Fantasy Author's Handbook | Fantasy & Science Fiction
Fantasy and science fiction author and editor Philip Athans shares his experience through witty, informative, entertaining and inspiring posts. Whether he’s decoding the legal page of a print book or analyzing word choice, his posts will make you think about your work in a different way.
Having introduced our characters and set them off on their expedition to find the living descendants of the dinosaurs, we should, at least according to Lester Dent, be well into the story now by now…
SECOND 1500 WORDS
Lester Dent advises we…
Shovel more grief onto the hero.
C. Franklin Miller has added his own chapter numbers, and though the word/page counts don’t perfectly match up, it’s fair to go ahead and start at “2” on page 118, which begins a year after the initial meeting at the Bachelor’s Club. Has Miller shoveled any grief onto our hero?
This encounter with a terror-stricken Moisell definitely ramps up the action, and adds an air of spooky moodiness to the story, which so far has been rather lighthearted. This is a good lesson in terms of writing entertaining short stories, in general:
This story should have started here.
Lose the whole male bonding opening and begin the story on the steamer, with the demented Moisell, solidly in the first person POV of Hunter. This is all much more interesting, attention-grabbing, and story-rich. Am I right?
Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:
Well, I don’t see anyone struggling here, necessarily. It appears that Moisell is about to tell us a terrifying story, and there’s the threat of something on the deck that tried to smother him, but…
Another physical conflict.
…hasn’t actually happened yet. Not only are we missing another physical conflict, we’re still waiting for the first one. C. Franklin Miller is ramping things up… but too slowly!
A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.
And there is no surprising twist, either. So far, this looks like a Lester Dent fail, though the story itself, had it started at “2,” is actually pretty good.
NOW: Does second part have suspense? Does the menace grow like a black cloud? Is the hero getting it in the neck? Is the second part logical?
I think this second part does have suspense. For me, suspense comes from an imbalance of information, We (the readers) only know what Hunter knows, which is precious little, while Moisell clearly has had some traumatic experience, and not in some faraway distant past and/or place, but just now on the deck of the ship. What’s out there that he’s so afraid of? The suspense is rising. Likewise, the menace grows as well, for all the same reasons.
But the hero isn’t “getting it in the neck,” he’s trying to figure out what’s wrong with his friend.
As far as logic is concerned—sure. They’re both seasoned travelers and are on the same steamer, and no one has done anything that would seem to break the laws of physics or plausibility.
Let’s press on to the…
THIRD 1500 WORDS
Where Lester Dent urges us to continue to…
Shovel the grief onto the hero.
Now I’m experiencing Hero Confusion.
Hero Confusion is a psychological malady caused by authors who either aren’t sure themselves, want their readers to be unsure, or accidentally cause their readers to be unsure who the hero (aka protagonist) of the story actually is.
It seemed as though, from the first part, that Moisell was the hero, but that clearly switched to Hunter in the second—or, at least, Hunter was the point of view character and maybe I made an incorrect assumption based on that. Now it seems as though we’re going to get the meat of the story told to us by Moisell, reclaiming the role of the hero.
Though purposely evoking some degree of Hero Confusion in your readers can be an effective storytelling tool, where I fear for C. Franklin Miller in this case is that we’re now going to read a story that is told to one character by another character. This was not uncommon in stories from the period (keep in mind, we’re in 1925 now) but I doubt contemporary editors are going to look on this too fondly now. Try it—because anything that works is good—but tread carefully.
As an aside, I’d like to call out how C. Franklin Miller “stages the reveal” of his monster. In my book Writing Monsters, I offered this advice:
Reveal your monsters in three stages [First Encounter, The Growing Threat, and The Tipping Point]. The first and third will be the fastest (using the least number of words) and perhaps most dramatic. The middle section is where you’ll spend time revealing aspects of the monster—what it can do, what it looks, sounds, smells, and feels like—while always increasing the danger to your characters and upping the stakes for your story.
Note that Miller introduces the monster first by the dramatic psychological effect it’s had on Moisell and the traces of gray stuff it’s left behind. When he gets into “The Growing Threat,” he stages the thing in using appeals to senses other that sight. First, smell:
‘‘We had not gone very far in the darkness when I became conscious of a strange, nauseating odor. It grew more obnoxious as we advanced and at times was almost unbearable. I could liken it to nothing I had ever experienced before excepting, possibly, the evil-smelling scum over a sun-baked mud-hole.
Then they see the gray stuff and the body—the effect of the thing. Then we get only a scary sound in the darkness:
“We did—and again came that swishing sound—cumbersome, stealthy, insistent—like some enormous beast stalking its prey. Bonner must have heard it too, for he quickened his pace. But we could not shake it off. It stopped when we stopped, and when we got going again it came swishing out of the darkness with a maddening persistency. It clung to our heels with almost human intelligence—and gained steadily.
Ending with the feeling of it:
I could feel its cold breath on my neck.
Note it has cold, not warm or hot breath like any normal animal would.
Scary! We still can’t see this thing, and being humans, we all tend to rely on sight as our primary sense. But instead C. Franklin Miller has put us in a dark, confined, isolated space, cut off from outside help, and given us ample evidence of something we can’t explain and can’t see, chasing us down. This is a classic monster reveal.
Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:
Miller continues to lag behind Mr. Dent in that no one has made any headway and the hero has been himself cornered by the as yet unseen “villain.” But this all would follow nicely if Miller had started the story with his Chapter 2!
A physical conflict.
Here we’re actually pretty much in line, if you consider this the end of the third section:
Without reasoning I stopped long enough to empty my rifle into the gloom, and then we stumbled along like drunken men.
A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the third 1500 words.
There isn’t so much a plot twist here as the action following along logically—something else Lester Dent urges us to do.
Does it still have suspense? Is the menace getting blacker? Does the hero find himself in a hell of a fix? Does it all happen logically?
And then we’re left with a string of positive answers. It indeed has suspense—what the hell is this thing and what does it want from us? The menace gets considerably blacker—they’re literally being chased through a cave by an unseen, unknown monster. That also puts them in a hell of a fix, and it’s perfectly in line with the story’s own internal logic.
So far, then, a qualified success!
Let’s see how it all wraps up next week…
(Ah, the classic pulp cliffhanger!)
In Writing Monsters, best-selling author Philip Athans uses classic examples from books, films, and the world around us to explore what makes monsters memorable—and terrifying.
You’ll learn what monsters can (and should) represent in your story and how to create monsters from the ground up.
Diving once more into the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales we come to:
Um… That’s supposed to be C. Franklin Miller… And there’s an interesting typo in the first paragraph, too:
…a certain emotion, a certain
tensity, that his friends…
I bet the linotype operator felt he’d already typed the first two letters in intensity but it was only the last two letters in certain. I make that sort of mistake myself from time to time. I unconsciously want to invent the word bothe, which means both the, but without so much typing. I guess this issue of Weird Tales was put together with the same tensity as the rest of the fast-to-market pulps of the era.
Moving on from that, I wonder if we can look at this story through the lens of Lester Dent’s (in)famous Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, which I use as the cornerstone of my online Pulp Fiction Workshop, the current session of which is wrapping up this week. If you aren’t familiar with Lester Dent, he’s the co-creator of Doc Savage and wrote most of the Doc Savage stories (under the pseudonym Kenneth Roberson) as well as dozens and dozens of other works of fiction across an array of genres. His “formula” first appeared in Writer’s Digest in the early 1940s and has been passed around from author to author ever since, of course ending up on the Internet. You can click here to find the full text.
Dent breaks his 6000-word short stories down into four sections of 1500 words each. Rather than estimate word counts here, I’ll just go ahead and divide the seven pages this story took up in the magazine by four, so we’ll see how each 1.75-page section fits into Dent’s formula. Of course, this story predates the formula itself, so I don’t mean to imply that C. Franklin Miller was actually using it, or anything like it, but the experiment is worth running for its own sake.
Before we even begin writing, Dent has us consider these four important elements:
A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
A DIFFERENT LOCALE
A MENACE THAT IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO
Rather than identify those up front, let’s see what, in “Fog,” we might match up to those categories as we discover them. In the meantime, here’s what Lester Dent says should happen in the first quarter of the story:
First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved—something the hero has to cope with.
Assuming Moisell is our hero, we get his name as the first word in the second sentence, so, so far so good. In the first line, though, we learn a little about Moisell, and that’s that he’s a hell of a guy. A real man’s man. An international man of mystery, you might even say. There are hints at a mystery—Moisell doesn’t seem to like to talk about dinosaurs?—but by the end of the first column all I know is that Moisell is super cool. There’s no particular problem to be solved. And is C. Franklin Miller a bit too fond of his hero?
As an aside, am I wrong to just love this sentence, which I don’t think could ever be written, at least without irony, now? Young Donaldson, “Long Jim” Haney and myself were boring each other over a couple of highballs down in the grill of the Bachelors’ Club…Go ahead, tell me the Bachelors’ Club isn’t actually a gay bar, and I’ll explain how Jim Haney got that nickname.
Anyway, still no problem to be solved at the end of the first page—get it together, C. Fraklin… Franklin… whatever your name is!
“Just the same,” put in the irrepressible Donaldson, tapping his glass, “I’ll bet you get more kick out of a dead dinosaur than you could out of a dozen of these.”
He glanced hurriedly around the room with an elaborate air of mystery and then leaned across the table as if about to divulge some momentous secret.
“How about the kick of a live one!” he whispered.
Ooh… okay, Bonner has seen a live dinosaur.
The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)
At the end of the second page (which we’ll call 1.75 pages, or a quarter of the way through, since maybe a quarter of the first page is taken up with the title illustration), we do at least have Moisell “pitching in” with the expedition to Patagonia in search of dinosaurs, even if the “action” is still limited to a lively discussion at the Bachelors’ Club.
Introduce all the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.
We meet the boys, and get through some serious male bonding, so Miller is in line with Dent on this score, but he doesn’t really “bring them on in action.”
Still, the real utility of something like Dent’s “formula” is in the quotes around “formula,” which is to say, the degree of freedom you afford yourself in interpreting words like “action,” “grief, “menace,” and so on. We do at least meet the club members in conversation, glad-handing and boozing it up at the Bachelors’ Club. I’ll give this one to C. Franklin.
