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“The point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking,” wrote Joan Didion in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” “That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess.”

I have two notebooks going at any given time. One has notes on ongoing projects, it’s where I keep track of work time, jot down things like “find: bio of Arthur Conan Doyle,” which I scribbled just this morning while listening to the Overdue podcast episode on The Hound of the Baskervilles. I added one to my Amazon wish list a couple hours later, but not all of these little notes end up anywhere—they don’t always get re-read. I’m not even sure I’ll ever get around to ordering, much less reading, that ACD bio. But when I get to the end of a notebook, or for a variety of other reasons including idle curiosity, I flip through and try to act on things I’ve jotted down.

Then I have a second notebook I’ve called RANDOM WRITING. In that, I write—by hand—whatever it is I’m currently working on. Yesterday I finished a short horror story. There’s still part of a jungle pulp story in there that needs to be finished.

But carrying that notebook around to work on that story, I noticed that on the first page—or, actually, the sixth page since there’s the remains of five more pages carefully torn out at the serration, but the rest still clinging to the wire spiral—there’s an idea for a novel that, should I suddenly decide to be honest with myself, I’ll never actually write.

Typing this, as best I can, to mimic my scrawling handwriting in the cheap spiral notebook, I give you…



Cthulhu Warming idea

horror from beyond the stars lands somewhere—giant Lovecraftian horror that gives birth to monsters, starts changing the environment


How a global disaster is experienced by people in different parts of the world


—Soldier on scene—uneducated “there”/kill

—Reporter on scene—educated “there”/understand

—Poor, 3rd world person—has no idea

—20something from LA—doesn’t care

—scientist: can’t get access

—NY comedy writer—funny? too soon?

—small town preacher—desperate to seem to have answers

—cable news producer—managing the crazy, reporting everything

Start with: what the monster does

set a clock—everyone else reacts

there’s NOTHING you can do about it.

there is NO explanation of it, ever.

EACH experiencer has some combination of mutually exclusive theories, which are proven incorrect—but in many cases they stay with that idea.

* EACH experiencer has relationships/secondary characters and STORIES/CONFLICT of their own!

This is a book about THESE PEOPLE, not the monster or fighting the monster.


I have dozens of these.

How many of these do you have?

How many of them have actually ended up as a completed novel or short story?

I said I have dozens of them, but there might have been hundreds over the years. Reading it again from maybe a year later (the page isn’t dated but if it’s in that notebook it’s from on or after February 28, 2017) I can see so very much that needs to be rethought before it’s worth writing—especially that list of characters. But whatever else this is, whether or not it ever becomes more than a page of notes and a blog post about jotting down ideas for stories, this was not wasted time!

None of these have ever been wasted time.

This is a vital, early, and essential part of the writing processes—my writing process, anyway. When an idea for a story strikes you, have a place to record it in one form or another. Keep it. Sit with it, dismiss it if you have to, tear it apart and remake it into something else, but write it down in the moment.

You never know.

—Philip Athans

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Starting, once again, with the basic caveat that there is no one way to always do anything in creative fiction, and the advice I’m about to give is not meant to be blindly applied to every single sentence you ever write from now on, consider this:

All things being equal, try to begin a sentence with the thing that’s moving—or in any way actually doing something. Or really: Start with the experience.

For instance, most of the time, I think this:

A roar echoed from somewhere deep in the forest.

…is better than:

From somewhere deep in the forest, a roar echoed.

In this example, the roar is the thing that is doing something, and what it’s doing is echoing. I know that seems a little weird, but it’s true. “Somewhere deep in the forest” is the place in which that is happening, but the place isn’t actually doing anything—it isn’t moving. This is another one of those little bits that can add up to a sense of “passive voice,” or passive writing in general, and is most important in action.

Consider this example from Mel Odom’s novel Master Sergeant:

The aircraft jerked and shuddered as the pilots fired the jets in an effort to gain control of the rotation.

Here we see the thing that’s moving move: the aircraft jerked and shuddered. Then we learn why it’s jerking and shuddering.

Mel set it up in this order:

  1. Here’s what the characters experience: (the aircraft jerked and shuddered)
  2. Here’s who is actually doing something: (the pilots)
  3. Here’s what it is they’re actually doing: (fired the jets)
  4. Here’s why they’re doing that thing: (in an effort to gain control of the rotation)

Fiction is a shared experience, so we always need to be sure to show our readers what our characters are experiencing. Next, sentences in fiction tend to be about people—characters are the vessel through which the experience of the story is conveyed—so let’s get them in there next. Good, active fiction is about characters doing something, so next we’re shown what those characters are doing, and only in the end—if it matters—does he explain why this is happening.

If we flip it over:

In an effort to gain control of the rotation, the pilots fired the jets and the aircraft jerked and shuddered.

That feels more like a list, and remember: We don’t want to write in bullet points!

This order explains first and ends with the actual experience:

  1. Here’s why they’re doing that thing: (in an effort to gain control of the rotation)
  2. Here’s who is actually doing something: (the pilots)
  3. Here’s what it is they’re actually doing: (fired the jets)
  4. Here’s what the characters experience: (the aircraft jerked and shuddered)

There can and should be some degree of suspense even within a single sentence. By starting with the experience then ending with the explanation, we spend a few seconds wondering why the aircraft jerked and shuddered, then we see someone do something to affect that in some way, before it ends up in some kind of context. And the stakes are still there, since we only know what the pilots are trying to do, not what they have succeeded in doing.

