I will take questions for this column via the "Ask Alan"
questionnaire. Because of space and time limitations, I can’t post and answer every question I receive. Since the site has been up I’ve already gotten some duplicate queries; when this happens, I’ll randomly pick one email to respond to. If your question isn’t answered, it isn’t because I haven’t read it. I reserve the right to edit and rewrite all questions I select. I’m sorry that I can’t reply to everyone by personal email.
Click here to ask Alan Philipson a question >>
I’ve been wondering if you are a real person?
Tiffany, from Ogden, Utah
Sadly, I am not.
You’ve been hiding out for all of your writing career. 125-plus books! Why are you coming out of hiding now?
Minister_Sinister, from Boston, Massachusetts
It’s true that I’ve kept a low profile. I’ve written my books, made a living at it, and jealously guarded my privacy. In this first newsletter I’m not going to explain why I’ve embarked on a different course, but I promise to do so in a future edition.
how did you write so many books for so long?
Shawn, from Tavernier, Florida
I suffer from an incurable compulsive disorder called hypergraphia. If I don’t write, I feel unwell. That I continue to be paid for something I can’t help doing is a miracle beyond all understanding.
I just listened to the CuttingAudio.com sample download of your DEATHLANDS book BREAKTHROUGH. Jak and a guard are running around the mines shooting at each other and shouting back and forth, “Fuck you!” “No, fuck you!” I couldn’t find the scene in the actual book How did something that lame get onto an “unabridged” audio?
Funky-D, from San Diego, California
I don’t have any control over what happens to my DEATHLANDS books after I turn them in. I haven’t heard the Cutting Audio edition of BREAKTHROUGH, but I did look through that section of the novel and what you describe wasn’t part of my book. Evidently, someone who’s never seen an action movie (let alone been shot at, or returned fire) is trying to dramatize a gunfight.
Thanks for noticing the difference, and for your email.
Dear Mr. Alan Philipson,
Is it true that very soon you will be writing in Gold Eagle’s OUTLANDERS series?
BunnyEars, from Baltimore, Maryland
No, that rumor is unfounded. Gold Eagle did offer me a contract for a pair of OUTLANDERS novels in October 2001. It amounted to a cut in pay, so I had to turn it down.
What do you think about the other writers on the DL series? Haven’t they dragged it into the muck and brought on “the Dumbening,” as it is sometimes called?
ConcernedSurvivalist, from Twisp, Washington
You don’t understand or appreciate the difficulty of doing this kind of work. Which isn’t a big surprise. You are seeing an end product (the published book) that does not (and cannot) reflect the amount of effort and the intervening steps involved. If some of the material in the other DLs was not to my taste, that’s a personal issue. No way would I impune the professionalism of a fellow pulp novelist. Never. And until you walk ten feet in our shoes, you shouldn’t, either.
Of all the books you’ve written which is your most favorite?
Cyclops, from Melbourne Beach, Florida
Confession time: I only vaguely recall my books. The moment I send a manuscript off to the publisher, it vanishes from memory. When I am forced to pick up a novel of mine (as I did for the INSIDE STORY feature in this issue), it’s as if someone else did the writing. Someone vaguely familiar, but not me.
This recurring, black-out phenomenon has both up and downsides. Upside: My head isn’t clogged with 7 million published words and thousands of characters. Downside: Because I don’t recall what I’ve done before, I have to reinvent the writing process from scratch with each new book. (I explain my hypnagogic methodology in this issue’s WRITING TIPS.)
Click here to subscribe to future newsletters
DEATHLANDS #36 SKYDARK
There are three ways to step into an existing series: by refrying stories already told, by using elements present in the canon but as yet unexplored, or by adding new elements. In this, my first DEATHLANDS, I stuck with the canon, or at least what I could make of it from the handful of Lawrence James’ published books I was given to work with.
It occurred to me that if the protagonists (Ryan, J. B, et al) could at times be amoral scumbags, then why couldn’t the antagonists (the various mutie races) at times be selfless, noble, even righteous? Couldn’t they, too, have aspirations? Such as, ending the oppression of the (from their point of view) savage, murderous norms? Or uniting under the banner of a great and fearsome leader? Or searching for the ultimate romantic love? Why couldn’t a mutie be a tragic and foredoomed anti-hero?
