Alan will take reader questions via email (email@example.com). Because of space and time limitations, he can’t post and answer every question he receives. If there are duplicate queries, he’ll randomly pick one email to respond to. If your question isn’t answered, it isn’t because he hasn’t read it. Alan reserves the right to edit and rewrite all questions he selects. He is sorry he can’t reply to everyone by personal email.
Are your Deathland [sic] books suppose [sic] to be funny? If they are, I don’t get the jokes. I don’t get your newsletters, either. Everybody who writes in seems to hate your guts like me.
Rabies, no city or state given
I feel your pain. In a future issue I will post a 1-900 number. If you call it, you can hear explanations for all the jokes in all the books and newsletters, line by line, in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Japanese. The cost is $3.95 U.S.D. a minute.
Loved that eat-the-rat scene at the end of that old SOB book of yours, Butchers of Eden. It’s a kickass classic.
Sweetie Pie, from Folsom, California
Dear Sweetie Pie,
Thanks for the kind words, and the JPG of you and your cellmate.
I’ve been following your hypnagogic Sleep Writing© method for almost a month now and I’m getting really scared. I sleep at least 18 hours a day. I’ve lost all interest in sex, food, and religion. Music I used to love, like INXS with the new lead singer, makes me so nervous and queasy I have to turn it off. I’m writing up a storm the whole time I’m awake. I wrote 15,000 words in my Arthurian fantasy romance in four hours last week. I think I’ve caught that disease, the one you’ve got. The one where you can’t stop writing. You didn’t say it was contagious! This awful mess is all your fault. My husband says we should sue.
Darlene, from Austin, Texas
I don’t see the problem. What you describe is as good as it gets.
This firm represents Ms. Darlene Kibbel of Austin, Texas. She informs us that she has been following a medical treatment program you advertise as a panacea for would-be writers. Ms. Kibbel further informs us that in following the advice advertised on your website, she has suffered severe emotional and physical distress. A search for assets of one "Alan Philipson" nationwide has not turned up a single asset in that name. Accordingly I have advised the Kibbels that a suit against you for anything other than a restraining order would be prohibitively costly. If you do not cease and desist the advertising of your "technique", our firm will alert the proper authorities to what amounts to practicing medicine without a license.
Very truly yours,
Edwin Lambert, Esq.
Lambert, Doheny, and Nelson, from Austin, Texas
So sorry about the misunderstanding, but our attorney really jumped the gun. I wanted to let you know that last week, thanks to your wonderful Sleep Writing© method, I finished all five hundred thousand words of my Arthurian fantasy romance,
Sword Blade: The Forbidden Pommel. And guess what?! It's already sold to a major U. S. publisher for a mid-six figure advance!! My sister-in-law, the Acquisitions Editor, just loved it.
Darlene, from Austin, Texas
I knew you could do it, kid.
Is there any truth to the rumor that you were raised by Gypsies? That would explain some of your current plot lines.
A. Love, from San Diego, California
Dear A. Love,
I will not discuss the strange circumstances of my birth/upbringing in this or any other public forum. The idea that my world view is a consequence of “caravan-schooling” is ridiculous.
You and Mike Newton are responsible for the infamous “Dark Trilogy,” which almost destroyed the Destroyer series. Your book
American Obsession #109 was a literary atrocity. It was an insult to longtime fans and to the series’ originator, Warren Murphy. You should be ashamed of yourself.
PsychoNutso, from Brownsville, Texas
Hey, I actually know Warren Murphy. We have been acquainted for (gadzooks) a quarter century. When I was pulled off another assignment to do my one and only Gold Eagle Destroyer, I was given exactly six sample books in the series, some of them Pinnacles, some Signets, and a four-page magazine interview Warren did in 1987. No series Bible. No thumbnails of previous titles. No editorial help as to character development, storyline direction, nothing. It was such a joke that I freaked and asked GE to put me in contact with Warren because I didn’t want to mess up his gig. GE flat out refused. I was told he didn’t have anything to do with the series anymore, and that I wasn’t to try to call or write him. I had a New Jersey phone number in my file cabinet on an old Christmas card or somesuch, but Warren and I hadn’t talked in maybe four or five years. When I tried the number, it wasn’t any good. I called the only mutual friend we have that I’m still in contact with and she didn’t have a current number, either.
Hey, you try to yank a consistent series novel out of your cloaca when you have just six (nonconsecutive) books out of 108 to work from. A couple of the series’ ghosts had the luxury of working directly with Warren. If their books weren’t consistent with canon, they’d have to be complete morons. Mike Newton and I were left out in the cold with deadlines to meet. Both of us are still merrily writing fiction for a living, and will probably be so employed until we drop dead. Obviously I can’t speak for Mr. Newton, but my last expulsion of breath will take the form of a raspberry.