Hero’s endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.
But here C. Franklin Miller totally blows it, at least according to what Lester Dent will map out some sixteen years later. This first quarter of the story has no physical conflict at all—or even any reasonable stretch of the definition of “conflict.”
Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.
Likewise, Miller fails at providing what I would call a “complete surprise twist,” in that there’s a plan to go find the descendants of the dinosaurs, which Moisell postulates might be roaming the wilds of Patagonia, but that follows from the rest of the “action” of the story thus far. If I were C. Franklin Miller’s post-Dent pulp adventure story editor, I’d have him cut this whole first section, open with a dinosaur, then backfill the whole story of how they got there—if necessary.
This is a good example of knowing when to start your story.
Especially with a short story, you have very few words to waste, and need to grab your readers as quickly as possible—immediately, really—with something happening in the first sentence, not even just the first paragraph. And again, this thing that’s happening doesn’t have to be a fistfight or a shootout, just some action (defined as a character doing something) that at least hints at a conflict (there’s at least one other character that doesn’t like what the first character is doing).
That sounds awfully broad—and it is. On purpose. I don’t like the idea of writing to a strict formula any more than anyone else, but if you look at this, as I urge people who take my Pulp Fiction Workshop to do, as a set of reminders rather than strict instructions, you’ll get your story started not when the idea first came up over drinks, but right at the moment it all started going terribly wrong.
Speaking of live dinosaurs, think about the first scene in the movie Jurassic Park. It doesn’t open with Dr. Grant in Montana, it opens with guys loading some unknown thing into a pen, and that unknown thing eats one of them.
Steven Spielberg knows this better than anyone: action first, explanation later, or what I’ve called “punch, push, explain.”
And finally, has Miller touched on any of the four elements Dent asked us to consider before even starting? This first quarter does establish that they’re at least planning on going to A DIFFERENT LOCALE, so we’ll give him that one.
We’ll see how the rest of “Fog” matches up with Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot in the weeks ahead.
Certain key components, like dragons in fantasy or robots in science fiction, are free for the taking. No one, even the estates of J.R.R. Tolkien or Isaac Asimov, can sue you for picking those archetypes up and running with them. But if you don’t give them a unique spin, agents and editors will shrug you off.
If the robot is an archetype, what makes your robot different than Asimov’s, Lucas’s, or anyone else’s? C-3PO’s gold “skin” was reminiscent of the Maria robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but Threepio’s personality couldn’t be any more different. Lucas gave a nod back to one of the first science fiction movie epics, but he created robots all his own, robots that have stood the test of time. If you take any advice in this book, remember this:
Use every archetype in the genre toolbox, but make them your own.
Keeping that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper into some popular science fiction archetypes and where they came from.
Science fiction might appear, on first blush, to be more grounded in reality than fantasy, but a few of the “hardest” hard science fiction novels aside, I’m not sure that case can really be made. Fantasy authors often do extensive research into medieval technology and life, steampunk authors immerse themselves in Victoriana even while imagining airships and automatons, and even far-future science fiction does the same. We can research astronomy, spaceflight engineering, and so on, but what makes science fiction science fiction is the technology that doesn’t actually exist today but might exist tomorrow, or a thousand years from now. And like fantasy, which often feeds off myth, legend, and folklore for dragons, elves, magic wands and rings, and so on, science fiction feeds on itself for what has become an ever-growing lexicon of future technologies and concepts.
We know that the word “robot,” now increasingly a real thing, was first coined by the playwright Karel Capek in R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), all the way back in 1920. So when I said, “…robots in science fiction, are free for the taking,” was I encouraging you to rip off another science fiction author?
I suppose some argument could be made for that, but then everyone who’s ever used that word owes the Capek family money—and that would be a lot of money by now. It’s a strange, usually unseen or unremarked moment when some neologism (a newly coined word or expression) enters the realm of common usage, and sometimes those science fiction neologisms, like Karel Capek’s “robot” and William Gibson’s “cyberspace,” actually come true—someone eventually builds the thing.
But there are still a few—more than a few, really—imagined technologies that are still in the realm of science fiction but that have entered into common usage, at least in science fiction novels, movies, games, and so on. Here are three, which, like robots, are yours to put your own spin on:
A machine that allows for faster-than-light communication so two parties can communicate in real time over interstellar distances.
Radio waves travel at the speed of light, so if you want to talk to a friend on the planet Gliese 581g from your radio on Earth, your message, “Hey, Nancy, is that you?” will take twenty years to get there, and the reply, “Sorry, Nancy’s at work. Can I take a message?” will take another twenty years to get back to you, and any message you leave for Nancy will get to her a full sixty years after your first radio message.
The word “ansible,” which seems to just be a made up word, first appears in Rocannon’s World by Ursula K. Le Guin:
“But if your kinfolk, your friends, in the City Kerguelen, call you on the ansible, and there is no answer, will they not come to see—” Mogient saw the answer as Rocannon said it:
“In eight years…”
When he had shown Mogien over the Survey ship, and shown him the instantaneous transmitter, the ansible, Rocannon had told him also about the new kind of ship that could go from one star to another in no time at all.
