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Monsters tap into something primal that lies at the heart of being human. We have always feared what lies at the edge of the campfire, just out of sight, and as writers, tapping into those fears can be a powerful form of creation. In this interview, Philip Athans talks about why we find monsters so fascinating, how to create them, and why they can sometimes be a metaphor for society, plus, thoughts on making a living as a writer.
In the intro, I discuss Brandon Sanderson's Kickstarter for the leather-bound edition of Way of Kings and why creating beautiful physical objects should be part of our indie maker movement, and check out this interview on bookbinding with Lisa Van Pelt. Plus, why we need to put our lessons learned from the pandemic into action now instead of waiting for ‘the end,' whatever that might mean!
Also, I have re-recorded my tutorials on how to build an author website, install Author Pro theme (which I use for JFPenn.com), and also how to set up your email list with ConvertKit. I've also updated the Author Blueprint which you have access to on my email list or you can sign up here.
Today's show is sponsored by ProWritingAid, writing and editing software that goes way beyond just grammar and typo checking. With its detailed reports on how to improve your writing and integration with Scrivener, ProWritingAid will help you improve your book before you send it to an editor, agent or publisher. Check it out for free or get 25% off the premium edition at www.ProWritingAid.com/joanna
Philip Athans is the New York Times bestselling author of Annihilation, and a dozen other books, including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. He's also an editor, professional speaker, and writing coach. Today, we're talking about his book, Writing Monsters: How to Craft Believably Terrifying Creatures to Enhance Your Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- What is a monster?
- How monsters are part of our human evolution
- The importance for humans of fighting a common enemy
- How the monster in a story can bring out a character’s true nature
- Monsters as metaphors
- How do we create unique monsters?
- When should you reveal your monster?
- Multiple streams of income as a writer. “Walk through the door that's open.”
- Licensing intellectual property as a source of income
You can find Philip Athans at AthansAssociates.com and at the Fantasy Authors Handbook and on Twitter @PhilAthans
Transcript of Interview with Philip Athans
Joanna: Philip Athans is the New York Times bestselling author of Annihilation, and a dozen other books, including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. He's also an editor, professional speaker, and writing coach. Today, we're talking about Writing Monsters: How to Craft Believably Terrifying Creatures to Enhance Your Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Philip: Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.
Joanna: I'm so excited about this. I bought the book ages ago and then I read it quite recently, and I was like, oh, my goodness, I really want to talk to you, because I feel like there are some of us who get excited about monsters, and everyone else has now turned off the show anyway, so we can just get into it. So, let's start with definition.
What is a monster anyway, and what are their characteristics that are most important?
Philip: For me, and this was really what Writing Monsters is mostly about, is monsters as a supernatural force. So this isn't really a book about the serial killer that everyone thinks of as a monster, or someone like Hitler was a monster, things like that.
Using that term to apply to a person as a way to dehumanize evil and say that these are somehow not humans anymore, somebody who can do these terrible things, it's a way for the rest of us to sort of push away and say, ah, that's not in me, I don't have that in me.
And hopefully, I don't believe that I have an inner Hitler. I'm very happy to report that. I think most people really don't go anywhere near to that territory.
But at the same time, he wasn't a monster created in some other dimension or something like that. He was a person who did terrible things. So, for writing monsters, this was really about for horror authors, supernatural horror authors, fantasy authors, science fiction, etc., where this monster is this living thing, and you can't see me do air quotes around living, so is it some kind of mechanical creature or something like that, that we're afraid of, but we don't understand it?
I think if you looked at just a photograph of a great white shark, it's the scariest monster I can even think of, so it's just absolutely terrible. But we know what sharks are. There are books written about them. The Discovery Channel does a whole week of shark documentaries every year. So we understand it as an animal, but I think if you had never seen one, never heard of it, that would be a monster, a very dangerous thing and I don't know what that is.
Joanna: Right. So it's scary, and we don't know how to connect with it in that we would do with another person. So do you think the fear is an important aspect? Because of course, there's the classic, is it Pixar, the ‘Monsters, Inc.' I mean, those are technically monsters, but they're not scary.
Are they created in the same way?
Philip: I think so. But what was fun about ‘Monsters, Inc' and about like the monsters on ‘Sesame Street,' things like that is we're taking something that's scary and then we're making it not scary.