The worst example of this would be leading with some version of “everything is fine” then going through the action to get there:

The werewolf fell dead after the silver bullet from Bronwyn’s gun tore through it’s blood-soaked chest.

Here the actual action of the sentence is undercut by the spoiler that leads it off. The werewolf is dead, now let me briefly explain why. Again, especially in action, we want to create and nurture suspense, not reassure our readers that everything is fine then explain how it came to be fine.

I would actually make this three sentences:

Bronwyn fired and the bullet tore through the werewolf’s blood-soaked chest. The beast fell dead. “Silver bullets…” Bronwyn said with a smile, “gotta love ’em”

This gives the character in question the lead. Her action (firing the gun) starts everything off, we see the bullet fly, but we know enough about werewolves to wonder if this is going to have any effect—then see that it actually does tear through the monster’s chest. But is it enough to kill it? Sentence two says yes. Sentence three confirm/explains, adding a little moment for Bronwyn to be her badass self.

Don’t be afraid to write a couple extra sentences!

All this having been said, of course, there does seem to be a bit more poetry in From somewhere deep in the forest, a roar echoed—hence the opening caveat. If you’re sure that simply sounds better, it fits better into the overall context of the scene, or for whatever reason you just want it/like it that way… fine! But as with all things, make that decision, not that mistake.

—Philip Athans

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I don’t think I’ve ever done this, so how about a long-overdue post on the crass subject of coin?

“Everybody thought I was crazy. A writer, you know—he’s just a sort of crackpot. My wife would get some of my love scenes and read them aloud to me, and just laugh and laugh… And then, by golly, one day here’s check.”

—Lester Dent

I’m currently working through the latest run of my Pulp Fiction Workshop, inspired by Doc Savage co-creator Lester Dent’s famous Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, and as part of my ongoing research into the great pulp fiction tradition, I read the book, Bigger Than Life: The Creator of Doc Savage, a biography of Dent by Marilyn Cannaday. I was struck by this passage:

By any standard, Dent was a prolific writer. He claimed he could write, at full speed, 65,000 words a week—dictating much of the material into a Dictaphone. In the spring of 1935 he and a secretary turned out eight novel-length stories in seven weeks. In a newspaper interview he boasted that he had averaged 200,000 words a month for a two-year period and he had made $18,000 a year with his writing during the Great Depression.

And from the same book:

Dell was paying one cent a word, asking Dent to fill two magazines, and be brilliant! Wordage was no problem for Dent. The first month he made $1500.


WPA laborers in a rock quarry near Dent’s hometown received $1 a day for their work.

We’re all writers here, and many of us hope to do this, or keep doing this, for a living, so let’s break this down a little and see how, or even if, any of us can get not only onto Lester Dent’s plan for how to write a fun detective story, but his plan for how to make a decent living doing the same.

Let’s start with how much he was (or at least how much he claimed to be) actually writing.

Dent’s 65,000 words per week is 13,000 per five-day work week or about 9300 words per day if he wrote on weekends, too. I once wrote 10,000 words of a novel in a single day. I was in the zone. It was okay—needed a bunch of editing later. I’ve never managed to do that again. But that’s just me. Your mileage may vary, but I think we can all agree that over 9000 words per day, every day, without pause, is at least… really very super difficult.

If he did write 65,000 words per week, that’s 3,380,000 words per year or over 281,000 words per month, but the other figure he threw out was “200,000 words a month for a two-year period.” That’s still 2.4 million words a year, but let’s go with that figure from now on.

If Lester Dent really did make $18,000 in that year it means he was paid, on average, $0.0075 per word for his 200,000 words per month, pretty close to that 1¢ per word rate mentioned above. Dent’s $18,000 in 1935 equals about $297,000 in 2016 dollars, so he was doing pretty well for himself, regardless. Still, to make $297,000 selling short stories and novellas to magazines now, you’d need to see a bit more than 12¢ per word for your own 200,000 words per month.

I couldn’t find a science fiction, fantasy, or horror magazine that pays that much. And it’s important to note, too, that in 1935 there were more than twenty-five pulp fiction magazines being published. You might find it a challenge to find that many paying outlets for short fiction, let alone markets that pay that requisite 12¢ per word.

Analog and Asimov’s remain the highest paying markets for science fiction short stories at 8-10¢ per word, so if you’re looking to make Lester Dent’s $297,000 you better get busy, and hope that all of your stories are accepted. If paid at the average rate of 9¢ per word, you’ll need to have a total of 3.3 million words written, polished, and accepted by one or the other of those two magazines every year. I have a feeling if you added up all of the words both those magazines publish in a year it doesn’t come to 3.3 million.

I should note here that Lester Dent did, in fact, write all of the fiction in every issue of Doc Savage at the time—so he had a whole magazine to himself. If any magazine publisher is doing that now, I haven’t heard of it.

So, yeah. You’re not going to be making $297,000 this year, or any year, on short stories alone.

Now, if you really could write 2.4 million words a year (I have a difficult time believing anyone can actually accomplish that and have anything a value to show for it, but I guess it’s possible) then let’s say you’re forgoing the short stories and splitting that 2.4 million words into 24 novels of 100,000 words each, or just about one 100,000-word novel every two weeks (yeah… that isn’t possible!), you’d need to see a $12,375 advance or immediate indie sales equaling $12,375 on each of those twenty-four novels, to make the same money, working just as hard, as Lester Dent made 83 years ago.

So, what does this tell us? For all his braggadocio, Mr. Dent was working awfully hard for the money, and might have been better off writing fewer, better words, getting to that same $18,000 in 1935 dollars without having to polish off the equivalent of a long novel every two weeks.

