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[SFFWRTCHT] A Chat With Author & Editor Phil Athans

Phil Athans published his own magazine: Alternative Fiction & Poetry, before he ever sold a story. In its short, five-issue life span went from complete obscurity to semi-obscurity. In 1995 he became the newest editor for TSR Books, one of the premiere publishers of fantasy fiction in the world. His editing job moved to Seattle two years later when TSR merged with Wizards of the Coast. The Forgotten Realms  novel line made great leaps forward under his care working with authors like R.A. Salvatore. His own novels include Baldur´s Gate, Annihilation, The Watercourse Trilogy and The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction. Find Phil online at or on Facebook and at Twitter as @philathans.

SFFWRTCHT: Let’s start with basics. Where´d your interest in SFF come from?

Phil Athans: I don´t remember not being an SF fan. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, inspired by the space program, Star Trek and  Lost in Space. My first real brush with fantasy came from Marvel´s brilliant Conan comic books.  I never looked back.

SFFWRTCHT: Who were some of your favorite authors/books growing up?

PA: I´ve waxed poetic about The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey, and the seismic impact that Harlan Ellison had on me. Harlan Ellison´s story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” literally changed my life… That story took me from Science Fiction is fun adventure stories for kids to Science Fiction is IMPORTANT (in all caps, just like that).  Also loved the Conan stories, Edgar Rice Burrough´s Mars novels, the hard SF giants: Asimov, Pohl, Clarke, Niven, and D&D changed my life.

SFFWRTCHT: Ah yes, D&D. Were you involved with cons and fandom? Cosplay?

PA: I´m way too shy and uncomfortable around people ever to even attempt cosplay, which gives me enormous respect for those who do… I went to my first convention: Chicago Comicon in 1976 at the tender age of 12. It was a transformative experience… I try to get to at least two cons a year. This past year I went to Wondercon in San Francisco and E3 in LA.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s it like working with authors in a shared world setting like Forgotten Realms?

PA: At TSR/WotC , I had to walk the fence between helping authors write the best book they could while at the same time making sure to protect the world continuity. It wasn´t enough to just be a good fantasy novel, it had to be a good Forgotten Realms novel and that was closer to writing a historical novel, in terms of research.

SFFWRTCHT: That’s got to be a tough line. Does WotC ever do original fantasy or just D&D based?

PA: We had two attempts while I was there: TSR Books when I first started in Wisconsin, then Wizards of the Coast Discoveries a few years ago. We published some great books, but couldn’t make a go of it.

SFFWRTCHT: Where did your involvement with/interest in RPGs come from?

PA: I credit the Microgames that were advertised in Analog magazine in the late 70s. I subscribed to Analog and these serious Science Fiction games fascinated me. I ordered a couple, played them with my friend, and fellow SF geek, Bob. We couldn´t get enough of them.  But our first attempt at D&D was an epic fail.  I just rolled up a character, ended up as a magic-user with one hit point. It was just the two of us, so I went into the dungeon alone. First encounter: a single wandering skeleton. The skeleton won the initiative roll, hit me, and killed me.”This game sucks!” I exclaimed. It wasn´t until we started high school that fall (1978) and met some guys who were playing it for real that we tried it again. And I´ve never looked back!

SFFWRTCHT: Good thing you tried again. Imagine where you’d be now.  Did you have a lot of characters or a few core ones you loved to play? Who were they?

PA: Back in the day, characters died pretty easily and pretty often, it was hard to get too attached to one character. But I still have a little notebook with some character sheets from as far back as 1981.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you ever GM/DM? Do you think it helps or hinders a writer’s ability as storyteller? I’ve heard arguments for both.

PA: I think playing RPGs as both player and Dungeon Master are great for writers–all about learning how to tell a story.

SFFWRTCHT: Does being underground literally shape the worldview of the Drow and other characters?

PA: The Drow (in FR, anyway) were driven underground, and have a culture built on darkness and exile.

SFFWRTCHT: Characters or world—which comes first?

PA: Start your story with characters, and start your world with a map!  It’s a very modern idea, that a society can live in any way disconnected with the environment…  Likely an off-shoot of playing D&D and other RPGs, but I tend to start worldbuilding with a map. Geography is where any culture begins.

SFFWRTCHT: How complex do you make your maps to start?