Once you get to know those monsters as people, which I thought was really brilliant in ‘Monsters, Inc,' that, the idea is that they're the scary thing that lives in your closet. But they're actually just regular guys who are going to work and that's a thing that they do.
They work for, of course, the evil energy company, which is pretty easy to imagine, that the energy industry is willing to do anything. And so, that was that they turned the idea of a monster upside down. It was this living thing that we're afraid of but, don't understand and we're afraid of it because we don't understand, but once we got to know them, we realize, oh, wait a minute they're not.
Joanna: They're not so scary.
Philip: They're not monsters. They're the people.
Joanna: Obviously we're going to focus on the scary ones. Let's just talk about why we love monsters. Clearly, you and I are fans of monsters and things that are terrifying.
Why are monsters so common in myth and legend as well as fiction?
Philip: I wrote about this a lot in Writing Monsters, and in other places, I think that for me it goes back, or puts us back in touch, monsters do, with the predator-prey relationship, which we've really, as humans, have exited that.
That's probably the main thing that we have accomplished as a species is to lift ourselves out of that. So, sure there are people who go hunting as a hobby, but there really isn't anyone who depends on that anymore.
Since the invention of agriculture, and with the bow and arrow, the ability to kill at a distance, we've stopped being… I don't know about you, I'm in quarantine here for the COVID virus. But let's say I had a job that took me outside of the house, there might be a lot of things that I'm afraid of out in the Seattle area, but being attacked by a predatory animal is not one of them.
There was a small bear that wandered into my backyard, and the dogs went crazy, but we just sort of took cell phone pictures of it and thought it was really fascinating. But I have never been afraid that somewhere between here and the supermarket, I'm going to be jumped by a tiger and killed.
So what monsters do is they remind us of that, that they say, what if there is something out there that breaks through this giant evolutionary hurdle that we've made, and now all of a sudden, I'm the prey?
Certainly, that's what ‘Jaws' was all about was this idea that there actually is a wilderness, and that's the ocean, that once you step in there, you're way, way out of your element, and there is stuff in there that could actually eat you, and doesn't know, hey, that's a human, hands off.
So I think that's really the trigger that says this is something to be afraid of, because this is going to eat me, and it's not understanding that I have some sort of special privilege.
They also story-wise give us a common enemy to struggle against, is that everybody teams up against the zombies. ‘Dracula' was really about let's get some people together to combat this thing that came to England and is threatening our women, and things like that.
And then again, it plays on the fear of the unknown. This is something we don't know. We haven't identified this yet, we haven't tamed it, we haven't hunted it to extinction or to near extinction. I know all of the animals in my neighborhood, and so if I see a raccoon, I'm not thrown into spasms of terror. But monsters are the thing that gets added to that comfortable world.
Joanna: I wonder if now, as you say, we're far removed from when originally tales were told and we were going hunting and all of that back in the day, but some kind of collective memory or collective unconscious as Carl Jung would have said, of this fear that we're born with.
Things in the dark and things hunting us, and is it that we like reading, I like reading the, kind of, cryptid books, and I love Jurassic Park and all of that type of thing.
Is it somehow cathartic that we're experiencing it in that way, without obviously having to face something in real life?
Philip: Sure. I think there's so much of entertainment is that I'm experiencing this thing that in real life I would avoid in any way I possibly could. And so there is the sense of I'm scared, but I know I'm not in danger in any way sitting here reading a book, or sitting in a movie theater.
We get on roller coasters to experience what it would be like to be in this out of control vehicle, but we know that it's not out of control, that it's on tracks, but it just feels like it's scary for a second.
That sort of a thing that we're looking for is what would it be like to be hunted? What would it be like to be in a position where you're out of control completely, and all of the standard things that we feel like we can rely on are sort of stripped away from us.
Joanna: I like the fact that you said common enemy, and I do read quite a lot of horror. I don't really watch horror movies, but I read quite a lot of horror, and that common enemy idea, in that, and I think Jonathan Maberry says “it's not about the monster, it's about the people fighting the monster,” and the hope that we can maybe kill the monster is that common enemy.
Do you think that's really important in horror particularly?
Philip: It can be. And that's one of the things I love about monsters is that they come in so many different varieties, not just in, this is sort of the furry monster or the slimy monster, that kind of thing, physically, but they mean different things to the characters in each story, and they mean different things to each individual story. So that idea of let's get together against this common enemy, that really drives books like It by Stephen King.