You had Magnus [sic] time-traveling in Damnation Road Show. Is he supposed to be an incarnation of Outlanders’ Colonel Thrush? Are you making a connection between Deathlands and Outlanders?
Dumpster Diver, from Hatteras, North Carolina
Dear Dumpster Diver,
As I said before, I’ve never read even one Outlanders past Page 5. How could I possibly connect the two series? And why would I try?
If you came to that conclusion about Magus from Damnation Road Show, you obviously don’t understand the implications of third person limited point of view (also called third person intimate). Simply put, characters can be wrong about the facts. Just like readers. Magus never time-travels in the book; he never thinks about it, either. The Magnificent Crecca is the only character who thinks about it (exactly twice) and he never claims to have seen Magus time-traveling. He never claims to have talked to anyone who has seen Magus time-traveling. He is repeating rumor and myth. Sheesh.
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DEATHLANDS #62 DAMNATION ROAD SHOW
Some DL readers had problems with this book, to put it mildly, so I’ve decided to explain the why and what of it in some detail.
First of all, biologists actually discovered a giant fungus in Michigan maybe 15 years ago; this entity had spread through 10,000 acres of marshy soil. Until the biologists identified it, no one even knew it was there. News of the discovery is what got me started on the idea of the burning pool. In DRS, the bottom of the pool and the connected limestone grottoes beneath are the habitat of a similar, non-sentient, mega-organism. Some other factoids: Fungi spread by sending out spores; ergot is a fungus of the cereal grain rye that causes violent hallucinations and mania.
So much for reality (the easy part), now comes the fictional and the symbolic.
Skin and inhalation contact with the spores rising from the burning pool produce full-spectrum (five-sense) hallucinations in human beings. Examples are the talking lungfish, the impossible-to-imagine succulence of the pool’s vile “bounty” (fruiting bodies, in fungal parlance), and visualization of souls as they rise from the newly dead. Moreover, the fungus induces both physiological and psychological dependence in human beings. It does all this without volition; it has no mind. It is unaware of itself, unaware of the existence of its victims. It is vast and elemental. Humans under the influence of its spores fill the gaps in their understanding by drawing on individual experience and their species’ fundamental nature/hardwiring: the overwhelming desire to belong to something larger than one’s self (to be “of the body”); the necessity in some form or another of bloody sacrifice (the Clobbering Chair); and the offering up of the slaughtered (to the burning pool) to appease That Which Is Greater/That Which Is In Control.
The predark blockhouse below the pool was once inhabited by whitecoats. What they were doing there isn’t clear because all the records are gone. The set-up at the complex does not appear to be entirely natural; the blockhouse has control over the draining of the pool. Which presents the possibility that the fungus was a bioweapon in development, and the pool/grotto a kind of industrial plant for producing and harvesting the mind-altering spores. It doesn’t take a whitecoat to figure out how a weapon like that might be deployed and under what circumstances. Where the pool came from isn’t the point. The point is, because of their hubris, the pool’s scientists were playing around with things they didn’t understand and couldn’t control. Sound familiar? Like the mass production and proliferation of nuclear weapons that ended DL’s civilization, it is a case of leaping before looking, of opening the barn door.
This book is definitely not about “taking drugs,” as one reader flippantly suggested. It’s about being subjugated, manipulated, dehumanized, and ultimately devoured by an intangible, by a template of illusion laid over reality, by (let’s face it) an idea. The fungus is an indifferent enabler; what the people do in DRS, they do to themselves, sometimes even gleefully, because of their worldviews and self-concepts. In the opening chapter Baron Jim Kerr says, “Nothing is real.” Even though he understands that at some level, he can’t escape the situation or change it. Is he really powerless in the thrall of the pool, or is he helpless in the thrall of his own fantasy, his own programming, his own limitations? The answer to that should be obvious.
On a symbolic level, the pool/fungus represents Nature, or the “wild world.” (Remember Jackson the singing stickie’s final acapella selection?) In the scabby ville at the base of the pool’s cliff, humankind attempts to impose order on that untouchable, unknowable realm, using its limited powers of reason and the barbarous tools at its command.
Was I considering all this while I wrote the book? Yes. Do I realize that some readers believe that
Deathlands books aren’t supposed to do anything more than explode the heads of muties in a colorful and amusing way? Yes again. Why then, did I do otherwise? Because it is my nature.
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In my opinion, “compression” is what separates middling from top drawer action writers. Thomas Harris, Warren Murphy, Dick Sapir, Don Pendleton, Martin Cruz Smith, James Lee Burke, Walter Mosley, and Elmore Leonard are just a few of the famous authors who use (or used) this technique—whether they call it by that name or not. Compression transfers the maximum amount of emotional information/impact (characterization, dramatic tension, author voice) in the shortest possible space. When it's done right, the story hits the ground running and never lets up. How do the great ones make this happen? What is their writing process? I honestly don’t know. I only know how I go about approximating it in my own way, reverse-engineering from their final product.