I pushed a shiny red button. I pretended to be screaming of an invasion in a final, dying act along the securest ansible line. There were no intruders; it was all a sham. In the space of time between the admiral’s results from a scouting patrol, and the filing of official reports about that patrol, I exploited a hole in the network emergency protocols. It was such a simple hack in a procedural gap that I can only imagine what all the networks of the universe will do to prevent it from happening again.
The ansibles run precisely entangled at the quantum level, but time is ever relative.
Across campus, to the ansible attached to the space elevator, I looked up at the distant top, where ships drift away into sky. At the tip of the elevator, a signal line reached out across space and time with quantum entanglements. The binary signals of matter itself could be used to send data and create matter out of the chaos of hydrogen gas and ions and electrons.
Need characters to be able to talk to each other across interstellar distances? The ansible is there for you, but, like Joe McDermott has, give it your own spin—his functions as a transporter, too.
A personal and/or crew-served and/or vehicle-mounted weapon that projects some kind of energy beam or projectile.
Guns shoot bullets, big guns shoot shells. Laser guns shoot lasers. But blasters shoot… whatever you want them to shoot. Various scientific-sounding words like “plasma,” “fusion,” or “quantum” can be added to blaster, but in any case what you have here is a futuristic gun.
The blaster dates back all the way to the April 1925 issue of Weird Tales and the story “When the Green Star Waned” by Nictzin Dyalhis, though he spelled it Blastor:
The Blastor made no noise—it never does, nor do the big Ak-Blastors which are the fighting weapons used on the Aethir-Torps, when they are discharging annihilation—but that nauseous ugliness I had removed gave vent to a sort of bubbling hiss as it returned to its original atoms; and the others of our party hastened to where I stood shaking from excitement—Hul Jok was wrong when he said it was fear!—and they questioned me as to what I had encountered.
In the 1940 story “Coventry,” Robert A. Heinlein mentions a “portable blaster.” And of course they’re all over the Star Wars universe.
Blast away, blastermen!
The all-purpose currency of the future, credits take the place of dollars, euros, and rubles because surely all those things are going to go the way of the lira in the future.
The credit is the currency of the Traveller universe, Star Wars, Isaac Asimov’s Foundationseries, and… so many others, including the video game franchise Mass Effect. From the Mass Effect novel Revelation by Drew Karpyshyn:
She spun the screen to face him. The display showed several prospects, along with the allotted price for each. Groto had to check himself to keep from choking in shock when he saw the amounts. Unlike the whorehouses he usually frequented, hourly rates weren’t an option here. A full night at the Sanctuary was going to cost several hundred credits more than his entire bonus. For a brief second he considered turning around and just walking out, but if he did, the four hundred credits he’d paid at the door were gone for good.
According to the web site Technovelgy.com, the credit was first created by John W. Campbell, Jr. in the 1934 story “The Mightiest Machine”:
Right enough, and tell me why I have to build that five-million credit flying laboratory.
And that’s only the tip of the science fiction neologism iceberg. We stand on the shoulders of giants!
I can’t believe I forgot such a major milestone in my writing life, but the tenth birthday of this blog came and went on June 15, marking an uninterrupted decade of weekly posts on the subject of writing fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general.
In some ways, as with any anniversary, it seems like just yesterday that I started this up, and at the same time it’s hard to remember a time when I didn’t have that weekly commitment.
How do you look back on ten years of a blog like this?
Let’s start at the beginning, which is the conception of the thing in the first place, which was to coincide with the release of The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, which I was then finishing up. If you scroll through the index you’ll see that a lot of the early posts are portions of text that was cut from that book; and the full interviews with authors, editors, and agents who were quoted in the book.
As of this morning Fantasy Author’s Handbook has enjoyed 397,658 views, with 2152 views on the best day. Readers have left 1997 comments, I have 837 followers, and have written 522 posts. Surely because I ended up on a few best lists, the biggest year for Fantasy Author’s Handbook was 2015, but I keep plugging along.
It’s always interesting to see how people get to Fantasy Author’s Handbook, and some of the search terms can be a bit on the oddball side. The all time search term champion is “the prisoner,” beating “galley slaves” by 77, leaving “philip athans” in third place, just barely above “galley slave.” At the bottom of the list? Four people got me by typing “bee gees little brother” into Google. Still, the number of different variations of “galley slave” is disturbing. The post that obviously refers to is about the origin of the term “galley” for a pre-press copy of a book, a post from all the way back on February 9, 2010. But something tells me that’s not what most people were searching for.
The overwhelming majority of you (107,386) got here via various search engines (which means Google, really) with Facebook and Twitter neck and neck at 6539 and 6268 respectively, but I owe a debt of gratitude to thewritelife.com for 4898 referrals. And speaking of referrals, Fantasy Author’s Handbook has sent someone to Amazon.com 5752 times.
If you haven’t scrolled through the INDEX page, this might be a good time to start. There might be a few of these 522 posts you haven’t seen yet that might help you out or amuse you or get you thinking. And take a look at all those links off to the right side of the page, maybe give a few of those a look-see, too. And if there’s something I haven’t covered and you’re curious to hear my take on it, comment at ASK PHIL and let’s see what we can do.