But then a lot of times, those monsters are the thing that brings out the good and evil in us, so that a zombie horde in something like Night of the Living Dead or The Walking Dead is really a natural disaster that's happening. And the story is in who is the person who's going to try to take advantage of that to seize power and become somebody like the Governor in The Walking Dead.
Who's going to rise to the occasion and become the hero, when faced with this horde of zombies that don't care, they don't have a plan, they don't have a strategy, there's not some kind of political party that you can argue against. They're just a thing that moves through, like a hurricane moves through, or a tornado moves through your town.
There's no reasoning with it, it's just, am I going to be the person who runs into the burning building to save people, or am I going to be the person who owns a gas station and all of a sudden raises the price to $20 a gallon because I think I can? Does that monster bring out the good or evil in people?
And using Stephen King as another example, because why not, right? In The Mist, that's exactly what he does. He throws this collection of Lovecraftian monsters at people trapped in a supermarket, and it's entirely a force of nature. It's some sort of disaster is happening.
And then the people all trapped together then either rise to the occasion or crumble, according to their own inner set of tools and assumptions and prejudices and things like that. So we see them turn on each other, we see them band together and try to help, and be humans faced with the unknown.
Joanna: You do have a great section on monsters as metaphor, so, how do we think about that? If we're planning to write a monster book, like I definitely want to, I have had monsters in my books, but I'm like I'd like to write just a good monster book.
How can we bring that deeper element? Is it easy as you say reflecting on the meaning? Let's take Jurassic Park, because I'm sure everyone's at least seen the movie, if not read the book. The book was much better, obviously. The book was a lot more about chaos theory and things getting out of control, but nature kind of doing that, and the genetic engineering of the monsters was part of that.
Should we be layering in this metaphor level, to bring a deeper element, and how do we do that?
Philip: Sure. I think that really what that idea of monsters as metaphor is it's monsters are that thing that's out of control. And that's really what Jurassic Park was all about, like you said, it's that chaos theory of, ‘We're doing this thing because we can.' We figured out how to clone dinosaurs but no one really ever thought through what does that mean exactly. We're introducing these giant predatory animals into our world, and are we really ready for that?
And I think people in general, humans are pattern-seeking creatures. We look for patterns in everything. It's one of the ways we survive. We can see the pattern in the seasons, and so that allows for agriculture and that kind of thing. So we're always about pattern identification.
When a monster is then thrown into that, this force of chaos, that pattern is interrupted. So our daily lives are interrupted, or these scientists who think, well, we'll do this and then we'll put these genes together and we'll make this creature, and then we'll put it in a cage. Awesome, that'll be great. And then that animal then has its own set of patterns that come into conflict with those people.
Sometimes monsters can be so obviously a metaphor for something. My favorite metaphorical monster has got to be ‘Godzilla,' which, if you've seen the original Japanese Godzilla, the very first one, and not the one that was edited in America and had an American actor stuck in there, that really trimmed out a lot of the political stuff.
‘Godzilla' was definitely, we sort of went on this little adventure, and in that case, it was doing atomic testing, and we roused this thing, this mindless, primitive, barbarian thing, that then just came and literally crushed everything and just destroyed everything, and blasted us with atomic fire breath.
When you sit back and see that as a Japanese movie from the mid-50s, less than, in some case, I really I think it was, I want to say it was like 1954, so less than 10 years after the end of World War II, it's pretty clear what ‘Godzilla' represents. It's the thing that, we poked this thing, and it just destroyed everything, it just literally walks through and burned everything down.
Joanna: I was going to say, because at the moment, I mean, as you say, we're recording this during lockdown, and I feel like, obviously Trump calls it ‘the invisible killer,' and we're all in our homes sheltering from something we can't even see. And I wonder what will come out of this?
It's almost on the nose to write a pandemic thriller. But, what will come out of it as a monster? There are invisible monsters and stuff like that.
Is it a case of taking a theme or taking the idea that we want to write about, and then creating something that might represent that in a type of monster?
Philip: I think that that's really what zombies are, in particular. It's a plague, it's essentially an invisible force behind there, that this thing bites me and I'm infected in some way. And everyone who's bitten by a zombie is infected by that.
