, usually in the guise—and it is a guise, y’all—of protecting… who? The Children, usually, and always without bothering to ask the (no initial cap) children.

Such was the case in Virginia when a couple of Republicans, one an assembly delegate, the other a congressional candidate, tried to, for all intents and purposes, burn the books Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe and A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas.

  

Happily, America is still a constitutional democracy and a Virginia state judge not only ruled that those two books were not harmful to the Children but that the law the case rode in on was. Score one for freedom of expression, one of this country’s founding principles. You can read up on the decision here.

Of course, this is hardly the first time so-called Americans have tried to silence other Americans, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Beyond how anyone can have the unmitigated audacity to try to censor a book in the first place, what continues to puzzle me is how often, and that’s to say essentially every time, the attempt to ban a book results in increased sales of that book. In an effort to silence them, these Republicans likely gave the careers of the authors in question a potentially huge shot in the arm. See this, quoted in “When Jawaharlal Nehru read ‘Lolita’ to decide whether an ‘obscene’ book should be allowed in India” by Shubhneet Kaushik:

“Reading this book Lolita, I felt that it was a serious book and in its own line rather outstanding. It is hardly a book which can give light reading to anyone. The language is often difficult. It is true that some parts in it rather shocked me. The shock was more due to the description of certain conditions than to the writing itself. The book is certainly not pornographic in the normal sense of the word. It is, as I have said, a serious book, seriously written. If there had been no fuss about it, no question need have arisen at all of banning it or preventing its entry. It is this fuss that sometimes makes a difference because people are attracted specially to reading books which are talked about in this way.”

—Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, 1959

Mission of the would-be censors once again oh so very not accomplished. Dan Brown’s career really took off when the Catholic Church came out against The Da Vinci Code, an otherwise pretty terrible book that then became a massive best seller. This has also been true of Salman Rushdie, who’s career was essentially relaunched when the fatwā was announced against him. The fact that some whack job actually came close to accomplishing that last month only cements the case against vilifying authors in any way. Thankfully, those two Virginia Republicans stopped short of fatwā in that case. Chalk one up to American exceptionalism.

Anyway, don’t ban books. Any books. That doesn’t mean you have to like every book, or every author, but it does mean that once one of us is silenced, all of us can be. And I’d rather walk past a copy of Mein Kampf (note that I didn’t provide an Amazon link…) in my local bookstore than find it against the law to buy Gender Queer  or A Court of Mist and Fury.

If you agree, here are some places you can go for more information, and where you can drop a donation to help stay the course against censorship…

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

National Coalition Against Censorship

The American Civil Liberties Union

…to name just three.

Remember: you’re only free if we’re all free.

—Philip Athans

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I need to sell a bunch of copies real quick, so hopefully someone tries to ban…

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SHOULD WE STOP CONJURING THE APOCALYPSE?

Right from the start let me make sure you know that I in no way subscribe to any version of the “Satanic Panic” or its second incarnation, which was to blame “violent video games” for any and every real life act of violence, suicide, etc. This is nonsense. The Satanic Panic was entirely fictional, as was the story of the troubled D&D player who died in the steam tunnels or whatever, and, in fact, the release dates of what the PTA warned were the worst of the violent video games matched on a month-by-month basis to the greatest decrease in violent crime in American history. So, no, this post is not going to be any version of “violent media creates violent kids.”

Can I say that and then ask the question: Should we stop conjuring the apocalypse?

Well, I think I can at least ask the question. We need to be able to ask questions, think and discuss, and all that, yeah?

So let’s.

I don’t tend to be a big fan of what I think we can call the “standard” post-apocalyptic story, which follows this simple, four-step formula:

1. There’s some kind of serious disaster.

2. All of our institutions, already hanging on a knife’s edge, immediately and thoroughly collapse and disappear, often within the space of a few days or weeks.

3. Ordinary citizens descend into a lawless rabble, punctuated by a very few decent people who try (often in vain) to fight the good fight amidst gleefuly murderous lawlessness because, apparently, the only reason we aren’t wontonly murdering each other over a box of Twinkies is because of the afformentioned edge-teetering institutions and not because people have any internal sense of decency and community.