PA: I tend to draw detailed-to-a-fault maps–another symptom of decades of D&D. You do NOT have to be as anal as I get.

SFFWRTCHT: What books do you write besides D&D tie-ins?

PA: Here’s Completely Broken: a thriller, not for the faint of heart or easily offended: And The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff a Weird Tales style sword & sorcery tale I wrote with Mel Odom. So far, the Arron of the Black Forest series is e-book only, but you never know!

SFFWRTCHT: Did you study writing in college? How did you learn your craft?

PA: I majored in cinema in college, in hopes of becoming the next Martin Scorsese, and quickly gravitated to writing. Looking back I wish I had taken more creative writing classes on the college level.

SFFWRTCHT: What about editing? What made you decide to start a magazine?

PA: Mostly that stemmed from my own frustration with not being able to get my weird little short stories published. I was convinced that I was brilliant, but there just wasn´t an editor out there smart enough to recognize it. So I decided to be that smart editor. You can only summon that degree of unsupported ego when you´re in your early 20s!

SFFWRTCHT: Do you ever roll play scenarios for scenes or stories to see where they go and use that in writing them?

PA: For the huge ongoing magic duel between Gromph and Dyr in Annihilation, I blocked the whole thing out line by line, with each line representing a D&D game round. I was determined to describe the effects of the spells as accurately as possible, including casting time and duration. It was a lot of work, but I think I nailed it!

SFFWRTCHT: When you write do you have a word count per day goal? if so what is it?

PA: When I’m writing to a deadline, I do have a goal set for each day: one chapter a day, or two chapters a day, etc. That schedule tends to be based on a general plan for how long (in words) each chapter should be to hit the word count. For projects like The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff and the Fathomless Abyss, I’m less concerned with word count—letting the story dictate how long it wants to be, since word count is much less relevant in the e-book universe as it is in traditional publishing. But otherwise I’ve never been one of those “1500 words a day, every day” kind of authors.

SFFWRTCHT: Well Annihilation put you on the best seller list so you clearly did something right.  Do you outline or are you a discovery writer?

PA: I outline, then discover all sorts of stuff while writing that never occurred to me in the outline. Outlines are useful tools to get you started, but should never be read as law! My outlines can be pretty detailed, chapter by chapter, but sometimes the most complicated scenes get one sentence like: There’s a huge magical duel. (That was in the Annihilation outline.) When I got to that line in the outline it was like, sheer terror! Then I spent days just blocking it out.

SFFWRTCHT: You talked about outlining, but where did the idea for Annihilation come from and how did it develop?

PA: The idea for the War of the Spider Queen series came from the Greyhawk novels. We published a series of Greyhawk novels based on the old classic AD&D adventure modules which ended with Queen of the Demonweb Pits, where, in the end, it’s assumed the Player Characters kill Lolth. I thought, “Okay, if Lolth is killed in Greyhawk, is she dead throughout the D&D multiverse?” That would play havoc with Forgotten Realm’s Drow . The idea seed was planted.

SFFWRTCHT: How´d you wind up working at WOTC? Is that a dream job come true?

PA: I started at TSR in Lake Geneva WI in September 1995, and worked there while TSR slowly disintegrated. The company was insolvent by the time Peter Adkison of Wizards of the Coast swooped in and saved us. The move to Seattle was one of the best things that ever happened to me-I love it here! And the job was pretty cool too. Coming into TSR as a full-on D&D geek-yeah, it was my dream job and then some!  I used to have to pinch myself in meetings sometimes, thinking “I can´t believe they´re paying me for this!” My mother used to yell at me in high school: “If you spent as much time doing your homework as you do on that damn game…” Then it became my career! Boy, did I love throwing that in her face!

SFFWRTCHT: What´s the most common issue you see with manuscripts when editing?

PA: Weak beginnings. Time and again books start with these elements: Weather Report (It was a dark and stormy night, or something like that);  Fashion Report (Galen´s silver chainmail gleamed in the sunlight); And Traffic Report (They had been riding for three days, and were still a week away from Cityville). And your readers are asleep by paragraph four. Start your book in media res (in the middle of things)-in the middle of some kind of action scene. It doesn´t have to be a sword fight, but any sort of dramatic moment. Hook your readers in fast and save the weather, fashion, and traffic reports for when they matter, if ever.