Vampires tend to be the thing that sucks your blood and infects you with this whatever it is, turns you into a vampire, or turns you into a slave, an undead slave. I think that there has been this sense of the plague monster for really ever, certainly going back to The Black Plague and that time, and this idea that evil is passed from person to person, and that there can be this invisible force that we don't even understand that transforms us into monsters and then kills us.
So I think well before the coronavirus, this has been part of horror literature at least, and fantasy and science fiction as well. What if?
Michael Crichton, who also wrote Jurassic Park, wrote, one of his first novels, I think it was his first novel, was The Andromeda Strain, which imagined a virus from space coming down on a satellite, and the scientists trying to figure out what this thing even was, and prevent it from spreading all over the world. So I think the idea of an out of control pandemic has been in that consciousness for a really long time.
When we're constructing our monsters, what are the important things that we need to decide upon in order to construct the rules of the world?
Philip: I think for starting out with everything, and this is what I harp on with authors all the time, it is, why is this in the story in the first place?
I work with a lot of authors who are at varying stages of their careers and experience levels, and most of the first-time authors, or people who are just sort of starting to get into it, tend to want to throw stuff in, like we're just going to put in as many elements as we possibly can.
And so for me, the really, question is why? Why is the monster in the story in the first place? If it's just there because you think monsters are fun, well, so do I. I think you could maybe sell that to me, but most people are going to wonder why all of a sudden there's a monster.
So how does the monster actually move the story forward? Is it an obstacle to be overcome? Does it demand something of the characters? Does it say, ‘This is your opportunity?' You're being forced into a position of either standing up to be the hero or laying down to be the villain or the victim?
Does it play on our fears of what, exactly? Is it the predator-prey relationship that I think everyone is sort of, every animal certainly, is built-in, has this built-in fight or flight response and has a sense of, ‘What is that thing? Is it going to bite me? Is it going to eat me? Is it going to poison me?' And so does it just play on that?
Or, in some cases, like H.P Lovecraft, for instance, is still being read today because he wrote stories where the monster was not something that you could be, you couldn't find the weakness in it and then figure out, ‘Ooh, it's the silver bullet. Now we've got that sorted.'
That played on our fear of, hey, maybe we're not the masters of the universe. Maybe we don't have this thing all locked out. Maybe we are on this tiny little rock in this giant infinity, and out there are things that are just so beyond us that we'd have to only hope that they don't notice us.
Joanna: Yeah. Keep quiet.
Philip: Right. And so a lot of it is looking back at history and where was the culture at that time, and the monster will start to inform, or be what is really informed by that time.
100 years ago, Lovecraft was in a world that was becoming aware of astronomy and cosmology in a way that 100 years before that, they didn't necessarily have a grasp on. And it sounded pretty scary. It was pretty rough.
He was starting to understand that maybe we really are just kind of hanging out there, and there could be anything out there on the horizon, and being a bit of a xenophobe in general, that really, I think that really worked at his fears of maybe we're not in charge. Maybe I'm not the guy who can control the world around me.
What do you want people to be afraid of, essentially? Do you want people to be afraid of something like the pandemic, that has some people clearly behaving badly and some people clearly trying to do the right thing, and most of us are caught in between trying to figure out our place in this?
But then beyond that, what the monster can do and what it can't do? What its weaknesses are? Especially for a story that hinges on, ‘This is a problem we have to solve.' And I did write about that a little bit in Writing Monsters, that there are some stories, a lot of monster stories, in fact, that sort of begin as a horror story.
Jaws is a great example of this, because we don't, for about half of the movie, we don't see the shark, we see the results of the shark. We see the people being pulled underwater. It pulls the dock away from the beach and so on. And we know that something terrifying is under there.
And then, once they identify what this is, and they find the fishermen and they all get on the boat and they go off to actually kill the shark, the whole movie changes, and this is like a great testament to Spielberg as a filmmaker. The music changes from that ominous pulsing to this sort of triumphant kind of almost bugles and sea shanties.
It stops being a horror movie and it becomes a maritime adventure story. Is that what you're going for? The monster is terrifying until we realize, ‘Aha, this is what we do,' and then it turns into an adventure story.