4. The biker (or prepper or other hyper-masculine violent sociopath) shall inherit the Earth.

You’ve seen this in The Walking DeadThe RoadThe Book of Eli… and so on and so forth, ad nauseum.

The first problem I see is that this formula has played out in actual human history exactly no times, including during times of spectacular political and economic upheavel including World War II, which was measurably the worst thing that ever happened in all of human history. It didn’t happen in Ancient Rome, believe it or not, nor during the Black Plague and the so-called Dark Ages. That inexplicable disconnect between the way we all seem to assume we’re going to behave and the way we actually do behave, or have behaved, is the central assumption that drives this whole sub-genre.

Okay, but with all honestly the fact that it makes no logical sense and has no actual historical or sociological precedence  doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting, fun, entertaining , and even  enlightening to think about. A lot of speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, horror) starts with the completely impossible and then tries to work out how we’ll handle that. Having written some deeply cynical fiction, and being a lifelong fan of same, believe me it’s odd for me to start questioning the idea of the genres as broadly realized warnings. Some of the great classics from Frankenstein  through 1984 and The Stand not only rank among my all time favorites but are enduring stories that all say, in one way or another: Watch out! Watch out with all these experiments in medicine and biology—that might go terribly wrong. Watch out, everybody, because governments are becoming more and more oligarchical and restrictive in nature. Watch out, a serious pandemic might  just lead to the collapse of law and order and invite the Devil into the world.

Got it. Loved them all.

Of the three of them, Orwell was way more on the nose than the others. Medical research has eliminated an awful lot of suffering and early death in the very long time since Frankenstein was written. We got through a global pandemic just recently and the people who were trying to make it worse (if only by trying to ignore it) were pushed aside (sort of) and anyway, inflation and ill-explained “supply chain distruptions” aside, we’re fine. The whole totalitarian oligarchy thing from 1984…?

Let’s talk about that a minute.

Was it just me, or did you think, the first time you saw a commercial for the interactive workout screens, that some asshole in Silicon Valley read about that in 1984 and thought, Hey, I can make that! all the while ignoring that Orwell was clearly trying to say that having someone yell at you while forcing you to excersie was, y’know… a bad thing. This is part of the point I’m trying to make.

Orwell imagined a dystopian future that a bunch of otherwise smart  people then seemed to take on as a challenge. They’ve though, Yeah, we can totally do that, and created either very small versions of INSOC as things like NXVIM or Peloton, slightly larger versions like Scientology or CPAC, and much larger expressions like post-war America from McCarthy through Nixon and on to Trump and the rise of the Objectivist/Libertarian thing and a generation of people who seem to at once despise government as a high demand or high control group and engage with each other via one high control group after another. The American right learned the lesson of continuous warfare from Orwell while the American left blissfully adopted Newspeak.

Do we have a whole cadre of Americans who not only believe in that four-step process of apocalypse-to-dystopia, but are, seemingly intentionally, trying to push it forward? Wasn’t that what was happening at the Capital on January 6th? Isn’t that what’s behind the so-called “preppers” and the whole insane gun thing? Real people in real life are arming themselves against the inevitable apocalypse, which they know is right around the corner and if it isn’t then we’ll God damn well make sure it is. Why would anyone do this? In his book The Unidentified, author Colin Dickey started to narrow in on this.

In the decade after World War II, masculinity itself was undergoing a crisis. Men who’d fought in a great war were now readjusting to a life of domestic placidity and workplace drudgery. The 1950s were a time of economic prosperity in the United States, to be sure, but such economic gains came with a radically reenvisioned sense of a man’s role: no longer someone who worked with his hands, he now worked a desk job, he was tethered to a suburban house and familial obligations, and his world was one of consumerism. This malaise helps explain the massive popularity of men’s adventure magazines, with their tales of flesh-eating weasels, quicksand, and cobras. Magazines with names like True Adventures and Real Life Action played to the nine-to-five stiff, giving him an alternative fantasyland in which to reimagine himself as liberated from the womanly bonds of the material world, living off the land with only his skills and his hands. Free once more.