Viewing DEATHLANDS’ status quo through different but familiar eyes allowed me to spin LJ’s simplistic, norms-good/muties-bad order on its hairless little head.
The complaint has been raised in more than one amateur review that in this novel I had Doc using his muzzle-loading handgun like an “automatic weapon.” I find this line of criticism particularly amusing. He fires the LeMat’s shotgun barrel exactly three times in the entire book. Page 310, Page 318 (by implication only -- a stickie is discovered headless), and page 320. At most that requires two reloads. Bang, RELOAD, bang, RELOAD, bang. As I was writing the section I remember thinking, Do I really have to describe Doc reloading both times? Won’t readers assume that if as stated in the text he has “30 minutes” between shots one and two, and “18 minutes” between shots two and three that he can manage to repack charge, shot, and wadding, and reprime a single barrel? Something he’s been doing for thirty five books under the stress of combat. Gee, I guess not.
Another reviewer claimed that in a previous DL book by a different author Doc had replaced his blackpowder LeMat with a centerfire conversion: .44 Magnum over 12 gauge. First of all, a recent (20th century) manufacture, centerfire shotgun with an under-six-inch barrel is a serious Federal firearms beef; the only reason the modern Italian reproduction LeMats get away with it is because they’re designed for blackpowder. Doc’s finding one functional antique LeMat after the Apocalypse in a museum case is remotely possible; replacing it sometime later with another, even rarer conversion model of the same weapon stretches credulity, bigtime. By definition, the nukecaust complicates such discoveries; it doesn’t make them easier.
Actually, the whole LeMat business opens a Pandora’s box of character issues. That Theo Tanner, a scientist time-trawled from the late 19th century, would insist on carrying a signature weapon that was obsolete even in his own time is at best puzzling. In the 1870s when he was a teenager, metal cased cartridges were already in use; 20 years later, at the time he was trawled, they were the standard. LJ’s explanation that Doc is a Civil War buff is weak, inconsistent backfill: a man of science dismisses the obvious and proven combat advantages of centerfire arms to indulge a childhood fascination? Moreover, that his Deathlands’ companions, whose lives depend on his ability to reload in a hurry, would let him pack something so archaic makes them seem a bit dim. And serves to undercut their credibility as survivalist archetypes.
The DL stable of writers post-LJ have all faced the same problem: it can’t be assumed that any of the previous authors (including LJ) knew what the hell they were talking about. Failure to adequately research -- and think through story elements -- has been de rigueur since the series was first proposed.
Here’s an example of “negative” continuity, a persistent factual/scientific error. The canon since Book Three states that Jak Lauren is an “albino.” Albinism refers to a specific, pre-nukecaust genetic mutation that results in failure to produce the enzyme melanin, which is critical to normal development of hair, skin, nails, eyes, nervous system, and brain. White skin and hair are not the only direct consequences of this genetic deficit. People with albinism are highly susceptible to sunburn (Jak never wears a hat, long-sleeved shirt, or sunglasses), they have impaired vision (he doesn’t wear corrective lenses), and their eyes are never “ruby red” like his, but either gray or light brown with a slight reddish cast in certain light angles. By medical and scientific definition, Jak Lauren cannot possibly be a “purebred albino”; therefore (whether he likes it or not) he’s a “mutie.”
So, what is a poor, overeducated, underachieving, hypergraphia sufferer to do? Add to the brimming honey-bucket load by maintaining the “continuity” of uninformed drivel? Or forge off in another direction entirely? Frankly, I have never liked the sound of other people’s drums.
here to subscribe to future newsletters >>
AL’S SLEEP WRITING (A Hypnagogic Methodology) ©OFFICIALALANPHILIPSON.COM
Writing a novel is a mental juggling act of staggering proportions. To do the job right, you must (and not necessarily in this order) find and maintain your author’s “voice” (the appropriate tone, rhythm, and focus); enumerate your major and minor characters; construct a plot in which said characters can meaningfully interact and evolve; produce distinctive, consistent voices for the characters; and select specific scenes and a scene order that best dramatizes the story and will hold readers’ interest. These problems are complex, interdependent, and unique to the particular work at hand.