To some degree, the movie Alien is a horror story where a monster that is flipping that predator-prey relationship. So now, something that we can't kill is hunting us. It's taking away our natural weaponry. We can't just shoot it, or its blood will destroy our ship and we'll all die and things like that.
And then Aliens, the sequel, is the second half of Jaws. It's like, okay, now we know what this thing is, what it can and can't do. Let's go kill it. And of course, complicated by the fact that there's now 500 of them or something.
So I think that is sort of two movies that, put together, is it's sort of equals Jaws. The monster is now identified. What do we do? They're not less scary necessarily. The fact that there's lots more of them make them scary.
Joanna: I really like that, because you've definitely shown different things there in terms of, is the monster something we already know how to kill, and now we just have to go kill it?
I even think even, like Wilbur Smith, for example, those are action-adventure books, but he often has wild lions and things come and kill people. So you know what the monster is, but what you're saying is also there's these monsters where we don't even know.
And the Lovecraft stuff is interesting, because you've given a number of examples there. So you say Lovecraft, people think tentacles, right? They think Cthulhu, and then you say Jaws and you think big teeth, and we say Jurassic Park and people will have the dinosaur.
With all of these archetypical monsters in our heads, how do we create something new or original when so much has already been done?
Philip: First of all, all of those things that have been done, or we'll say most of those things, I tend to have kind of a zombie aversion, at least now, I think, okay, like I get it. But that's an interesting example of one work.
The movie Night of the Living Dead that then created an archetype. That's a relatively new concept I think. But for things like, whether it's a vampire or a werewolf or a dragon, something like that, those are all free for everybody to just grab from mythology and legend and fairytales and so on.
But one of the things I talked about in the book and elsewhere is this idea of thinking of it as a recording studio mixing board, so that if you are, you have a werewolf story that you want to tell, now the challenge for each individual author is to make that my werewolf. Which is different from your werewolf, which is going to be different from Stephen King's werewolf, and so on.
Everybody has a sense of what this thing is, what it can and can't do, how to kill it, and so on, so start changing that. Mix that up a little bit, and just sort of do your best to make it your own.
I think humans are just natural monster-making machines. It's something that's really in our DNA. It's kind of what, it goes to our survival instinct, that we can't just be a good predator, we have to be the only predator. When we move into an area, we make it our own.
We really don't allow for hunting, in that, no hunting allowed in my suburban neighborhood. So when people see coyotes, it becomes a problem. Not because I'm worried that a coyote is going to attack me, but I have small dogs. Like, get out of here, coyotes.
And I think it's something that is sort of ingrained in us, because I think it's better from a survival standpoint to imagine that a monster, if there's something moving in the darkness you can't see and you hear something moving around, it's better to imagine that that's a monster and be ready to defend yourself, than assume it's a squirrel and be taken by surprise by a leopard.
Joanna: That brings us to something else, which is the unseen monster. And you mentioned Stephen King's It, and obviously for anyone who hasn't read it, we're no spoilers, but we don't see the actual thing until nearer the end.
I always found that it wasn't as scary as what I had imagined. And perhaps, is that a truism as well, that if you reveal it too soon, it's not as scary, unless I guess we've seen it in action, like we have with Jaws for example, you see the body parts, you don't see the monster.
Is that be a tip for writing? Keep it hidden, or when do we reveal it?
Philip: Absolutely. And that's a big part of the book, actually, is that idea of staging the reveal of the thing. So if it's just, right away it jumps out and you've described it in extreme detail, and characters quickly or immediately figure out, and I've seen this a lot in fantasy, in particular in science fiction, where the characters instantly identify what it is, as though they're walking around with the monster manual.
Then that's a very different sort of story. Now that is essentially, we've been attacked by a leopard, or we've been attacked by a shark. Now we know what to do. And that can still be an entertaining story, it can still be a great adventure story. But it really stops being a monster right away.
Staging this thing in, like they did in Jaws, which, of course was a great happy accident, that the mechanical shark didn't work and they didn't have it available for most of the filming of the movie, so he had to figure out how to not show the shark, and it ended up being a great accident that made that movie a thousand, a million times better.
The less you show the better, right? And just show it the effect of the thing. What is it actually doing? And you want to stage it a little bit at a time, a little bit at a time.