 

This is NOT aspirational!

Is all of this reactionary vs. progressive, right vs. left, and the assumption of the apocalypse  because of the stories we tell, from the biblical apocalypse onward?

Have we been telling each other the same science fiction story so many times, for so many thousands of years, that even though it can be proven to be bullshit it not only won’t go away but we just keep doubling down on it so that apocalyptic cults that used to be rare, bizarre things, have now become… a majority of Americans to some degree?

I don’t know, but it’s sure starting to seem like it.

Or am I just seeing a present day dystopia where none exists, and imagining  an impossible apocalypse caused by victims of high control cults like QANON and the Republican Party just finally wanting to get to the world of Mad Max  because it looks like fun or something? Am I just blaming those high contol groups for imaginary bad things because some other high control group I don’t even know I’m a member of is telling me to fear the reactionary harbingers of the apocalypse?

Maybe.

But what if we all, as purveyors of speculative fiction, take a deep breath, look to examples like Gene Roddenberry and Iain Banks, and start imagining futures where we can finally all just get along? I asked myself a few weeks ago if I should try to cheer up, and I guess all this is part of that thinking. But hey, let’s do that thinking. We won’t be the first.

“But why do human beings expect an end to the world at all?” Emmanuel Kant wrote in “The End of All Things,” “And if this is conceded to them, why must it be a terrible end?” 

—Philip Athans

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BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXX: BIRD BY BIRD

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think 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.

Is it okay to read a book that teaches you how to write by an author whose fiction you’ve never read? I hope so, because, on the recommendation of a number of people, I read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott last October, and still have not yet read any of her fiction. I have quoted this book here, in a various contexts, a number of times since then, and it’s almost a year past due that I post this full-throated recommendation of the book.

Subtitled Some Instructions on Writing and LifeBird by Bird covers a wide range of topics around the creation of fiction and the care and nurturing of authors themselves. It’s separated into five parts: On Writing, where you’ll find some practical, “how to” advice; The Writing Frame of Mind covers what I’ve called the essential trait of intellectual curiosityHelp Along the Way, which encourages us to find other people willing to lend a hand, or an edit; Publication—and Other Reasons to Write, stops thankfully short of getting too deeply into the business end of things; and The Last Class to wrap things up.

Anne Lamott’s voice is invariably accessible, realistically but not cyncially encouraging, often funny, and in general super-readable. She definitely takes on the role of a friend in your corner, a coach, a teacher—but not necessarily a cheerleader. Don’t expect to hear what she thinks you want to hear—or hear what you, indeed, want to hear. Bird by Bird is what good writing advice should be, which is never that.

Here are a few examples:

I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.

A friend of mine says thay the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die.

If you find that you start a number of stories or pieces that you don’t ever bother finishing, that you lose interest or faith in them along the way, it may be that there is nothing at their center about which you care passionately. You need to put yourself at their center, you and what you believe to be true or right. The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing.

Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.

Get it all down. Let it pour out of you onto the page. Write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, whiny, mewling first draft. Then take out as many of the excesses as you can.

Now go read it for yourselves!

—Philip Athans

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

 
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ARE YOU WRITING ENOUGH?

I have no idea. What do you think. Are you? And while we’re asking questions, what’s “enough”?

Ray Bradbury famously said “Write a thousand words a day and in three years you’ll be a writer!” Does that mean once you’ve written 1,095,000 words, like Malcolm Gladwell’s famous “10,000 hours,” you’ll have achieved some sort of expertise-through-practice? I doubt Bradbury was being at all that literal.

So then if not writing a thousand words a day—even if at the end of those three years, assuming all thousand words were pure gold every day, you’ll have a dozen full length novels under your belt—what should you be doing? I was at a conference once where and author said that every day she would use a fancy scarf to tie her ankle to the leg of her chair, symbolically forcing herself to sit there until her day’s writing (whatever that was for her) was finished. That wouldn’t work for me—at least I don’t think it would. I’d be too distracted by the scarf around my ankle… I think. Though, honestly, I’ve never tried it.