So then, is that our target? $297,000 per year? That’s a tidy sum. Very few Americans hit that in a year. And the fact remains that with one solid-selling novel (not twenty-four) you can do that. It might also be conceivable with several brisk-selling indie titles, maybe—minus your significant investment to get them up there with the appropriate quality in editing, cover art and design, and marketing.

But it has to be said:

I don’t actually believe it’s possible to write 2.4 million words of publishable fiction in a year.

That’s an absurd number.

The gist of this?

Write short stories to exercise your storytelling muscles, experiment with different forms and genres, to get and keep your work out there in front of different niche audiences. Sometimes you might get a little money, sometimes none at all, and sometimes that “pro rate” of 6¢ per word or more.

But if you want to write fiction for a living, keep working on that novel!

—Philip Athans

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If you had asked me—pretty much at any time in my life up to the moment, yesterday afternoon, that I had the idea for this post—if I liked instrumental music I would have said no. At least . “No, not particularly.” But you know what? Instrumental music has actually been a pretty solid part of my life, especially my writing life, for a very long time.

Though, much to the whining disapproval of my children, Music Choice’s Light Classical channel tends to be my new go to—it’s great for reading, in particular. But music, depending on my mood, the mood of what I’m working on, whether I’m writing or editing, etc. is sort of a big deal for me. Now it’s all focused on my 9450-song iTunes library while I’m at my desktop computer. But lyrics in music often distract me, and iTunes on shuffle can dig up songs that jar me out of my “flow state” (whatever that actually is) so instrumental music has always been an important part of my writing progress. It’s there—but it doesn’t demand attention like a human voice does.

Here are six instrumental CDs, listed here in no particular order, that have been go to albums for me either for a very long time, or that I’ve only just recently discovered:

“Paradox” by Davol

Denver-based musician and scientist (yes, scientist—he has a Ph.D. in microbiology) Davol was part of the late-80s “new age” scene, and it was right about that time that I was working in record stores and getting CDs for free. This one found its way to me and though I could never call myself a “new age fan,” and I mean, at all, something about this collection of electronic mood pieces somehow supports my often wandering attention. It’s impossible for me to know how much writing I’ve done over the past twenty-five years or so while this CD was playing in the background, sometimes left on repeat.

“The White Arcades” by Harold Budd

I ran across Harold Budd because he did an album with my very favorite band of all time, Cocteau Twins, called “The Moon and the Melodies.” On his own, Budd falls comfortably into the “new age” category. In this masterfully chill record, he eschews some of the weirder components of his other albums, which include frankly kinda clunky poetry readings, for tighter, electronic mood pieces that feel like a sort of add-on to Vangelis’s soundtrack to the movie Blade Runner but without Vangelis’s punchier bits that come across as sound effects. It feels almost like a riff on classical music. It has the same pretense, but can’t escape its contemporary sci-fi-ness.

“Paris, Texas” by Ry Cooder

Though there are a couple vocal pieces on this album, including the great Harry Dean Stanton’s extended monologue from the brilliant film by Wim Wenders, I’m including it here because, at least for me, it fills the same sort of background mood purposes of the others. This is, almost entirely, full-on Western twang, but, like the film, more than a bit on the morose side. This is the sad story soundtrack—for me, at least. And more so than Davol’s “Paradox,” a fantastically listenable album in the foreground, too.

“The Shadow of Your Smile” by Friends of Dean Martinez

This is another one that came to me as a promo CD back in my record store days. I’d never heard of this band before, nor have I heard from them since, so let’s Google, ’em… And of course there’s a Wikipedia page. Turns out this is their first album, from 1995, which would make it among the last free promo CDs for me. Like Ry Cooder’s moody steel guitar from “Paris, Texas,” Friends of Dean Martinez are steeped in western twang, though friendlier, more upbeat. Think Chris Isaak’s most cowboyish songs, sans lyrics, and you’ve pretty much got it. I love this album!

“Quichua Mashis” by Envio

It’s become sort of an ongoing joke that every city has a South American folk music band playing on the street somewhere, all the time, but the first time I encountered one was when we first moved to Seattle. There seemed to be at least two, but the one I kept stopping to listen to was Envio—and finally I bought one of their CDs from them on the street outside Pike Place Market. I just love this CD. It’s beautifully recorded, and yes, you will actually learn to love the sound of the pan flute. I promise. But then I doubt you’re going to me able to find it. Google “Ecuadorian folk music” and explore!

“The Wilderness” by Explosions in the Sky

This one I just ran across last week, and having been released in 2016 it’s by far the most recent of these six. I’ll let Rolling Stone describe this one for me:

Explosions in the Sky songs might not have lyrics but it’s never hard to tell where they’re coming from. The expansive Texas band’s instrumental indie-rock sound-sculpting is wrought from a sense of somber apprehension and drift, of possibility coming into focus or perhaps losing it, or both at once.

So that begs the question: What do you listen to while you write?

—Philip Athans

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On December 26th, I made some New Years Resolutions, publically, here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook. Then I came back on January 9 to report on my progress, bemoaning my lack of progress getting back to my own writing. Now I’m more than a month past that, and still falling behind my rosy predictions of how much writing I was going to get accomplished. But this post is not going to be a whining session—I promise. Instead, maybe I can serve as an example of when we need to make tough decisions about our own writing in order to see that that decision wasn’t actually as tough as it seemed.

First of all, this is how I described the state of my writing productivity back on January 9:


What the hell!

Most days—no writing at all.

Not acceptable!