SFFWRTCHT: Ok we have to get to this great book. Where´d the idea for The Guide To Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy come from?

PA: It came to me from my former boss at WotC, Peter Archer, who had moved on to Adams Media. I was reluctant at first; he really had to talk me into it. But once I started writing it, the hard part became getting me to stop. I had a lot to say and the book went pretty long.

SFFWRTCHT: You offer a lot of advice in this book and we can´t possibly cover it all, but let´s hit the highlights. Have Something To Say. So all stories need a message of some sort? They can´t just be to entertain?

PA: I doubt it´s possible to write anything that doesn´t have something to say. That doesn´t mean you have to have some overt, overwhelming political, religious, moral (etc.) stance, but surely we´re seeing these characters doing this stuff in this place and time because something significant is happening.

SFFWRTCHT: Learn How To Write. You suggest starting authors have to actually do better than those who´ve come before. Explain please.

PA: It´s a risky proposition for an editor to take a chance on an unpublished author. I wish that wasn´t the case, but it is. Editors have to jump through a lot of hoops to get a book in the catalog, including the dreaded profit & loss statement. That means they have to be really passionate about what they´re selling internally. Maybe it’s not so much that you have to be better, but you have to be original, fresh. Your writing has to force people to sit up and take notice.

SFFWRTCHT: Don´t Spare The Action. Let´s talk about what you call “business. “

PA:  “Business” is a movie term–it’s all the little things people are doing while having a conversation. Watch the DVD of the movie Magnolia with the director commentary on. Paul Thomas Anderson draws your attention to Philip Seymour Hoffman clicking a ballpoint pen with his teeth. THAT’s “business.”

SFFWRTCHT: And business makes it real can be used to add subtext and story related tasks under dialogue. Okay. Start With The Villain. So when character building antagonist first. Why?

PA: This is one of those “rules” that everyone is free to break or fully ignore at will. But if you look at most fantasy and Science Fiction–genre fiction in general–it’s usually the antagonist (villain) who starts things off. Murder mysteries start with a murder, right? A well-motivated, richly-realized villain starts your story moving.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve written both short stories and novels. Do you approach them differently (outlining, etc)?

PA: Short stories and novels are apples and oranges.Yes-short stories need fewer more focused Point Of Views for instance.

SFFWRTCHT: One common theme seems to be consistency: consistency in rules, magic, technology, world building. Let´s talk about that.

PA: How many times have you heard someone complaining about some SF/F movie or book because it was “unrealistic”? I maintain that any fantasy or SF is inherently unrealistic-and that´s what SF/F fans are looking for: a strange new world. That means that readers are happy to accept magic, FTL starships, sentient robots, a zombie apocalypse, etc. You can make up your own rules for how all that stuff works, but if you break your own rules, it will seem “unrealistic,” which is less about realism than plausibility. If you´re consistent with how magic works, your magic will seem plausible  and your readers will feel they’ve visited a strange new universe, which runs on different natural laws than our own world. But it seems real, it feels real, because those rules are consistently applied. I got into this in lots more detail on my blog when I disassembled the movie Legion

SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?

PA: The Arron of the Black Forest series we hope will be ongoing, You can find out more about that here: I’m also cooking up an exciting new fantasy series with some friends that will begin with an anthology on sale in December. I’m really excited about it: Tales From The Fathomless Abyss. I’ll drop a couple names, though: Jay Lake. Mike Resnick. My story “The City is Theirs” will be in the Warhammer anthology Age of Legend . And I just finished something new for Adams Media called How To Start Your Own Religion This one’s more comedy non-fiction.  And there’s an urban fantasy novel making the rounds called Cleopatra: Queen of Seattle. I’m busy!

SFFWRTCHT: Before you go tell us about writing RPGs. How much originates with you? How much is a team effort?

PA: They say that movies are a director’s medium, theater is a writer’s medium, and TV is a producer’s medium. Following that same concept, shared world fiction—when done correctly—is really an editor’s medium. Not that authors aren’t vital in the same way that a TV producer without a cast is utterly helpless, but generally speaking the concept originates in house, as does the bulk of the worldbuilding, and the editor is responsible for maintaining what I call a “line voice,” which often has to supersede an author’s individual style, so that there is a reasonably consistent experience from one book in a shared world line to another.

Interviewer Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.‎ Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

4 5-star & 11 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindle or Nook $14.99 tpb