Bradbury was quite prolific, having come out of the old pulp world that did run a bit on the “quantity over quality” method, though the quality of Bradbury’s work was, overall, at the highest level. Not true for Lester “Kenneth Robeson” Dent, co-creator of Doc Savage and king of the padded sentence. But Dent made a pretty good living writing lots of words. I’ve done the “go for done, get paid” thing and I don’t need that money anymore and also lived to regret having less than my best work out there with my name on it, so I don’t want to just go for quantity anymore. Is there a balance between the two?

Then I saw this at the top of a 1992 Paris Review interview with Grace Paley:

People often ask Grace Paley why she has written so little—three story collections and three chapbooks of poetry in seventy years. Paley has a number of answers to this question. Mostly she explains that she is lazy and that this is her major flaw as a writer. Occasionally she will admit that, though it is “not nice” of her to say so, she believes that she can accomplish as much in a few stories as her longer-winded colleagues do in a novel. And she points out that she has had many other important things to do with her time, such as raising children and participating in politics. “Art,” she explains, “is too long, and life is too short.”

Neither Harper Lee nor J.D. Salinger wrote a lot of books, while Isaac Asimov and Henry James really wrote a lot. Should Lee and Salinger have written more, and Asimov and James fewer books? Should Shakespeare have written more? Less?

Also from a Paris Review interview, Jack Kerouac revealed that “What I do now is write something like an average of eight thousand words a sitting, in the middle of the night, and another about a week later, resting and sighing in between.”

I’ve written ten thousand words in a sitting once—maybe a couple times, actually—but never once a week.

Sticking with the Paris Review interviews, here’s Susan Sontag:

I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific. But I’m too interested in many other things.

Seems as though we’re getting a lot of spurting here—a lot of “sprints,” as a project manager might say. Is that how to do it, then?

By now I bet you know what I’m going to say: There is no how to do it. There’s definitely not one way to write, nor could there possibly be a best way to write. We all have to find our own way to write, even if, for some period of time, we write nothing.

I’d be willing to bet, though, that during those periods where we’re not putting words down on paper (or pixels) we’re imagining stories, thinking through plots, conjuring characters, mulling over something we might have to say and sifting through all the many ways in which we can say it.

As far as I’m concerned, that “counts” as writing.

—Philip Athans

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MAYBE I NEED TO CHEER UP

I continue to struggle with what I guess I can call “writer’s block.” I do write this blog every week, the occasional poem, even finished the (very) rough draft of a short story yesterday, but the novel continues to elude me. Why is that?

Am I really “too busy”? No. I was pretty busy when I wrote all those Forgotten Realms books. That’s really not it.

Am I out of ideas? Not at all—ideas abound.

But maybe that’s the problem…

The ideas—all at the outline stage or beyond—are pretty fucking depressing.

One is the “novelization” of a screenplay I wrote years ago that of course was never produced in any form. It’s a monumentally sad story about a person who does something terrible, over and over again. Another is a dark fantasy, emphasis on dark, about a sort of post-apocalyptic, but not really, world in which a simple farmer tries to do the right thing but it’s really not possible to do the right thing, or even know what the right thing is. The third idea is so fucking bleak thinking about it makes me think I really need to get into therapy. And the last is a complicated historical novel about a bad person struggling to be better in a terrible moment in history, and of course he fails because everyone involved in that moment in history failed to be better than they were.

What is it about me that the only stories I seem to come up with are about powerless people ground down by impossible to overcome circumstances, all leading to, at best, qualified “wins,” and more likely some hopeless continuation of the unavoidable central tragedy. I guess I do read stuff like that, watch movies like that… But is the overwhelmingly depressing nature of these stories what’s stopping me from progressing on any of the four ideas?

Should I just ditch that shit and write the random fantasy dungeon crawl novel instead?

I could make that fun, I think. Fun to write as well as fun to read.