What more could there be for me to say? What inside information can I spill on Fantasy Author’s Handbook after ten years?
How about this: It proves that it is possible to commit to an ongoing writing project and to make a habit of it. I’ve posted something here, religiously, every Tuesday for a decade and running, and the overwhelming majority of those Tuesdays, I had no idea what I was going to write about until I sat down that Tuesday morning. There are only a handful of times that a post was written ahead of time, and maybe only two or three times that I scheduled something to post ahead of time.
Fantasy Author’s Handbook is something I do every Tuesday morning, and barring some world-altering tragedy like my untimely demise (Heaven forfend!) I’ll keep posting every Tuesday.
At this point I’m not sure I even know how to stop.
But in any case, thank you for reading, thank you for writing, and see you next week!
Science fiction and fantasy are among the most challenging—and rewarding!—genres in the bookstore, but with best selling author and editor Philip Athans at your side, you’ll create worlds that draw your readers in and keep them reading!
The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction
This week my series of posts examining a single issue of Weird Tales from 1925 takes a bit of a strange turn—or does it? The next feature in the magazine, filling the rest of the page that begins with the ending of “The Ocean Leech” by Frank Belknap Long, Jr. is a poem. But what’s this? A poem in a series of posts dissecting pulp fiction?
Well, yes, “Two Crows” is indeed a poem, and poetry was not at all an unusual occurrence in the pulps, though from what I can tell they slowly ran out of fashion as the magazines progressed (or, some might argue, dissolved) into the 1950s.
And this being…
…we should expect a weird and unique poem.
I’ll go ahead and paste the entire poem here.
by Francis Hard
Two crows flapped over dismally
(So wearily, so drearily)
To the blackened limb of a blasted tree;
The shells flew screaming overhead,
And the field was covered thick with dead—
The earth reeked with its dead.
One crow lamented to his mate
(So wearily, so drearily):
“How long, how long must we now wait
For the taste of food that was so good
Before the shrapnel shattered the wood
And loaded the ground with dead?
“The odor sweet of dying men”
(Lamented he so drearily),
“How strangely pleasant was it when
I sensed it first with ravished breath!
But I am sated, and sick to death,
And would fain lie yon with the dead.”
A shell came moaning through the air
(So drearily, so eerily)
And burst where the crows were plaining there;
It shivered the wreck of the blasted tree,
And bits of crow fell bloodily
Among the tangled dead.
Quite a maudlin little piece there, made more poignant when you do the math between the end of World War I and the publication of this magazine. It’s easy to imagine that more than one of the authors published therein were veterans of that terrible war, and here we have a forlorn tale of battle fatigue and the suicidal depression so often part of post traumatic stress disorder.
Francis Hard was actually Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Weird Tales from 1924-1940, including the issue at hand. And indeed, according to the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, Mr. Wright “was drafted into the US Army in 1917 and served in the infantry in WWI.”
This goes to show that though we’ve seen some pretty silly stuff here, and have had some fun with outmoded ideas and retro culture and language, there’s a lot more to be heard in these yellowed old pages, and a lot still to be learned.
Finding the Personal in the Procedural
Take a deep dive into “show vs. tell” by concentrating on your point-of-view character’s emotional experience of each scene in this online tutorial from Writer’s Digest.
I think there are two types of writers. There are writers who never get any version of writer’s block and for whom the act of creation is either pure joy, or a task to be completed like any job. The other type are the writers who aren’t totally full of shit liars.
Listen, most of the time I really struggle with writing. People ask if I have writer’s block. That’s my default position. And so most days I go to bed not having done anything except climb the walls because I don’t have an idea or I’m stuck where I am. And you really do think in that moment you’re not ever going to write again. Those are tough moments. Another tough moment is when you see something in your head that’s good, that’s really beautiful, and you were just not able to transfer it onto the piece of paper.
There’s a pretty successful writer telling us he sometimes gets locked up. And he’s hardly the only writer in any medium who’s said some version of the same thing. Though I love advice for writers—I collect it myself, trying things and experimenting with ideas, and so on—I also try to remember that this is a creative pursuit, an art form, and as such there’s some mystery to it, and a huge dose of individuality. And by that I mean what works for one author will not work for another, and for no quantifiable reason.
I’ve heard authors advise we treat writing fiction like a nine-to-five job, with an hour off for lunch. I’ve seen various word count goals: a thousand words a day, 1500 words, etc. There are time limits: write for an hour every day, or two hours. I’ve seen advice for when exactly to write your number of words or minutes: in the morning before the kids get up or at night after the kids go to sleep…
Hell, try all these, especially if you’re sitting around not writing. If, like Aaron Sorkin, you’re stuck where you are—if you need to unblock or figure stuff out. I have a whole online tutorial on the subject. Try making lists, play media roulette… or just plain walk away.
This last one, I believe, is the best first go-to position for any author not working to a deadline imposed from outside. I like the idea of self-imposed deadlines, of trying to finish a rough draft in the month of November, or before the end of the school year, or whatever. But unless there’s an editor threatening to call back an advance, a magazine that will publish with or without you… calm down.