Now, six weeks later?


Better, though!

Most days—at least some writing.

Could be lots better.

That’s progress, right?

Okay, so then also on January 9 I determined to take my own advice from my post from August 15 of last year, my cap to a long series of posts examining Henry Miller’s advice to authors, starting with:


1. Work on one novel at a time until finished, while also writing the occasional poem, short story, article, and weekly blog post.

Then I said:

I know exactly what that novel is—the novel I’ve been ruminating over for, literally, years now. I’ve filled a full notebook with worldbuilding and character notes. I’ve already written a few scattered scenes, and the whole thing is at least semi-formed in my head. I know what the theme is. I know who the hero is, and who the villain is, and what they want, what they’re willing to spend to get it. I have just enough outline to get me started. There’s no reason not to dive in and write the damn thing.

And six weeks later? No actual work on that novel at all. I’ve worked on other stuff—poetry, short stories, etc., but six weeks after this full-throated declaration, no work on the “work in progress.”

Guess what?

That means it’s not a work in progress!

It’s still a good idea for a book, I am still reasonably clear on where it starts, where it’s going, etc., so then why no writing?

Maybe, I finally considered, I’m just not that into it.

At least, not right now.

That was when the lightbulb went off. I ended that same list of “commandments” with:

10. Write the book you care the most about—the story that speaks to you, that won’t let you sleep at night, that won’t go away.

And you know what? This “work in progress” wasn’t it.

Another book was, though—the one I figured I’d get to eventually, after I finished the other one I wasn’t writing.

This realization may very well save my whole year. I’ll start working on that other book instead.

I just wish I’d thought of that sooner.

So if, like me, you’re stuck in the “in progress” part and not engaged in the “work,” consider this:

It’s not you, it’s the book.

—Philip Athans

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I know, you’re sick of me talking about the old pulp magazines, apologizing for their endemic sexism and casual racism, and pointing to this great science fiction author, the other groundbreaking fantasy author, and every significant early twentieth century author of horror, mysteries, thrillers, and romances as having sprung from their pages, but hear me out—the great American pulp magazines really are that great, greater now than they were then, and invaluable lessons can be learned from their pages, their authors, and their legacy.

Just this time without all the women tied up and menaced by absurdly stereotypical non-white “savages.”

In my four-week online Pulp Fiction Workshop, starting up again day after tomorrow, we dig deeper into what the pulp tradition can teach the contemporary author.

Taken from the additional material that comes along with the 6000 word short story you’ll write with Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot in hand, here’s the way to start a story, and a story in any genre, including…


From “Jim Dickinson’s Head” by Harold Ward (Black Mask, August 1920), an immediate establishment of tone, and a broad hint of something terrible having happened:

Jim Dickinson’s head, pickled in a jar of alcohol, reposes in the dishonored fastness of a dusty closet in Doctor Wright’s office.


From “Herbert West: Reanimator” by H.P. Lovecraft (Home Brew, 1922), the master at work:

Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror.


From the undisputed classic “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” by Mike Kames (Man’s Life, September 1956), a hero in trouble from the get-go:

I was sprawled on a mound of hay—shotgun cradled in my arms and my head drooping fiercely from want of sleep—when that first ripple of alarm surged through the dark house.


The first line of James G. Blades’s story “Squaw Killer” (Indian Stories, Winter 1950) gets things started immediately:

The Wolf flung his axe.


You know Beth Farrell’s story “The Silver Duke” (Love Story, Oct. 20, 1934) is going to get good when it starts off this catty:

“Jan’s got to get out, ma, she’s too pretty.”

Science Fiction

Here’s the first line from the much reprinted novella “The Gods Hate Kansas” by Joseph J. Millard (Startling Stories, November 1941), which, again, starts the action right up, and immediately says “this is science fiction!”:

The rocks had been hurtling toward earth for more than a week, silent and invisible in the black airless void of space.


I’m not sure I’d recommend a sentence this long, but look how much worldbuilding Clark Ashton Smith put into the first line of “The Abominations of Yondo” (Overland Monthly, April 1926):

The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts; for Yondo lies nearest of all to the world’s rim; and strange winds, blowing from a pit no astronomer may hope to fathom, have sown its ruinous fields with the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns.

War & Air Combat

For the sake of being complete, how about the first line of “Jinx Run” by Scott Sumner (Wings, Spring 1947):

As an AAF soldier-correspondent I was strictly excess baggage on this mission, and I was mighty glad the little tail gunner had crawled back into the waist to keep me company.


Another great example of naming your hero right up front, while he’s in danger, from “Beast-Gods of Atlantis” by John Peter Drummond (Jungle Stories, Summer 1950):

Without breaking the swift stroke of his paddle, Ki-Gor snatched another brief glance over his shoulder at the pursuing war canoes.

Fight Stories

Don’t be afraid to just say what kind of story you’re writing in the first sentence, like Tom O’Neil did in “An Honest Fight Every Night” (Fight Stories, Fall 1949):

Center City was a fight town.

And here’s how you end it, or what Lester Dent called “the snapper, the punch line to end it”:

Pickman’s Model” by H.P. Lovecraft (Weird Tales, October 1927)

Well—that paper wasn’t a photograph of any background, after all. What it showed was simply the monstrous being he was painting on that awful canvas. It was the model he was using—and its background was merely the wall of the cellar studio in minute detail. But by God, Eliot, it was a photograph from life!

“Unexpected Bridegroom” by Adelaide Humphries (Sweetheart Stories, August 1942)

Carson’s arms tightened about her. “If you’re notorious, then that’s the only kind of girl this mayor wants,” he said, and the ardor and tenderness of his kiss gave her the deep thrill of the happiness she had never expected to know again.