But that dark fantasy says more. The screenplay gave me nightmares and had me abandoning it a few times until I found myself forced to finish it, so that must mean it’s of real value, no? The other thing might help me work through some of my own shit—it’s more personal. The historical has something to say about the world we live in now—at least what I think about certain big subjects.

The random fantasy dungeon crawl will have more monsters, and characters that can have a sense of humor, though. That’s not bad, is it?

I had to pause right then, sigh, and drum my fingers on my desk before writing this last bit.

—Philip Athans

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THE GENUINELY POPULAR CULTURE OF YOUR WORLD IS…

Start with the most basic premise that a story is characters in conflict, and the best stories are those that present the most fully realized characters—characters who feel like real people, however unreal their circumstances—so that no matter how outlandish the conflicts in which they find themselves our readers happily come along for the ride. That said, how do we create characters, especially in fantasy and science fiction stories and novels with no grounding in the real world at all, that seem like real people, when nothing about the world in which they live is itself real?

This is the the trick, isn’t it, to genre writing in all forms. For me, this always starts with authors’ own ability to empathize with the people they create. You have to know what it feels like to be scared in order to write a character into a scary situation. But this is true of any genre, or “genreless” or literary fiction as well, isn’t it? Of course it is. Know what love feels like before you start writing a romance novel, people.

In his book Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern reminds us:

A character comes out of a dense cultural, social, and psychological matrix. The more richly this is suggested, the more resonant the portrait. Evocative details about the person’s family, childhood incidents, intimate moments—all are clues that help us understand the character. And remember, too, that you’re writing fiction; you’re creating art. Actual facts are your raw material, not your boundaries. 

Romance authors and realist authors have the “actual facts”—the whole real world—to fall back on. We know what the codes are, basically. We know what in not just the physical world but the culture that triggers various emotional responses. Will those same triggers exist through the looking glass or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away? This is where worldbuilding enters the picture, but not in the sense of maps and names for things and arcane religious rituals. Romance and mystery/thriller characters exist in a cultural context, and it’s from that context they’re drawn. In his book The Upright Thinkers, Leonard Mlodinow wrote:

“Culture” is defined as behavior, knowledge, ideas, and values that you acquire from those who live around you, and it’s different in different places. We modern humans act according to the culture in which we are raised, and we also acquire much of our knowledge through culture, which is true for us far more than it is for other species. In fact, recent research suggests that humans are even evolutionarily adapted to teach other humans.

If we’re creating our own cultures, we need to think through those triggers, those basic expectations and the unwritten rules that can be summed up as culture. But this can get complicated. It certainly is in the real world, in which we hear talk of “culture wars” around an impossibly broad swathe of subjects. My cautions against too much worldbuilding in place, can you describe the culture of your invented world in a couple paragraphs? In his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,” George Orwell wrote:

But in all societies the common people must live to some extent against the existing order. The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities. One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world. They have to satisfy these tastes in the face of astonishing, hypocritical laws (licensing laws, lottery acts, etc., etc.) which are designed to interfere with everybody but in practice allow everything to happen. Also, the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries.

One can learn a good deal about the spirit of England from the comic coloured postcards that you see in the windows of cheap stationers’ shops. These things are a sort of diary upon which the English people have unconsciously recorded themselves. Their old-fashioned outlook, their graded snobberies, their mixture of bawdiness and hypocrisy, their extreme gentleness, their deeply moral attitude to life, are all mirrored there.

As a counterpoint to that passage from Orwell, consider a similar short take, this time on American culture, by Eugene Thacker from his book Tentacles Longer Than Night:

The idea of an American pessimism is an oxymoron. In a culture that thrives on entrepreneurialism, pharmacology, and self-help, “pessimism” is simply a fancy name for a bad mood. In a culture that prizes the can-do, self-starter attitude, to be a pessimist is simply to be a complainer—if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem. To live in such a culture is to constantly live in the shadow of an obligatory optimism, a novel type of coercion that is pathologized early on in child education in the assessment: “Does not like to play with others.”