If you’re climbing the walls like Aaron Sorkin, or, like me, staring blankly off into space (I’ve never been much of a climber), maybe today just isn’t a writing day. Maybe today is a balancing your checkbook day. A cleaning the carpets day. A taking the dogs to the dog park day. A binge watching Chernobyl day.
No one will punish you if that 1500 words isn’t finished today—even yourself, believe it or not.
I’ve done my own best work under some amount of deadline pressure, my worst work under extreme deadline pressure, and a little of both under no deadline pressure at all. But if writing fiction starts to feel like a mechanical, assembly line process… stop!
Take a breath, take the day off, and give yourself and your muse a chance to catch up.
The most beguiling promise of fantasy fiction is that of self-knowledge. At some point the protagonist discovers, with the force of a calling from God, that he is no mere mortal, but a wizard, a dragonslayer, a king. It is an irresistible idea for adolescents particularly, who are in the midst of discovering themselves and trying on different identities. How much easier everything would be if the choice were essentially made for you! And how amazing it would be to find that you were, as you might have secretly hoped, special, that you could speak to animals or move objects with your mind. It puts the “fantasy” in fantasy, and is one reason this genre is often associated with young adult fiction.
That certainly describes my own early experience with fantasy and science fiction. When I was a kid I wanted to be as cool as Captain Kirk, or Don from Lost in Space. I wanted to be as smart as Hari Seldon or Reed Richards. But that didn’t end at adolescence as Ryu Spaeth seems to imply. The older and better educated I got I still looked to fiction for entertainment, even while also adding the other two “Es”: enlightenment and experience. I wanted to be as significant as Paul Atreides or as courageously curious as Will Navidson. All the while understanding that I won’t actually ever be the emperor of anything and my house will never turn out to be bigger on the inside than the outside.
I think it’s fair to say that anything that can be described as “entertainment”—absolutely including science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels—depend on some degree of wish fulfillment. Even in the bleakest horror novel, the darkest dark fantasy, or the dystopianist dystopian science fiction story we wish for something: to be less fearful or more ethical or more capable than some poor beleaguered protagonist.
So then even if you aren’t writing purely “heroic fantasy,” if you have a protagonist more like Mad Max than Luke Skywalker—and who doesn’t want to be Mad Max, for a couple hours anyway?—your readers will still find some wish to be fulfilled there.
I didn’t realize how many people wanted to be a superman. It’s more clear to me now. A man comes in from driving a taxicab all day to find his wife threatening to throw him out on his ear for not bringing home more tips to turn over to her. Naturally he wants to be a superman. Or a barber who has to vegetate in his shop all day, don’t you think he yearns for a chance to get out and reorder the life of whole continents? Doc is sort of the what-I-would-like-to-be dream of everybody, including me.
If someone tells you that genre writing is somehow bad or unserious or juvenile because it depends on “wish fulfillment,” laugh that off and keep writing. I’m ready to wish to be your protagonist, and so is every cab driver or barber out there in the reading world.
In my four-week online Pulp Fiction Workshop we’ll learn storytelling techniques that transcend the pulp genres and make writing fun again.
Write a 6000-word short story, with edit, in any genre!
Back to my ongoing series of posts where I’ve been reading a single issue of Weird Tales from 1925. You can read along in order by going back to the beginning and starting here. This week’s short story is “The Ocean Leech” by Frank Belknap Long, Jr., one of the pulp era’s most prolific and highly regarded authors. With a quick scan of the era you’ll see his name come up time and time again across a number of genres.
As an editor, I tend to run across the same issues over and over again. It’s the same, I think, for every profession—the same mistakes, the same issues, the same procedures… Though any art form tends to resist that kind of set of hard and fast rules, there are a few that are hard and fast enough that they’re worth at least noting if not fixing in an edit.
With all due respect to Frank Belknap Long, and with full understanding that both rules and reader expectations of the language can and have and will continue to change over time, I’d like to look at this story in the mode of a copy editor.
A copy editor is looking for issues of grammar, usage, spelling… all the technical aspects of writing. And it’s the copy editing or technical writing issues that tend to come up over and over again, enough that I’ve actually created a Word file I call COMMON COMMENTS. From that file and I can copy and paste certain bits of advice, explanations of editorial changes, etc.—in many cases then tweaking them a bit for the specific story at hand.
Let’s see how “The Ocean Leech” stands up to my COMMON COMMENTS file, starting right away with the very first line:
I heard Bourke beating with his bare fists upon the cabin door and the wind whistling under the cracks.
EDIT: He pointed at the door and ran his fingers savagely through his reddish hair, and I knew that something had nearly finished him—I mean finished him spiritually, damaged his soul, his outlook.
And towards is okay in England but not in America.
Here’s one sentence that calls up two COMMON COMMENTS:
Oscar was standing by my elbow, and I turned suddenly and gripped his arm.
COMMENT: That construct: “something/someone was verbing” is often a sign of passive voice. It’s almost always better to let the action be more direct: “something/someone verbed” so that thing is happening in the past tense “now” and doesn’t come across as feeling as though there’s an extra layer of delay between your readers and the action. https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/active-search-something-was-verbing/
EDIT: Oscar stood by my elbow. I turned and gripped his arm.