You definitely see that in all of the most effective horror movies, in particular, like Alien, you only see sort of little bits of things, and it actually ramps up. It's the face hugger, and then it's the little thing that they think they're looking for is about the size of the cat, and then it's this big thing that's moving around in the air ducts, and they can only see it in little snatches, and then don't really understand what it's doing and things like that.
Exactly how you stage that monster in really depends on the story that you're telling. Is it just an adventure about let's fight some monsters? Then great, right? That's the dungeons and dragons approach. It's about the fight and it's about the number of monsters that you throw in there.
And again, I'm in on that, that's great. But if the story depends on the one monster continuing to be scary throughout, then you want to put it in in teaspoonfuls as you go.
Joanna: Fantastic. So, we're going to change direction, but the book is Writing Monsters so for everyone listening, I think it is brilliant. I've got it here on my desk. It's got lots of pages turned on it, and I'm like, oh yeah, that's great, that's great. I want to write tons of monster book.
I didn't upfront ask about you and how you got into writing, but I wonder if you'd tell us a bit more about your ecosystem, because many people listening want to make a living with their writing. So, tell us, like, what is your career, because you do so many things.
What does your career look like right now, and what are your multiple streams of income?
Philip: Right now it seems like a little bit of everything. I guess we can kind of work our way backward, but right now I'm a freelance editor and writing coach, and I work with individual clients.
Again, through a huge range of experience levels. From people who are literally just starting out, to veteran authors who've been doing it for a long time. And then, I have some corporate clients and do some consulting work there.
I write a lot about writing, and I've been teaching online courses in writing. Those are in a transition period where I'm shifting over to a different host for those. So keep an eye on my social media for when those are going to start ramping up, hopefully by the end of this year.
I think if you want to really do this for a living, it is certainly possible to be the next J.K. Rowling and just sort of scribble out this great book that is rejected X number of times until somebody says, ‘Hey, this is really good.' And then voila, you're a billionaire. The chances of that happening are super slim.
I think the fact that you can count on one hand the number of really huge franchise authors who are working at any given time is a pretty good tell that that's not just something that happens. It's not the automatic thing, I've written a book, so therefore I'm a big famous author and a millionaire.
What I try to advise people as much as I can is think of yourself as a content provider. If you're a storyteller first, then yes, definitely be writing that novel, but also be writing short stories, and write anything you want to and anything you can, and get it out there in any way possible.
I think we all have to have a day job, and but if you do have to have a day job, can your day job be like my day job, which was an editor? I'm basically doing what I do at work and at home and everywhere.
I know a lot of writers are coming in through the video game business, which has got a big, which is so huge, and it has a big need for writers. It's a different kind of writing, it can be hard, and it's hard to find your own voice in those a lot of times, but I think it's a great way to make a living while you're also writing that great American novel.
And that's what I have been doing at least for the last 10 years since I left Wizards of the Coast, was just what might interest me. I do ghostwriting. There are books out there that you would never know, and I'm contractually obligated not to tell you, that I had anything to do with. And I think that's great and there are a lot of people who are like, ‘No, I would never do that.' Well, I would try it, right?
Joanna: Pays the bills.
Philip: Exactly. And that's the thing. And now I'm making a living doing this. I don't also wait tables, so, I used to be, “You know, well, I'm a writer, but I'm actually managing a record store.” Which was a pretty cool job. That was really what I was doing most of the time.
I think what you do is you walk through the door that's open. And if you approach this as, ‘I'm either going to be the next George R.R. Martin or forget it,' then forget it. Because the chances of just willing that into place is essentially zero.
Joanna: And it's interesting that you brought up George R.R. Martin, because of course, he's an older guy now, and he's been writing for decades. So, he only became in inverted commas, ‘George R.R. Martin' when the TV show took off, and that's when he became a sort of mega-brand name, author, famous outside of a particular niche. So even his career is he got super famous quite late.
I love your business model. I'm very similar. I have lots and lots of things. But you mentioned Wizards of the Coast. From your website, Athans and Associates, you also have worked with Dungeons & Dragons and Pixar, and I'm like, these are some awesome companies around licensing.
And licensing, like you mentioned gaming, licensing intellectual property seems to be one of the ways in which we can move into bigger than, just say, self-publishing an ebook on Amazon, which is where many people start.
Any thoughts on this positioning IP for licensing and thinking much bigger?