“Islands in the Air” by Lowell Howard Morrow (Air Wonder Stories, July 1929, edited by SF legend Hugo Gernsback, for whom the Hugo Award was named)

Somewhere off in the far reaches of space it still pursues its solitary way.

“Dr. Grimshaw’s Sanitarium” by Fletcher Pratt (Amazing Stories, May 1934)

Winter is coming; we dare not hunt for fear of the animal, and our food is running short.

“Death’s Old Sweet Song” by George William Rae (Dime Mystery Magazine, September 1946)

“It was on the gun, Manton, when you wiped the prints off. Just that little blue thread caught on the sight. Just a little blue thread to tie you up for Hell…”

“The Marshal of Goldfork” by Walter A. Tompkins (Exciting Western, September 1947)

“It ain’t every gun-boss who gets planted in a two-hundred-dollar coffin, eh Malone?”

“Red Rogue Killer” by Day Keene (Jungle Stories, Spring 1946)

Behind him Nylabo grinned, white-toothed. He understood. And Bwana Juju would understand. All that really remained to be said was for the maiden’s father to make known how many cows he would take for his golden haired daughter.

“Consignment” by Alan E. Nourse (Science Fiction Adventures, December 1953)

The last thing he saw below, rushing up, was the glowing, blistering, white-hot maw of the blast furnace.

“Jerry the Hawk” by Arthur J. Burke (Air Stories, August 1927)

I was the only one who carried out orders—and I darned near forgot to pull the ripcord!

The 6000 words in between, well… we’ll get to that, starting Thursday.

—Philip Athans

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Last week I posted a short story called “Do You Want Me to Leave You Alone While You Cry?” I wrote this story in exactly 85 minutes, longhand, with a cheap pen using up just a smidge more than five pages in a cheap spiral notebook, and taking another 55 minutes to type it up and post it to Fantasy Author’s Handbook. I changed a few things in the typing/edit phase—the cot was a couch in the first draft, for instance—and changed the title from “Boyfriends Provided,” but what you saw last week was a grand total of 140 minutes of my life—two hours and twenty minutes from zero to posted.

At only 1193 words (and okay, maybe it’s not the greatest work of fiction ever written or anything) that’s not actually that big a deal, right? But here’s the thing I want to talk about today: That 140 minutes encompasses everything that went into this story, including some WordPress tasks not entirely connected to the writing of the story but necessary for getting it up on the blog. It might be fair to trim that extra twenty minutes off the top and say it took me two hours even to write, type, and revise this story.

Here’s how it went down:

On December 29, 2015 I wrote a post called “Random Behavior Modification Prompts for Authors.” These prompts have been showing up on my calendar every day since, and I’ve reworked, revised, added to, and subtracted from that list several times in the past couple years. Here’s the current list, which I put into action starting February 1:

  1. Do a little dance
  2. Think of 6 “murder methods”
  3. Write a poem, right now
  4. Write a short story, right now
  5. Roll up an RPG character
  6. Spend $20 on yourself
  7. Tweet something funny, right now
  8. Puppy play time
  9. Walk around the block
  10. Transfer $20 to savings
  11. Change your social media pix
  12. Read a pulp story
  13. Read for 30 minutes
  14. Throw something away
  15. Random TED Talk
  16. Read an extra chapter of Heretics of Dune
  17. Organize a drawer or shelf
  18. Stand up for at least the next 30 minutes
  19. Clean one room
  20. Review self help folder

I’ll leave those for you to interpret as you wish. My “completion percentage” on these behavior prompts is probably about 50%, but so what? I set these up as events in my Mac Calendar app, actually rolling seven twenty-sided dice at a time to fill in a week, four times or so at the beginning of every month. They show up as notifications on my computer and on my iPhone. On Friday, January 26 this prompt popped up:

Write a short story, right now

So I opened my notebook to the next blank page and immediately started writing. What you read last week was in no way planned. There was no outline of any kind, no logline, no notes, no character sketches, no elaborate Scrivener set-up . . . nothing.

I just started writing and this is what came out.

I stopped writing when it felt like the story was over.

It made no difference to me if anyone was going to like it; pay for it; nominate it for an award; adapt it into a TV series, movie, or video game . . . or even read it.

I just wrote it.

And you know what? This is how I used to write when I was in my twenties and was regularly publishing in the “zine” universe. It’s what was lost to me, completely, when I started writing “professionally.” I’ve only just rediscovered this sort of thing—now it’s called “flash fiction,” I guess, but I’ve always cringed at that moniker. I don’t want this to be a thing. These are mine.

Some of them come out as horror stories, or science fiction, or little vignettes like “Just Exactly Like,” which I wrote in the same way, in maybe even less time, and that found its way into one of the still-out-there little literary zines.

This sort of writing doesn’t pay. There’s no royalty check at the end of this.

This is writing for the pure joy of it, for the exploration, for the creative and intellectual freedom. This is writing to write, to dig something unknown, unplanned, unexpected, uncritical, unedited, and guileless from within yourself and let it be whatever it is.

It’s not a substitution for a novel, or for more robust short stories, etc.—it’s not the only way I’ll ever write again. But having rediscovered the joy of surprising myself with maybe a couple thousand words or less of pure prose? I can’t believe I ever let that go. What was I thinking? Anyway, I’ll never let it go again.

—Philip Athans

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“God damn it, just get the fuck off me,” Jane said, her voice deeper, more growly than normal.