The easiest way to see what I’m talking about is to look at first pages/beginnings of books. Every novel is a series of connected scenes that fall along a timeline, and there are any number of places along the chronology to start the story. Obviously, incidents in a novel that happen before the selected beginning can be dealt with in narration, or told in flashback. There’s an old rule in action writing: start as close to the ending as possible. Just as important in my opinion is selecting a first scene from the timeline that compresses the most telling details of character through action and imagery, and sets up drama (leaves the reader with an unresolved situation)/asks questions that demand answers.
Here’s an example from an early Elmore Leonard novel. A guy buys a particular car from a police impound lot because he likes the way the bullet holes in the driver door look. Consider how much information is transferred in that short space about the character’s psychology, his socio-economic status, his possible criminal history. And it is tranferred by showing—not telling—something unique and disturbing: the character is on society’s outer fringes and in search of scary thrills if not worse trouble. To find out what kind of trouble, the reader turns pages. Thanks to precise and spare language, Leonard’s author voice comes through loud and clear. All of this works to instill reader confidence and makes the novel’s beginning memorable.
If you want to see this technique stretched over an entire book, (re)check out
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. This novel is a series of remarkable compressions; too many to list in fact. Here are some of my favorites:
Red Dragon takes a blind female coworker to feel the anesthetized tiger;
Red Dragon steals and eats the Blake drawing; Red Dragon has his first normal sexual experience with a live and willing (blind) woman.
How is this concept applied when creating original work? In the planning stages of a novel, after I have the basic story and the main characters figured out, I make a concerted effort to brainstorm compressions—specific, highly imagistic action scenes that weave together and amplify the book’s basic elements.
Here’s an example from my own work, granted not on a par with the masters, and subject to the limitations of the men’s adventure/paramilitary genre, but it demonstrates how the technique can be translated to the page. In the Executioner novel
Slaughter Squad, El Salvadoran twin brothers, sniper-trained by the U. S. government, go renegade and are hired by a Colombian druglord to kill a cartel rival. Problems: how to distinguish these shooters from every other bad guy sniper team in the 250-plus-title action series? How to make them suitable opponents for the series’ star, Mack Bolan? (Pulp heroes are measured by the threat of the villains they face.) How to expand on the brothers’ backstory connection to a documented, real life Salvadoran brigade of mass raping, mass murdering sociopaths whose bonding ritual was to drink a boiling soup made from week-old roadkill? In short, how to compress unbridled excess and savagery into a single defining scene?
This is what I came up with. The drug kingpin-target has a private zoo on his estate that’s filled with exotic animals. In command of the tactical situation, the snipers long range slaughter the caged, defenseless creatures, including the emus and orangutans. They do it because they can, in a gruesome mockery of big game hunting. An action that reveals the brothers as not just dangerous, technically proficient assassins-for-hire, but as unpredictable, ruthless, boundary-less predators. The scene leaves the reader with the expectation that these psychos are going to do something much worse; unresolved is what, where, and to whom.
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This opinion forum is meant for entertainment purposes only. Any resemblance to assertions of fact is unintentional and purely coincidental. (Whew!)
News Flash: OAP has just gotten wind of the impending debut of a new, crossover nonfiction genre. “You write what you eat” is about to hit all the book chains in a big way with the simultaneous release of several, competing diets-for-writers books by New York Times bestselling novelists. Apparently these top money authors lay their tremendous success at the feet of scientific and assiduous meal planning. Details in advance of publication are skimpy, everything is hush-hush, but we can hope to learn the following: What do the giants of modern fiction consider “brain food”? Do they lean towards high or low carbs? Vegetarian or carnivore? Organic or genetically modified? How do they balance the five food groups? Does a first draft menu differ from a second draft menu? And can a writer make the NYT top ten and not gain weight?
In the spirit of jumping the gun (and perhaps stealing some thunder), here’s the secret behind my own writing diet: All my recipes contain salt pork. I learned about it from a famous 1960’s pulp novelist, now deceased. I think he said he got the idea from a 17th or 18th Century Brit—Samuel Johnson? Samuel Pepys? Anyway, he absolutely swore by the stuff, and always kept a slab in a kind of humidor thing beside his manual typewriter. Believe me, that smoky, gelatinous gunk really gets the creative juices flowing. I like to chop it fine, fry it crisp, and mop up the bacony bits and hot grease with three or four slices of white bread. If I’m in the mood for something sweet, I’ll lather in a few good squirts of genuine Vermont maple syrup before I go at it with the white bread. If I feel festive, I’ll toss in a sprig of mint prior to laying on the syrup. For a beverage, I look to Jim Beam or one of the inexpensive Scotch whiskeys, taken straight and room temperature. For the pudding course I favor thirty or forty fruit flavored antacid tablets.
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