Philip: That can be really, really difficult as well, because, and absolutely this is true that everyone wants to see their fantasy novel or their fantasy series become the next Game of Thrones. Why wouldn't you? You want your science fiction series to be The Expanse.
That's definitely less impossible now than it was 10 or 15 years ago or so, because there's so much content being created. And I think that's very exciting times for everybody. There are opportunities now, with all the sort of TV streaming and things like that, that didn't exist in the rarefied Hollywood atmosphere of 20 years ago.
But still, it's such a distant possibility, really the best thing to do for any author is just concentrate only on the one thing that you have any control over whatsoever, and that's the quality of your work.
None of us have any control over the coronavirus and what that may or may not be doing to the publishing business, what the publishing business is going to look like after this. We certainly don't have any control over the global economy, things like that.
We have no control over trends and what all of a sudden is going to seem dated or what is going to be the next big thing. But we do have control over the quality of our writing, so start with that. And if you've written the best book you can possibly write, readers will find you. And after the readers find you, maybe movies, video games, and all that stuff will come with it.
That's exactly what J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin did. They wrote the best books they possibly could. And the audience found them.
Joanna: They also wrote really, really long fantasy series, so that might be another tip.
Philip: But again, is that, I'm not sure that that trend. Some of these things are unreproducible. J.K Rowling had some really interesting timing issues, at the beginning of the internet, where kids were talking to each other in ways that they weren't able to before. It was possible to build buzz in ways that didn't exist in, literally six months before that.
And then George R.R. Martin was plucked out of, ‘Hey, it's actually possible to make dragons that look convincing.' It's actually possible with digital effects to do this, and make a TV series that looks like this, where so much science fiction and fantasy, in particular, had always sort of sat on the shelf because how could we possibly realize this? How could we possibly make this into a movie? I just don't know how to make these special effects.
Joanna: Exciting times for those of us writing monsters. Phil, that was great.
Where can people find you and everything you do online?
Philip: Well, follow me on Twitter. That's @PhilAthans. And then my blog is Fantasy Author's Handbook. That's updated every Tuesday. It's fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com. And then, if you want to find me for editing, coaching, any of that good stuff, it's athansassociates.com.
Joanna: Brilliant. Thanks so much for your time, Phil. That was great.
Philip: Thanks for having me.
Thank you for this. I found it very interesting. I’m working on a story about people who are monsters discussed in this podcast. I want to keep some of the atmosphere of mystery and fear about them, while also being interesting characters who a reader will root for or against.
J.P. Choquette says
Great interview and loved the topic. I thought it was especially interesting how Philip pointed out that in some of the best monster movies/books the “what” isn’t clearly defined until very far in…and how that lends itself to additional fear on the part of the viewer/reader.
Lots of interesting tidbits in this episode. I appreciated Philip’s honesty about making a living as a writer and how that often requires more than one stream of income. He has some very interesting-sounding projects and streams, which is nice to hear.
Thanks, Joanna, for the introduction to another great author to follow and connect with!
Joanna Penn says
Glad you found it interesting!
Thank you for a very interesting podcast. Playing on people’s fear of the unknown is a great element to use for enhancing your monsters. However, monsters don’t always need to be “mysterious” in order to be scary. The way I see it, there are at least 4 different things people are afraid of:
– the unknown/ mysterious (monsters can either be gradually revealed to keep the mystery, or they can incorporate something unknown – zombies are scary because they play on our fear of death, which is probably the ultimate unknown thing there is)
– the grotesque (putting your hand into a bowl of worms and spiders is very scary, even if they are not dangerous and we know everything there is to know about them…)
– the predatory (as you brilliantly pointed out with “Jurassic Park” and “Jaws” – these monsters play on our evolutionary fight or flight or play dead instinct)
– the familiar
The last point is perhaps the most interesting. It’s a fact that your murderer or kidnapper etc. is likely to be one of your own relatives. In German, we have a word called “heimlich”, which in one sense can mean “homely, cozy”, and in another sense can mean “secretive, uncanny” – the only word I know of which can be used as its own antonym. One of the best ways to induce fear in a novel is to take something familiar and change small things, so that it becomes eerie and uncanny. For example, that’s the reason vampires usually look almost human – in the story “Dracula”, we initially think Count Dracula is a human, but small inconsistencies gradually add up to reveal his true monstrous nature.