She pushed with both hands and a chill of panic raced through her when Bret didn’t move. But then he relaxed and rolled off her, off the cot and onto the floor.

“Okay?” Jane, at a loss for words, said.

Bret made a show of shrugging and replied, “Whatever. Fine.”

He pulled his legs in under him, sitting cross-legged on the stained concrete floor. He started straightening his socks.

Jane sat up, sliding a little away from him—not too far or too fast. She didn’t want him to get the wrong idea.

“I mean . . .” she said, also making a show of shrugging, letting her right hand fall to her knee with a slap.

“I get it,” Bret said, not looking at her.

“Look,” she said, “I’m not trying to be a bitch or anything. I mean, I like you, okay?” She put a hand on his shoulder and instantly regretted it. It felt stiff. She put her hand back on her own knee. Bret didn’t seem to notice. “Just . . . I mean . . .” she added.

“Whatever,” he said, as if talking to his own feet. “I should just go, I guess.”

Relief flooded Jane’s chest so she sighed but said, “I don’t know. I mean, we can still hang out.”

When Bret turned his head—not enough to actually look at her—and said, “But . . . ?” Jane’s jaw went tight, forcing her lower jaw out.

“But,” she said, mocking him and letting her jaw relax when his shoulders sagged. “I guess so, yeah. You should just go.”

“Okay,” he said to his socks. “Whatever. Later, I guess.”

He disappeared without giving Jane a chance to say goodbye, which she wasn’t going to do anyway. She puffed out a breath and threw herself back down on the cot, staring up at the flat grey concrete ceiling.

“You didn’t like him?” the voice Jane had come to think of as Bob the Therapist asked. His voice came from the air around her. She’d never been able to find anything like a speaker.

“No,” she said, “he was, like, super cute and amazing. Real movie star type.”

“You’re being sarcastic,” Bob the Therapist replied.

“Oh,” Jane said sarcastically, “was I?”

“Would you prefer we stopped?”

Jane held her breath for a moment. Her jaw tightened again and her hands formed fists all on their own.


“What do you mean, stopped?” she asked. She was having trouble breathing all of a sudden.

“Would you prefer we stopped providing you with boyfriends?”

Jane closed her eyes and felt something—she wasn’t sure what—drain out of her.

“Be honest,” Bob the Therapist said for what Jane was sure was the millionth time.

“I don’t think you really want me to be honest with you,” she said, eyes still closed, her voice smaller.

She clenched her jaw again, waiting for the response: “Of course I do.”

Jane sighed, looked up at the ceiling, and said, “I honestly want you to let me go.”

There was a moment of silence.

This was when Bob the Therapist usually just stopped talking, at least for a while.

“Where do you want me to let you go?” he asked.

Jane pulled herself up, set both feet on the concrete floor. The word was in her head, repeating itself over and over. She swallowed.


She rubbed her eyes, took a deep breath, and said, “Home.”

“You want me to let you go home?”

Jane’s fist pounded her own knee—it hurt a little, both her knee and her fist.

“Use your words, Jane,” Bob the Therapist said.

A tear rolled down Jane’s cheek. She wanted to wipe it away but couldn’t unclench her fists. She glared up at the ceiling and nodded.

“And where is that, exactly?” Bob the Therapist asked.

A sob burst out of Jane because it sounded to her like Bob the Therapist was really asking. He really didn’t know.

Jane shook her head.

“Would you like to try a different boyfriend?” Bob the Therapist asked.

Jane shook her head again. She was crying.

“Are you hungry?” Bob the Therapist asked.

Jane sniffed, wiped her eyes with her fists, then shook her head.

“Do you want me to leave you alone while you cry?” Bob the Therapist asked.

Jane nodded then, voice broken by sobs, said, “No. Don’t go. Don’t leave me here.”

Reluctantly, Jane laughed.

Her hand relaxed a little and she flexed her fingers and wiped her eyes again.

“Can we talk about . . . ?” Jane started. She shook her head.

Bob the Therapist waited.

Jane took a deep breath, a hand on her chest as though she could somehow push on her heart to make it stop beating so fast.

Bob the Therapist said, “I’d be happy to—”

“Just let me go,” Jane said to the ceiling. Then she had to clench her teeth again. She wanted to scream, but didn’t. She used to scream, but it echoed in the little concrete cell and hurt her ears. She hadn’t screamed in a long time.

“Were do you want me to let you go?” Bob the Therapist asked again. His voice sounded exactly the same.

Shaking her head, Jane replied, “Anywhere. Just let me out of here. Let me find someplace . . . Figure out where I am.”

There was a moment of silence.

“Please?” Jane asked, hoping she sounded sincere enough.

Then she just sat there, waiting, for a long time—or what felt like a long time.

“That wouldn’t be safe,” Bob the Therapist said finally.

“For who?” Jane shot back, staring up at the ceiling. She clenched her fists again.

“Do you know what a cougar is, Jane?” Bob the Therapist asked.

Jane sighed and shook her head. “An old lady who—”

“No,” Bob the Therapist interrupted. “How about a mountain lion. Do you know what a mountain lion is?”

Jane shook her head. “You’re just trying to confuse me.”

“No, Jane,” Bob the Therapist replied. “I’m not trying to confuse you, I’m trying to help you see that you’re confused.”

Jane’s neck went weak and she let her face fall into her hands, her elbows propped on her knees.

“Do you know what a grizzly bear is, Jane?” Bob the Therapist asked.

Her face still in her hands, Jane mumbled, “Just stop. Just stop this.”