“Oscar,” I said, “I want you to be quite frank, and if necessary, even brutal. Do you think you can explain that thing? I don’t want any wretched theories, Oscar. I want you to fashion a prop for me, Oscar, something for me to lean upon. I’m so very tired, and I haven’t much authority here. Oh, yes, I’m supposed to be in command, but when there is nothing to go upon, Oscar, what can I say to them?”
Frank Belknap Long lays this one on thick, too. I’d give him the first one…
EDIT: “Oscar,” I said, “I want you to be quite frank, and if necessary, even brutal. Do you think you can explain that thing? I don’t want any wretched theories. I want you to fashion a prop for me, something for me to lean upon. I’m so very tired, and I haven’t much authority here. Oh, yes, I’m supposed to be in command, but when there’s nothing to go on, what can I say to them?”
“The thing is obviously a cephalopod,” said Oscar, quite simply, but there was a look of shame and horror in his eyes, which I didn’t like.
COMMENT: Be careful of relying too heavily (if at all) on adverbs in dialog attribution: she said sympathetically, etc. Though I’m not sure I entirely agree with Stephen King’s more strident: “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs,” he does have a point. The adverb tells, but a description of the sound of that character’s voice, the look on his or her face, body language, or just the context in which the line is spoken, shows.
EDIT: “The thing is obviously a cephalopod,” said Oscar, a look of shame and horror in his eyes that I didn’t like.
Notice that I’m also simplifying sentences from time to time, again because of the change in the language and reader expectations between 1925 and 2019.
He screamed, made shocking grimaces, fell down upon the deck and tried to draw himself along by his hands.
COMMENT: The Oxford or serial comma is non-optional in long form prose—doing without it is a relic of print journalism where any opportunity to save column width is taken.
EASY EDIT: He screamed, made shocking grimaces, fell down upon the deck, and tried to draw himself along by his hands.
Though this one isn’t in my COMMON COMMENTS file, I think it deserves to be called out here. I won’t copy the whole very long paragraph in the first column of page 114, just this last part:
“Oscar, ” I said, “I didn’t really suffer when that thing fastened upon me! I didn’t, really. I enjoyed it!” He scowled, and scratched his ridiculous fringe of hair. “Then I saved you from yourself!” he cried. His eyes blazed, and I saw that he wanted to knock me down. That was the last I saw of Oscar. He faded into the shadows after that, but had I kept him with me I might have been wiser.
Except under a small set of circumstances, which we do not see here, keep dialog from two different characters in their own paragraphs.
“Oscar, ” I said, “I didn’t really suffer when that thing fastened upon me! I didn’t, really. I enjoyed it!”
He scowled, and scratched his ridiculous fringe of hair. “Then I saved you from yourself!” he cried. His eyes blazed, and I saw that he wanted to knock me down.
That was the last I saw of Oscar. He faded into the shadows after that, but had I kept him with me I might have been wiser.
I didn’t bother calling out every little mistake the way I would if I were really copy editing this story, like the misspelling of gurgling (guggling) on page 112 and 115, but there’s not too much there.
And last, he used the word about in a way that’s old fashioned (it was 1925, after all) and in almost ever instance the copy editor in me would change it to around, for instance:
…but the thing had wound its tenebrous tentacles about his leg: but the thing had wound its tenebrous tentacles around his leg…
All that said—I loved this story. A weird tale indeed!
In my four-week online Pulp Fiction Workshop we’ll learn storytelling techniques that transcend the pulp genres and make writing fun again.
Write a 6000-word short story, with edit, in any genre!
When I was in seventh grade and extremely into Legos I made a starship—really just the floorplan—and populated it with a crew of the newly-released mini figures. I then devised a monster with a tail that ended in the twirling propeller bit. The starship landed on an alien planet on a peaceful mission of exploration, coming to rest near the edge of my bed… I mean, the shore of an ocean. When the first team of explorers went out onto the beach, something emerged from the waves and tore one of them to shreds then pulled the other astronaut into the water. The rest of the crew rushed to his rescue in a little boat—because starships always carry little boats. The monster attacked, tearing them to pieces with its tail, which whirled like the blades of a helicopter. This went on in my bedroom—I mean, an alien world light years distant from Earth—for who knows how long before the surviving remnants of the valiant crew made it back to their ship and, with the monster outside trying to shred their hull, managed to blast off. But their ship was damaged and their navigation computer was destroyed. They went to light speed and ended up at an Earthlike planet where they landed to try to repair their ship. When they went outside—the same monster attacked. They had gone in a huge circle right back to where they started!
Then, some weeks later, we were assigned to write a short story for English class. And guess what… that was my story, following the made-it-up-as-I-went-along Lego adventure. The way I remember it, I got an A.
When was the last time you wrote like that?
When was the last time I wrote like that?
Play first, write later?
I’ve written before about how I carefully plotted out the huge wizard duel between Dyrr and Gromph in Annihilation, round by round, taking into strict account the casting time, area of effect, and other D&D mechanical specifics of each spell—essentially playing through it then reporting on what happened for the novel.
