Any Learning is Purely Accidental and Not the Intention of the Instructor... @ 02:53 pm
I think I have what could be called an “accidental” teaching style, which is to say, if I teach anything of substance, it’s entirely by accident. Luckily, I had, I think, a couple of spontaneous accidents today.
Today was the first day of my week-long class “More Than the Zombie Apocalypse: Writing SF/F” for teens at the Loft as part of their Youth Summer Program.
I started off the class with the question I love to start any of my classes with which is by the opening gamut: “What is science fiction? How is it different from fantasy?” We actually spent the majority of the class untangling this classic question. I tried to hit on several ideas in my usual round-about way.
1. A science fiction story’s plot turns on a science concept (math, physics, biology, etc.) and a fantasy story’s plot turns of magic or myth. This is the definition that I usually prefer for myself. Of course, by this definition my novel Archangel Protocol which says “science fiction” right there on the spine is actually fantasy. No science turns the plot; angels do. Thus: fantasy. However, this is often a pretty good rule of thumb. This also encompasses one of the student’s idea that it’s fantasy if there’s magic in it, and science fiction if there’s technology and/or tech that could be mistaken as magic (Clarke’s Third Law) in it.
2. It’s science fiction (or fantasy) if it FEELS like it. That’s to say, that sometimes it’s utterly subjective. If a story’s background takes place in the future, it’s science fiction, because even if the future has elves, somehow the addition of ray guns and space ships automatically means SF.
3. It’s science fiction (or fantasy) because a science fiction (or fantasy) author wrote it. Sometimes you come across stories in SF/F magazines that seem like neither SF or F, they might be there because someone who wrote it is known to the SF/F community. Another interesting side note about this is that some subgenres tend to get placed in on one side of the dividing line or the other because of where they came out of. Our example: steampunk. It came out of an SF tradition, therefore it’s SF.
4. It’s fantasy (or science fiction) because that’s what it says on the book spine. We didn’t entirely cover this directly, but, in passing, I mentioned that none of this really matters except when you want to find a publisher. It’s helpful to be able to tell an agent or an editor, I wrote x (and fill-in what genre/subgenre you wrote.) It’s also helpful when you want to find more books like the ones you enjoy as a reader (which is why it’s important to the publisher). We never talked about this last part officially, but we did have a side conversation about what kind of books we looked for, ie hard versus soft SF.
Speaking of hard and soft, we spent a lot of time talking about the various subgenre’s of SF/F and where they fell on the spectrum: high and low fantasy, contemporary/urban fantasy, quest fantasy, and grimdark/dark fantasy. In SF: cyberpunk, steampunk, hard and soft SF, far-future and near-future, space opera, and science fantasy. We debated about where time-travel and superhero stories fit into all this. We also had a category for “straddles both.”
I took a few questions from the students when we seemed to run out of steam. This is where the accidental learning may have happened. I suspect that might be the case because everyone got quiet when I talked about these things (which didn't happen for everything, alas.)
There was an interesting one about how do you merge two divergent characters into a single storyline. I didn’t have a good answer for that per se, but I used the question to talk about when you start a story (just before everything changes) and some of my theories about how a novel and a short story should be structured in terms of increasing external pressure and mounting personal/emotional stakes.
That led a discussion about books that failed to start just before everything changes but were still popular, most notably Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone.
I ultimately said that my answer to writing two divergent storylines coming together was that you needed to do it carefully and to show similar progression in the emotional arcs or the external pressure arcs of the separate characters.
Another student wanted to know how to write a dystopia masquerading as a utopia, which sounded marvelous to me. I brought up Mussolini, and suggested that one way was to show trains running on time. The idea being that if a dystopia has the feeling of clean efficiency it’s easy to mistake it for a utopia. I reminded the student that he needed to be sure to have his p.o.v. character be observant enough to give the reader clues that ‘something’s NOT right,’ even if it’s something like a noticeable military presence coupled with a sense of unease—someone else threw out the idea that a big brother mindset could work. The idea there being that if you show faulty logic as part of the world-building (if you do it in a way that’s not so clumsy people think you’ve made the mistake), you can imply a grim underbelly.
I have no idea if my disorganized, jumbled teaching style will work for any of these students, but I have hope. I was impressed by how many of them are actively engaged in writing short stories or novels. In an adult class of the same size, it’s not uncommon to only have half the people actively writing something. In this class, it was 90%. That makes thing easier for me, because often that mean that people have, as shown above, very specific needs that can be met and questions that can be answered.
I even managed to have volunteers for critique. They have to have (no more than, but anything up to) 10 pages of something ready to hand out tomorrow. I got six people ready to go. If even half of them follow-through, that’s a great start.