“How about another try at a boyfriend?”

Her face still in her hands, Jane shook her head. “Just let me out of here,” she said.

“Do you know what a puppy is, Jane?” Bob the Therapist asked.

Jane leaned back, letting her hands fall to her sides. Eyes still closed she said, “You know I don’t.”

“Ah,” Bob the Therapist said, and Jane thought he sounded happy, Happier, anyway. “I think you’re going to like this.”

Jane didn’t open her eyes. She just shook her head and started to cry again.

—Philip Athans

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This coming Thursday (January 25, 2018), my online course Horror Writing Intensive: Analyzing the Work of Genre Master Stephen King, via Writers Digest, starts up again and so I thought I’d give y’all a little sample of what that looks like. If you’re reading this after the 25th, never fear, the course rolls around again every six weeks or so—just hit that link for the next go-around.

The Horror Intensive is a shorter, two-week course split into “The Idea” and “The Writing,” with short writing assignments for each. We use Stephen King’s books On Writing and Skeleton Crew as well as my own Writing Monsters as texts and there are PowerPoint videos, written course material to add to those and give further examples, and I also post additional material every weekday for those two weeks. I’ll just throw out some more or less random tidbits to give you a sense of the sort of things you’ll see:


Here are some examples based on the Stephen King quote from On Writing in the recorded sessions: “All tales of horror can be divided into two groups: those in which the horror results from an act of free and conscious will—a conscious decision to do evil—and those in which the horror is predestinate, coming from outside like a stroke of lightning.”

Personal evil—essentially a villain, as in “Cain Rose Up”:

“Good drink, good meat, good God, let’s eat!” Garrish exclaimed, and shot at Quinn. He pulled instead of squeezing and the shot went wide. Quinn was running. No problem. The second shot took Quinn in the neck and he flew maybe twenty feet.

Exterior evil—monsters, aliens, or the malevolent oil slick from “The Raft”:

Randy shook his head. Maybe it was an oil slick, after all… or had been, until something had happened to it. Maybe cosmic rays had hit it in a certain way. Or maybe Arthur Godfrey had pissed atomic Bisquik all over it, who knew? Who could know?


More from Stephen King on the nature, source, and wellspring of ideas, from an interview with Rolling Stone:

I can remember as a college student writing stories and novels, some of which ended up getting published and some that didn’t. It was like my head was going to burst—there were so many things I wanted to write all at once. I had so many ideas, jammed up. It was like they just needed permission to come out. I had this huge aquifer underneath of stories that I wanted to tell and I stuck a pipe down in there and everything just gushed out. There’s still a lot of it, but there’s not as much now.


Don’t let your characters just be assigned to the mystery—throw them into it all the way, and make sure that there’s always something personally at stake for them. Keep these three questions close at hand, and think about them for all of your major characters, and keep them for everything you write, not just horror but any fiction in any genre:

  • Why does s/he care?
  • What does s/he have to lose?
  • What does s/he hope to gain?

For all of your characters, start with you and with other people you know, but build out from there. Don’t just give them your day job and a house in your neighborhood. Give your characters everything you are, everything you hope to be, and/or everything you hope you’ll never be. Your hero should be your best self and your villain your worst self, but neither should be, literally, you.


Every writing teacher and editor says “show, don’t tell,” but what does that mean exactly, especially for the horror author?

In On Writing Stephen King wrote: “Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It’s far from easy.”

Boy, is he right! But there are techniques we can learn to make it, if not easier, then more effective, easier to read if not to write.

In the recording I described the concept of “emotional distance’ In the way that it separates fiction from journalism. Don’t allow your characters, or worse yourself, to report on what’s happening or what has happened in your story. All this “show vs. tell” stuff comes down to bringing your reader and your character together to share in the experience of a moment. String enough of those moments together in the right way, in the right order, and you have a story.


If the end of a sentence gives your reader a chance for a short breath and the end of a paragraph allows a deeper breath, the end of a chapter is essentially permission to walk away from the story for a time, to take a long break. When asked by The Paris Review why Cujo is all in one huge chapter, King said:

“…Cujo was a standard novel in chapters when it was created. But I can remember thinking that I wanted the book to feel like a brick that was heaved through your window at you. I’ve always thought that the sort of book that I do—and I’ve got enough ego to think that every novelist should do this—should be a kind of personal assault. It ought to be somebody lunging right across the table and grabbing you and messing you up. It should get in your face. It should upset you, disturb you. And not just because you get grossed out. I mean, if I get a letter from somebody saying, I couldn’t eat my dinner, my attitude is, Terrific!


“The Mist” relies heavily on isolating the senses, especially our dominant sense of sight. We know there are things in the mist—we can hear them and even feel them moving around—but the mist prevents us from seeing them. In this example, the first person narrator comes to grips with this and in different ways, and it affects his theories on what they’re actually dealing with out there:

All the things in the mist operated primarily by sense of smell. It stood to reason. Sight would have been almost completely useless to them. Hearing a little better, but as I’ve said, the mist had a way of screwing up the acoustics, making things that were close sound distant and—sometimes—things that were far away sound close. The things in the mist followed their truest sense. They followed their noses.

And also think about that in terms of suspense. We’re now left with the idea that the monsters have a decided advantage. We rely on sight but can’t see, they rely on smell and the mist does nothing to prevent that. That imbalance between human and monster raises the stakes.

Get into the depths of your POV character’s primal experience of that terrifying moment.


I hope this made you curious enough to sign up, if not this week, then next time the course rolls around.