But honestly, I don’t do this anymore—not, of course, like I used to when I was mumble-decades younger than I am now. And why not?
As adults we seem to forget how to play—and play without rules or competition. D&D and other roleplaying games break through that barrier for a lot of us, and it’s why we see an awful lot of crossover between pencil and paper RPG players and genre authors. But even then, can you grab a bunch of Legos, miniatures, action figures, graph paper, and… hell, anything else, and play your way through a story? A scene at least?
Can you recapture the pure imagination of play, and translate it into your writing?
I know you can, because I know I have, and damn it—I’ll do it again!
Read my story “Morbid Dread of the Dawn” in
The Pulp Horror Book of Phobias from Lycan Valley!
In one of the written lectures for my Advanced Horror Workshop, which, yes, starts up this week—thanks for asking!—I get into the idea of starting with characters not necessarily defined by, but with some weakness, some thing that prevents them from making the perfect decision every time, from overcoming every physical obstacle without fear of injury, and so on. This is especially true in that context…
A horror story that features a truly heroic hero will be a tough go, for you and your readers. The nature of horror, almost the very definition of the genre, is that it’s a story about an unprepared character confronted with the One Weird Thing. If that character is ultra-capable and fearless, immediately rising to the occasion knowing precisely what to do to overcome this strange threat… well, the threat immediately stops being strange. Your POV character isn’t scared and so neither are your readers. And if the ensuing action scene in which the highly capable hero quickly and efficiently dispatches the threat, a carefully crafted plan that goes off without a hitch, you have not written a horror story but maybe some kind of, frankly, boring urban fantasy.
The heroic protagonist might be one of the fine lines that separate horror and fantasy, but even someone who is physically capable and courageous shouldn’t be perfect. So regardless of genre…
A character without weaknesses, who is incapable of making mistakes, who never makes some incorrect assumption, who isn’t at least tempted to run screaming out of the haunted house as quickly as possible… that’s just not an interesting character. It’s not a character worth reading about, and not a character worth writing about.
In Writing Monsters I talk about monsters bringing out the good and evil in characters, but they’re also an opportunity to bring out the strengths and weaknesses in characters, to reveal what’s imperfect and, therefore, humanabout them. If you’ve trapped a cast of characters in an isolated locale and thrown even a single monster at them, those characters will naturally rise to their own overriding impulses, whether that impulse is to protect everyone else at all costs or to protect himself at all costs.
Keep in mind, too, that monsters can bring out more than simply “good” and “evil” in your characters.
I define a villain as someone whose motivations you understand but whose methods you abhor, and a hero as someone whose motivations you understand and whose methods you admire. In the same way that monsters can bring about this split in method, they can also bring out the resourcefulness in people… Your monsters can allow your characters to exhibit qualities like tenacity, loyalty, trustworthiness, a capacity for forgiveness, and so on. All of these characteristics are brought to the forefront by placing characters in a world full of monsters that force them to act, choose, and become something more (or, tragically, less) than they were before the story began.
The novelist James M. Cain discovered this as well, describing in this 1978 Paris Review interview how a character can be developed around a particular weakness:
I learned from [Sinclair Lewis], and also from the most prolific novelist I think this country ever had. Does the name William Gilbert Patten mean anything to you? His pen name was Burt L. Standish. Certainly you’ve heard of Frank Merriwell, “Dime Store” Merriwell.
The books about Merriwell came out on top of each other. Anyway, I wrote Standish up for theSaturday Evening Post. I’ve got to make a confession to you—I couldn’t, as a boy, read a Frank Merriwell story. When I wrote him up, I tried and tried to read a Frank Merriwell, and I’ll be goddamned if I’ve ever read one through yet. They were so utterly naïve, and so horribly written. But I learned from Standish, learned from his mistakes. And I admired the discipline that turned out all those books. You know, in all Frank Merriwell’s perfection, he had a fault. Once when I was talking about how perfect Frank Merriwell was, Sinclair Lewis corrected me. “No, no, Jim,” he said, “Frank had a weakness—he gambled, had to deal with it all the time.”
Just then Phil Goodman asked Lewis, “Red, how much would Babbitt have made this year?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Lewis in his falsetto, “I think this year about ten thousand a year.”
“Oh, much more than that.”
“No,” says Lewis, “don’t forget that George (Babbitt) had a failing. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut, so he never got taken in on anything big.”
Well, there are two writers who fall into the category of what Mark Twain called a “trained novelist.” Each apparently developed his own characters on the basis of a weakness.
A story—any story—tends to hinge on a character overcoming obstacles to achieve some end, and we often look to the outside to provide those obstacles: monsters, villains, traps, and so on. And that’s all good stuff as far as I’m concerned, but if all your story is is a guy going from obstacle to obstacle and not changing in any way, not experiencing something emotional, not being afraid sometimes, inspired sometimes, reluctant sometimes, impetuous sometimes… well, that character, and therefor that story, will never really come alive.
Science fiction and fantasy is one of the most challenging—and rewarding!—genres in the bookstore.
But with best selling author and editor Philip Athans at your side, you’ll create worlds that draw your readers in—and keep them reading.