I’m home from LTUE, but I wanted to write a wrap-up of the last day of the symposium. I managed to make it to Kirk Shaw’s “THE GOOD AND THE BAD: Five Things to Do and Five Things to Avoid in Writing Speculative Fiction.” This was an excellent craft workshop, and the tips he gave could be used in any genre of writing.
He started with the five to avoid: Deus Ex Machina, Infodump, Agenda, Series Degradation, and Disjointed Elements.
Deus Ex Machina translates literally to “god from a machine.” In Greek plays, there would be a point near the end at which a god or gods would be lowered via a mechanism to the stage to tie up all the loose ends and solve the story problem. You want to avoid a device like this in your writing, instead making sure that your main characters have completed their goals themselves.
Infodump is a particular bane of speculative fiction. Our world-building may include invented language, created flora and fauna, a political system, religion, etc. If we lay this all out in the first few pages, our readers’ eyes will glaze over. Kirk mentioned a few tricks to avoid infodump. Use a smart foil (that sidekick that seems to know everything, a la Hermione Granger). Plant an artifact that reveals information (I used this device in Tankborn; my MC Kayla finds a journal). Have the characters do some research. You can also use dialogue and action (although I would recommend taking care with dialogue that is too expository).
Agenda is a problem when the author has an axe to grind and uses their book to hone the blade. For example, the author could use the light touch of satire to get across the point that partisanship in politics is sending us down the road to ruin, or he/she could write a heavy-handed, hit the reader over the head diatribe against politicians taking sides.
Series Degradation pretty much speaks for itself. The first book in a series is great, the next is quite good, the third is okay, etc. This is only an issue for those writing series.
Disjointed Elements refers to a story that has too many things going on in the story. It’s a paranormal-romance-science-fantasy-adventure-thriller. If you can’t describe your story in a succinct query letter paragraph, you might want to take a look to see if you’ve crammed too many unrelated elements into your plot.
On to five things to master. First on the list was Make Something New, although Kirk covered that one last by way of a writing exercise. Next, Voice and Dialogue, then Pacing, Good Research & Added Value, and Name with Meaning.
With Voice and Dialogue, you want to vary your dialogue amongst your characters. Each character’s dialogue should be clear and distinctive. It’s okay for a character to have an accent, but it should be accurate.
With Pacing, you want to make sure you don’t run out of steam at the end. Make sure you have an actual climax.
For Good Research & Added Value, Kirk used the example of Michael Crichton. In Jurassic Park, Kirk felt the details about genetic engineering were a fascinating part of the story. He didn’t feel the same about Congo, and found it a difficult book to get through. Make sure your research adds to your reader’s enjoyment.
Finally, Name with Meaning. Use names that a) make sense to the reader and that b) the reader can pronounce. Ten consonants in a row with random apostrophes inserted might not make the best name for your characters or creatures.
Kirk got around to Make Something New at the end. On the reverse side of his handout, he listed ten each of typical speculative settings (e.g., zombie apocalypse, college of special abilities), character archetypes (evil sorcerer, homicidal creature), and elements (e.g., cryogenics, magical items). The trick was to combine these into a new take on a story. We had some great contributions from the attendees.
I also attended a mile-a-minute presentation of SF/F fiction for children (PB to YA) given by local librarians Patricia Castelli and Marilee Clark. It was pretty cool to see how passionate Patricia and Marilee were about the books in their collection. It was also nifty to see Tankborn listed under “Other new teen books of note” in the YA section.
I finished the day with my editor Stacy Whitman’s talk on Writing Cross-Culturally. She started with some thought-provoking questions. Who gets to write what? Who reads multi-cultural books? The word multi-cultural is controversial–does it exclude white people? Some prefer to use inter-cultural or diverse.
She said if you admit you’re ignorant about a culture, you’re less likely to brazenly write mistakes. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.
Other issues she discussed was how to attract people of color to publishing. Also, when writing historical fiction, how do you make language choices? Some historically accurate language is offensive in the present day.
She talked about four approaches to writing multi-culturally:
Invader–someone who arrives without warning and claims entitlement without reason
Tourist–someone who is sincerely interested, sometimes in the way but willing to learn
Guest–someone with a long term relationship with the host whose relationship is reciprocal
A resource for those interested in writing Native American culture: oyate.org.
Questions you may not know to ask when writing multi-culturally (these can be found on Stacy’s blog):
Who are people loyal to?
Who are people responsible to?
Who gets respect?
How do they ensure fairness and efficiency?
How do they control their emotions?
Who’s in charge of their fate?
What time is it–absolute or flexible?
How do they handle guilt vs shame?
How different are men and women?
How do they handle personal space?
Do they look forward or back?
All in all, LTUE was a fantastic experience. There was a real wealth of information for the beginning writer and plenty of networking opportunities for the established author. I’m looking forward to attending next year.