—Philip Athans

Here’s the link: Horror Intensive

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Believe it or not, I actually try to avoid talking about religion, both publically and privately. It’s a subject that either makes me scared, angry, or disappointed—mostly disappointed—except when it has to do with fantasy.

Yes, I’ll admit it, I was the guy in the D&D group who was not just willing to play the cleric, but volunteered for the job. I loved the concept, which was basically this: What if religion actually, y’know… worked? What if the gods weren’t just real but actually interacted with you and granted you magical powers? How do you not play that character?

Most D&D players tend to ask, How can you possibly want to? Clerics have been and still are seen as the helper character—the person who casts cure spells but is otherwise kind of annoying—and so is played by the last person to get to the table. This tends to be true, unfortunately, because most DMs are reluctant to get deeply into creating an actual religion around those characters. But that was never me. The idea of creating the dogma and ritual around that character and his god and religion instantly and thoroughly fascinated me, and surely accounts for things like including religion as a major topic in my online Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction course, the whole R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen series and my constant pitch at Wizards of the Coast to publish the Cyrinishad—the “bible” of the mad god Cyric—as an “in voice”/”in world” (un)holy text (but they wouldn’t let me), and of course my wildly unsuccessful book How to Start Your Own Religion that has been bought by dozens of people and moved one fundamentalist Christian to unfollow me on Twitter.

Real world religions make me deeply uneasy, but pretend religions fascinate the hell out of me.

I’ve written a little before about the general lack of religion in science fiction, and what seems to be a default futurist view that there just won’t be religion in “the future.” But now here we are, actually living in the future that some of the grand masters of the genre were trying to imagine fifty or sixty years ago (or even more recently) and we have smart phones and drone warfare and a global economy and an International Space Station—and churches all over the place and religion front and center in the lives of billions of people and there is absolutely no sign of it going away any time soon.

Religion might, in most places and among most faiths, be getting much nicer—more modern—but no, Time Magazine (or whoever) God is not dead, at least in the hearts of a very large portion of humanity.

A quick question, then: Why?

Why, when we know so much more about the universe around us, do we still have this alternate explanation for things like where the world came from and what happens to us after we die?

Was H.P. Lovecraft right when, in his masterpiece “The Call of Cthulhu” he wrote:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

That pretty much nails it.*

According to science: We are of no consequence, and neither is our planet, and the black seas of infinity can and will randomly destroy us for no reason with shit like gamma ray bursts and coronal mass ejections, and even if all goes well the sun will eventually swell up and swallow Earth whole and that’ll be that, so…

After a season of Space’s Deepest Secrets even I want to believe that all dogs go to Heaven.

Sure, astronomy will scare the shit out of you with no happy ending whatsoever, but just as science isn’t all a drag, religion isn’t always terribly comforting, either. In the Variety article “Guillermo del Toro on the Catholic Church, his Holy Trinity and Boris Karloff Epiphany” the great monster filmmaker said:

“There was a Christ in my church with an exposed bone fracture, and it was kind of green and purple, but his face looked like he was coming. And then they said, ‘The body of Christ,’ and I said, ‘No thank you.’

“The biblical myths read in church were “so fucking gory,” he added, pointing out that to give a kid that “mixture of virtue and violence is fucked up.”

In his amazing book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker begins with a rundown of just how spectacularly awful we used to be, and how that’s reflected in some of the earliest religious writings:

Though historical accounts in the Old Testament are fictitious (or at best artistic reconstructions, like Shakespeare’s historical dramas), they offer a window into the lives and values of Near Eastern civilizations in the mid-1st millennium BCE. Whether or not the Israelites actually engaged in genocide, they certainly thought it was a good idea. The possibility that a woman had a legitimate interest in not being raped or acquired as sexual property did not seem to register in anyone’s mind. The writers of the Bible saw nothing wrong with slavery or cruel punishments like blinding, stoning, and hacking someone to pieces. Human life held no value in comparison with unthinking obedience to custom and authority.

That seems to match up with Guillermo del Toro’s experience in what I guess we can call an Old School church. Pinker goes on to point out that the overwhelming majority of contemporary Jews and Christians in no way suborn slavery, rape, and stoning. In his words:

Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic. In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discretely ignored.

But what if your church doesn’t “spin” the older, gorier stuff—or at least not all of it? I found it fascinating that, in del Toro’s mind, it was this violent, frightening religion that drove him to fantasy. From that same Variety interview:

Del Toro ultimately found his salvation in classic movie monsters. “I started seeing in the monsters a more sincere form of religion because the priests were not that great, but Frankenstein was great,” he recalled.

He added: “The creature of Frankenstein to me was a more beautiful martyr figure than Jesus with the exposed fracture. And I started adoring him.” For del Toro, the Holy Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—“was the creature of Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Wolf Man.”

“I started loving the monsters because, with the monsters, as a child, you don’t have to think. The adults that were supposed to be good with you were bad. The adults that were supposed to protect you, beat you. But the monsters, they did what they looked like [they would do]. You swim with the fucking Creature of the Black Lagoon and you’re gonna die.”

I won’t go so far as to say that fantasy and horror (much less science fiction) are in some way a new religion, and genre fiction certainly hasn’t superseded the Bible, but I think they can fill some of the same gaps in our worldview that religion was created to fill.

—Philip Athans

* What disturbs me more about that bit from “The Call of Cthulhu” is my physically painful writer jealousy. Let’s say I do have an immortal soul. If so, a billion years from now, I’m still going to be living with the fact that I wasn’t the guy who strung together the words: a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity. I’ll take oblivion.

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