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Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction: An Interview with Philip Athans

With the release of our updated edition of Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, I figured it was the perfect time to catch up with one of our newest contributors to this classic tome from Writer’s Digest Books—the right honorable Philip Athans.


Phil was one of the first people we reached out to when we contemplated updating the book, and as the editor who worked with him, I must say I was highly impressed with his knowledge and passion for fantasy and science fiction, and also highly entertained by his advice and observations! Here are a few more questions I threw Phil’s way, and if you like what he has to say, you’ll find his contact information below, and you can read all about the newest, most exciting developments in the fantasy and science fiction genres in his chapter in Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction—available now!

Writer's Digest:What are some of the things that an apprentice writer within the genres of science fiction and fantasy typically “gets wrong,” or at least gets under your skin? Or, to put a positive spin on the question, what should a padawan scribe focus on if he or she wants to “get it right” when it comes to speculative fiction?

Philip Athans: Your own rules you must follow, young Skywalker!

In terms of the SF and fantasy genres in particular, consistently applied internal logic is absolutely essential. Genre readers want to believe, and your readers are happy to suspend their disbelief while your characters travel through hyperspace or battle the twenty-headed liger, but where they’ll start to turn on you and begin to complain that your SF and fantasy is “unrealistic” is when your characters spend three days in hyperspace to travel eight light-years in chapter one then get home again in fifteen minutes in chapter nine. You’ve established that the trip takes three days, how can they suddenly go faster and why didn’t they do that before? Now our entirely created FTL drive is “totally unrealistic.”

And beyond the SF, fantasy, or horror genres, I continue to advise authors of ANY genre to spend real effort learning the CRAFT of writing. I’ve seen some manuscripts come across my desk that have interesting characters, unique settings, and creative original ideas, but the author obviously has no idea how to punctuate a sentence, the manuscript is riddled with run-on sentences and/or sentence fragments, and spelling and style rules are out the window. And honestly, there are very few (read: NO) editors and agents willing to wade through a sea of errors to discover the heart of your story. Read newer published books with an eye toward where the commas go, where the quotation marks come in and out, or better yet, find a good English class either at your current school or at your local college’s continuing education program. A lot of the rules of English grammar and usage are “made to be broken” but there’s a big difference between intentionally bending or even breaking a rule, and just not knowing the rule in the first place.

WD:If given the power to greenlight a summer blockbuster, what unrepresented or “unknown” (to the mainstream, at least) science fiction or fantasy book or series would you love to see on the big screen?

PA: In honor of the great Frederik Pohl, who just recently passed away, I’d love to see a $200 million dollar version of his classic novel Gateway, but that’s hardly “unknown.” In general I think that in the same way that special effects have finally caught up to the vision of the comic book writers and artists, there’s now a huge backlist of classic SF and fantasy novels just begging to be filmed. I could probably rattle off a hundred off the top of my head. But as for the more obscure or older titles, I’d love to see a TV series that mines the classic Ace SF Doubles for Twilight Zone-style episodes. Tonight’s episode... “Gunner Cade”!

Get goin’ Hollywood!

WD:Which speculative theme do you feel is the most played out at this point: zombies, vampires, or superheroes? Or do you think these still have a leg to stand on?

PA: To some degree, every trope is equally played out or fresh. I’ve been saying for almost twenty years that we need a ten-year moratorium on vampires, but then there’s 30 Days of Night and Let Me In, and I think, okay, THOSE were fantastic, but the rest are ... whatever. Zombies had lost it for me, too, until The Walking Dead hit AMC. I’m starting to see an awful glut of minimally-creative post-apocalypse stories now, but again, it’s not the fault of the genre or the sub-genre but the author. If all you’re doing is assembling Teen Vampires vs. Zombie Apocalypse in a 'one from column A, one from column B' sort of way, then you’re going to end up with a lifeless blob of text. But if you have something original to say and use those archetypes in a fresh, creative way, nothing is ever entirely out of style or off limits.

WD:Who is the greatest science fiction or fantasy villain who has yet to become a household name in mainstream pop culture? Do you think this dog will have its day?

PA: The bigger mainstream audience has yet to be really effectively introduced to the drow of the Forgotten Realms world. With Hasbro now a force in the movie business post-Transformers, there’s more reason to hope for a Drizzt movie now more than ever, and I think that’ll be what it takes to make the drow, and in particular characters like Matron Baenre and Malice Do’Urden, into pop culture icons beyond the Salvatore/Forgotten Realms/D&D fan communities. These are smart, sexy, powerful, and Evil (with a capital E) women that, if portrayed correctly, will knock people’s socks off.

WD:What is the first book you read that made you think, “I have got to write something like this someday!”

PA: I had this great illustrated SF anthology when I was a kid and in it was a short story by Harlan Ellison called “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” that literally made my head spin. That single short story took me from a kid who loved space opera entertainment and wrote and drew his own comic books to someone absolutely obsessed with the full spectrum of the genre. Harlan Ellison didn’t just raise the bar for writers of speculative fiction, he stole the bar, used it to beat people up, then jammed it into the genre sideways to permanently prop it open.

WD:Are there any new books or authors in science fiction or fantasy (or both!) have you excited? What are you reading right now?

PA: I’m always reading multiple books, jumping back and forth from five or six, and one of them tends to be some classic, golden age SF novel like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars, which I’m reading, and loving all over again right now. On the other end of the spectrum, I think Paolo Bacigalupi might save science fiction. If you haven’t read The Windup Girl, consider this an assignment. On the fantasy side, I’m eagerly awaiting the third book in J.M. McDermott’s Dogsland Trilogy and I will read anything by Catherynne M. Valente.

WD: Any new projects of your own around the corner?

PA: I’m hard at work on The Guide to Writing Monster & Aliens, a follow-up to The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction that’ll concentrate on monsters (of course). I love monsters of all genres and media, and I’m having a ball putting this together. My other current work-in-progress is a dark high fantasy that I have high hopes for. It’ll be full of demons, and I plan to take all my own advice on creating great monsters, and get as much additional advice as I can from some friends and associates, too. Writing the novel and the monster guide at the same time should make both of them better!


Philip Athansis the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and more than a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.

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