Alan will take reader questions via email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Because of space and time limitations, he canít post and answer every question he receives. If there are duplicate queries, heíll randomly pick one email to respond to. If your question isnít answered, it isnít because he hasnít read it. Alan reserves the right to edit and rewrite all questions he selects. He is sorry he canít reply to everyone by personal email.
Are your Deathland [sic] books suppose [sic] to be funny? If they are, I donít get the jokes. I donít 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. Itís a kickass classic.
Sweetie Pie, from Folsom, California
Dear Sweetie Pie,
Thanks for the kind words, and the JPG of you and your cellmate.
Iíve been following your hypnagogic Sleep Writing© method for almost a month now and Iím getting really scared. I sleep at least 18 hours a day. Iíve 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. Iím writing up a storm the whole time Iím awake. I wrote 15,000 words in my Arthurian fantasy romance in four hours last week. I think Iíve caught that disease, the one youíve got. The one where you canít stop writing. You didnít say it was contagious! This awful mess is all your fault. My husband says we should sue.
Darlene, from Austin, Texas
I donít 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 ďcaravan-schoolingĒ is ridiculous.
You and Mike Newton are responsible for the infamous ďDark Trilogy,Ē 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 seriesí 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 didnít want to mess up his gig. GE flat out refused. I was told he didnít have anything to do with the series anymore, and that I wasnít 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 hadnít talked in maybe four or five years. When I tried the number, it wasnít any good. I called the only mutual friend we have that Iím still in contact with and she didnít 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 seriesí ghosts had the luxury of working directly with Warren. If their books werenít consistent with canon, theyíd 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 canít 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 Outlandersí Colonel Thrush? Are you making a connection between Deathlands and Outlanders?
Dumpster Diver, from Hatteras, North Carolina
Dear Dumpster Diver,
As I said before, Iíve 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 donít 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 Iíve 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 poolís vile ďbountyĒ (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 speciesí fundamental nature/hardwiring: the overwhelming desire to belong to something larger than oneís self (to be ďof the bodyĒ); 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 isnít 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 doesnít take a whitecoat to figure out how a weapon like that might be deployed and under what circumstances. Where the pool came from isnít the point. The point is, because of their hubris, the poolís scientists were playing around with things they didnít understand and couldnít control. Sound familiar? Like the mass production and proliferation of nuclear weapons that ended DLís civilization, it is a case of leaping before looking, of opening the barn door.
This book is definitely not about ďtaking drugs,Ē as one reader flippantly suggested. Itís about being subjugated, manipulated, dehumanized, and ultimately devoured by an intangible, by a template of illusion laid over reality, by (letís 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, ďNothing is real.Ē Even though he understands that at some level, he canít 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 ďwild world.Ē (Remember Jackson the singing stickieís final acapella selection?) In the scabby ville at the base of the poolís 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 arenít 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, ďcompressionĒ 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 techniqueówhether 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 donít 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 Iím 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. Thereís 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.
Hereís 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 characterís psychology, his socio-economic status, his possible criminal history. And it is tranferred by showingónot tellingósomething unique and disturbing: the character is on societyís 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, Leonardís author voice comes through loud and clear. All of this works to instill reader confidence and makes the novelís 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 compressionsóspecific, highly imagistic action scenes that weave together and amplify the bookís basic elements.
Hereís an example from my own work, granted not on a par with the masters, and subject to the limitations of the menís 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 seriesí star, Mack Bolan? (Pulp heroes are measured by the threat of the villains they face.) How to expand on the brothersí 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 thatís 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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