So, you may well ask, doesn’t the juggling get a lot easier after writing more than a hundred books? Not for me. The 126th book is as difficult as the first. As I’ve said, I forget my novels almost completely after I turn them in. I have another confession to make: I don’t actually know how to write a book. “Knowing how” implies conscious volition, and a series of consecutive steps from first to final draft. In my experience, there is no such animal. Of course, every book starts with an idea. Everyone has “ideas.” Ideas are not novels. The question is, how do you go from a sentence or two to one hundred thousand words?
The answer for me is sleep. But not ordinary sleep.
Outwardly, my “process” appears to involve writing, but that’s just an illusion of perspective. Like other novelists, I brainstorm and doodle, extensively revise, create elaborate outlines, and collect 3x5 cards with detailed notes, but I am not trying to write a book, after 25 years at the keyboard I know better than that -- I am trying to induce the mental and physical state wherein the book writes itself.
And what is that state? It is difficult to describe because it is contradictory. It is simultaneously highly energized and utterly drained of energy, the product of many weeks, even months of frustration. Using standard, “rational” means, I attempt to get organized, try to fill in the blanks on the story and characters, or I just start writing, but I invariably come up empty. I attempt to focus on this or that subcomponent of the central idea, looking for a way into the project; I try to create a single sentence that excites me. All to no avail. I look through books on writing and they are no help; they describe the same useless steps I am already taking.
As a writer-for-hire, the longer it takes me to finish a book, the lower my hourly wage. The longer it takes, the less money I make, the worse I feel. Not just depressed, frustrated, and exhausted, but panicked. You see, I really, really need to write.
What stands between me and the hundred thousand finished words? An anal retentive, niggardly spirited, ever-quibbling internal editor. Although this self-censor is part of me, I visualize it as a separate creature: a spindly-legged, two-faced, back-stabbing harpy, whose only goal is to make me stumble and falter over the insertion of a period or a comma. Before I can begin to write, my self censor must be mercilessly crushed. But first it must be weakened. This is only accomplished by the exhaustion and panic that comes from weeks of wheelspinning failure. What I am talking about here is endorphinless exhaustion; physical exercise has the opposite of the desired effect. Mellow is the Enemy. Under a relentless, 24/7 attack, my self-censor is the first mental faculty to go. As with chemotherapy, the bad cells surrender before the good ones.
Eventually, the weight of the task, the sheer impossibility of it becomes unbearable. Just thinking about it sucks the life from me. At that point, I am beset by a sense of overwhelming lethargy and torpor. And then, at long last, I know I am getting somewhere.
How long does it take to reach this stage? At least a month of concerted effort, and sometimes two or more. It is neither pretty nor quick. When the torpor is well upon me I cannot stay awake. I crash in the middle of the day, on this couch, that couch, the bed, the
windowseat, with my forehead resting upon my computer keyboard. When friends come to the house and find me thus sprawled, my wife warns them, “Don’t bother him, he’s working.”
Lost in delirious sleep, I begin to receive the solutions. By “receive” I mean they are delivered to me, not one at a time, but all at once as if the story is being read aloud inside my head. These are not another bucketful of “ideas”; these are unequivocal answers. I don’t know where they come from, but I believe that they are always there, that the book already exists, just outside my normal reach. I half awaken, stagger to the keyboard and write it all down. Exhausted, I fall back to sleep. This happens over and over again. For ten to fourteen days, in larger and larger chunks, and at a faster and faster pace, the novel writes itself. I am simply the typist. For the last fifty pages I am so in the stenographer groove that I don’t have to sleep. I stay awake 24 hours, or more.
Ultimately, the only way I can “find the book” is to give up the search, to lay back on a comfortable sofa in a quiet, cozy room, put my feet up, close my eyes, and accept without question whatever is offered.
here to subscribe to future newsletters >>