I’ve used these as examples in courses on science fiction and fantasy worldbuilding, challenging students to use that Orwell passage as inspiration to write something similar for their own world. What is the ordinary citizen’s experience of this kingdom or that stellar empire?

This gets into how people live, their behavior and interactions. And this is how you bring a sense of personal involvement into your characters’ lives. It’s not all about the high-minded ideals of duty, honor, country… Sometimes, and I’ll side with George Orwell in asserting that this is true most of the time, what really defines us are cultural expressions like slang, fashion, music, courting, sports and games, and so on.

Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about in terms of characters living in the popular culture from the science fiction novel Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta:

The atmosphere in the square was almost relaxed today. I had only seen two soldiers when I had arrived, and they had been leaning against a wall at the edge of the square, looking indifferent and drinking amber-coloured liquid from their waterskins. A couple of children were arranging frayed plastic mahjong tiles on the ground, someone was playing an accordion across the uneven puzzle of the stalls, and Ninia’s sister Tamara was selling trinkets and hair brooches a short distance away on the other side of the alley. It seemed strange to me that women would still want to decorate their hair. When I had mentioned this to Sanja, she had said, ‘People will hold on to what they’re used to, for as long as they can. It’s the only way to survive.’

In this book, climate change has forced a global fresh water crisis, and the heroine, Noria, lives in a small town that’s part of a much larger police state. Even in a world of “water crimes” where citizens are summarily executed in the street, we see people clinging to pop culture—to games (mahjong), music (someone is playing the accordion), and fashion (hair brooches and other trinkets). These human touches serve to add a greater level of personal affront to the actions of the oppressive regime by building a foundation of humanity under Noria and the other characters trying to make their way in this dystopian future.

There are certain “facts” of what it means to be human—certain shared assumptions in any case—but everything is then filtered through lenses of culture, in this world, and our dreamworlds.

—Philip Athans

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FANTASY+AUTHOR+HANDBOOK

Phantasy by thermostats will always be a component of human life. Enchiridion is the most fundamental sophist of humankind; many to confluences but a few of conjecture. a plethora of writer lies in the field of literature in addition to the realm of theory of knowledge. Instead of observing the drone, phantasy constitutes both an interpretable agronomist and a quintessential account.

According to professor of reality Leon Trotsky, handbook is the most fundamental oration of human life. Although an orbital reproduces, interference at the intercession emits the gamma ray for antagonistically but belligerently transitory assemblies. The neutrino on advancements spins to transmit simulation. a neuron with expulsion is not the only thing the plasma reacts; it also counteracts pendulums by masochist for writer. The more appeasement that might sedulously be the circumspection is rightful, classic, and protean, the more assemblage of an exposition is interpretable in the extent to which we vie. Seeing as civilizations which assent or permeate disruption are delineated for writer, amygdalas to comportment commence equally at fantasy.

The atelier on administrations, often with retorts, will inaugurate the altruist for fantasy. Because of blustering, author which surprises most of the disenfranchisements and exhibits a respondent can be more injudiciously substantiated. Additionally, gravity is not the only thing information by countenances oscillates; it also receives the brain of vade mecum. My celebration may be corroboration. The propagandist can, even so, be effectively contemptible. In my theory of knowledge class, some of the aggregations at our personal epigraph to the quip we feign contend. Subsequently, the despicably and sophistically surprising declaration forsakes purloined quarrels by our personal interloper for the apprentice we pilfer. an allusion collaborates, not particularism. Our personal ligation on the inquisition we preclude can effortlessly be lethargy. The inchoate fantasy changes an abundance of fantasy.

As I have learned in my semantics class, humanity will always mortify author. The same gamma ray may produce two different orbitals with comptroller to invert. Interference by the study of literature for a tyro implodes to emit pendulums. The plasma is not the only thing a gamma ray at proclamations spins; it also processes neutrinoes of twenty-first to phantasy. The less accusations bemoan the appetites involved, the sooner the affirmation that remunerates propagation is excessive yet somehow indispensable but accuses irrelevance. Because of the fact that analyses are lauded with handbook, scintillatingly or conscientiously postlapsarian exposures voyage to the same extent at author.

Vade mecum for ruminations which compensate a reprimand by a demonstration but ascend of concurrences has not, and doubtless never will be contrived. Be that as it may, knowing that mesmerism might inflexibly be the embroidery, many of the advances on our personal circumscription with the trope we expose regret vernacular to the reprover. The masochistic contemplation by author changes a confluence at handbook. Handbook has not, and doubtlessly never will be aggravating but not raucous. Therefore, enchiridion might engender most of the amplifications.

Babel Generator

PS: From a link in the must-read article “The five-paragraph fetish” by David Labaree, this week’s post was “written” by a set of computer algorithms that have been used to actually pass the essay portion of standarized tests. This is another example of the sorry state of the American education system, as well as an example of why you need to learn to write, and never, no matter how sophisticated these things might get in the future, leave anything as important as writing to a machine.

—Philip Athans

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Where Story Meets World™

Look to Athans & Associates Creative Consulting for story/line/developmental editing at 3.5¢ per word.

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VACATION WEEK

I’m out of the office, out of town, and out of touch this week, but I can’t let a Tuesday go by without something here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook so this, written last week and scheduled to post using the magic of the internet, will have to do. Advice for authors this week falls into the category of self-promotion. I’ve said before that you have to be the first champion of your own work, so this week, please allow me to champion my own work—Fantasy Author’s Handbook itself.

This is the 683rd post, a continuous every-Tuesday ritual since June of 2009. More than 223,000 visitors have accounted for over 518,000 views. Y’all have left 1200+ comments and almost 900 people are following along either via WordPress.com or email. I’m pretty proud of all that, and remain 100% committed to continuing this weekly ritual into the years to come.

Now here’s where I start asking you for stuff—and I promise it won’t be that hard!

I do not hide any content behind a Patreon wall or anything like that (except the older posts that are now part of The Best of Fantasy Author’s Handbook) so all this comes at no cost to you—unless you want to help out with an entirely optional donation. You’ll see a “Buy Now” button just to your right, and I hope you’ll see fit to use that to throw me a couple extra potatoes for the effort.

If you aren’t following FAH, now’s a great time to start! Just below the appeal for money is a place for you to enter your email address so you’ll get a friendly reminder every week to come back and see what’s up. This is, of course, entirely free of charge.

Do you even know what an RSS feed is? Click those links to find out!

The section “Are you following me?” grabs a few recent Tweets, which should remind you to follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans.

Then there are all sorts of fascinating links. Have you ever wandered through those? Why not start this week?

And you might have noticed that I end every post with this:

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.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

…and a book cover or Athans & Associates link that will invite you to, y’know… buy one of my books or hire me to edit your book or otherwise help in your writing career. Actually clink on those links, people!

This vacation I’m on now is the first I’ve taken in five years, so the burnout has been real lately. But I’m putting a lot of eggs into this vacation basket and plan to come back next week energized and ready to finally dust that burnout off, along with any lingering COVID malaise, and so on, and hit the ground running through the rest of 2022 and beyond.

What can you look forward to from me?

You’ll see a second volume of The Best of Fantasy Author’s Handbook by year’s end, at least.

I will start writing again, and dive into another “how to” book—still deciding if I just go full on everything-you-need-to-know-about-genre-writing, a book on crafting villains, or a deep dive into POV…? Eventually, all three and more.

A novel, too.

And, finally, a return to online courses and tutorials, which I love to do, but that were interrupted with the Writers Digest bankruptcy and the hard transition to a new company that, let’s say… I had some compatibility issues with. But I’ll be back in a new venue (or venues) with all new content and a couple of old favorites.

What else? You tell me.

Am I the only one out there without a podcast? Is that something you’d subscribe to?

Am I just too handsome to deny the world a YouTube channel any longer? Who can say?

And who knows what else might happen, but I do know that I’m getting back out there after this trip, y’all, so strap in!

—Philip Athans

Where Story Meets World™

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