Three top tips for writing sci-fi and fantasy

Today is the first day of the Melbourne Emerging Writers’ Festival! And tomorrow, I’m heading to one of their masterclasses: Speculative Fiction. I’ll hear what some of Australia’s best spec writers have to share about worldbuilding, creating nonhuman characters, and marketing science fiction and fantasy!

So I thought today I’d briefly share a few things I know already about writing these genres, since that’s mainly what I do. For those of my readers not familiar with this world of geekdom:

  • Speculative fiction (spec) is science fiction, fantasy and all their subgenres, because they speculate about worlds and times where things are possible that aren’t in our world.
  • SF/F or SFF is short for science fiction and fantasy.
  • ‘Hard’ sci-fi is that which is grounded solidly in what science can already do or has found – think ‘Gravity’, ‘The Martian’, etc.
  • High fantasy is your sprawling epics in imaginary worlds. Low fantasy is when fantastical things intrude into our world. Urban fantasy is similar to low: it’s when werewolf truckers and bartending witches and vampire AA meetings exist alongside the rest of us.
  • Steampunk, which we’ve discussed before, is in a weird boundary zone. It often involves magic, and is more often based on past technologies or discoveries than current ones. I tend to put it with SF, because the one thing all steampunk stories tend to have in common is, well, steam. Without machines, it’s not steampunk – and without meaningful social commentary, it’s not steampunk either. Stories with a steampunk aesthetic but no steam and no punk might be called gaslamp fantasy, clockpunk or something else, depending on what elements do appear in the story.

I’ve discussed this before, mainly in Parts 1 and 2 of my wishlist of things I’d like to see more in fantasy. Today’s focus is more on what I’ve learned as a reader and writer of SFF.

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1. Make the spec elements essential to the story.

This would seem an obvious one, but it’s surprising how often aspiring writers trip up on it. The imagined elements must play a key role. If the magic or the mutants could be cut out with no harm to the character development, plot or message, they’re only so much window dressing – and what’s more, window dressing of a style that plenty of people dislike.

In an early draft of one of my stories, the heroine’s hydrokinesis was this. Sure, she could use it to make her life more convenient – she could wring out her hair and clothes pretty fast – but it didn’t help her solve any major problems. Eventually, though, a problem presented itself that could not be solved any other way but with her powers. Now it’s one of my, and my beta readers’, favourite scenes.

Spec elements should never be included just to raise the coolness factor – especially because spec has huge potential to make a political statement when done right. That has been a part of science fiction from the beginning, and perhaps fantasy too, considering its roots in fairytales and mythology, which often have a moral at their core. Mary Shelley wrote about the need to face the moral consequences of scientific experimentation. HG Wells’ titular Time Machine wasn’t used for fun adventures: rather, it showed the horrors of a world where unequal distribution of wealth and labour had caused humanity to evolve into two new species of dumb little puddings and the subterranean carnivorous gorillas that preyed on them.

So be sure to ask yourself why you need this story to be the genre that it is, and give yourself a well-argued answer.

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Five writing tips to confuse and undermine budding creatives

A glorious morning to you all from me, very famous writer Annaliese Famouswriter!

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Here I am, polishing off my next bestseller in the supermarket.

Just a quick post this morning before I have brunch with Martin Scorsese, fly to London and give my lecture at the Very Famous Writers’ Festival to promote my thirty-ninth novel, My Publisher Has an Excellent Marketing Team.

My agent tells me that her interns’ interns, who manage the gushing torrent of fan emails I get every day, have been reading a lot of correspondence from aspiring writers asking for advice from their favourite novelist. Aww! I really don’t know what to tell you guys. My success was a combination of luck, a natural talent with words, and the sheer bloody-minded persistence to hone my skills for years. Most of you will probably never sell one novel, never mind fifty-two squintillion – and that’s okay! The world needs its baristas and sewage farmers too. You can’t all be famous writer Annaliese Famouswriter. Writing as a hobby is totally valid and definitely as artistically satisfying as gigantic commercial and critical success.

In fact, your unloved and unpublished story is probably more meaningful and legitimate than what I have to do. God! I’m so busy living out my lifelong dream, meeting deadlines, being interviewed on national TV… it’s overwhelming. Where you’re at now – those days of poverty, rejection, insecurity, anxiety – those are the best days of your writing life. Some days, I wish I was just like you.

Then the doorbell of my Tesla SpaceHouse plays the theme tune to the film adaptation of my first novel, and I have to go and sign off on another delivery of Funko Pops of every character in my oeuvre.

Sorry – what was I talking about?

Oh, right – advice.

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A few things I do to help the environment

Having just finished writing my essays for the semester, it’s time to get back into Grandest Bookshop. So for World Environment Day, before I go and walk the dogs in this rare winter sunshine, I’m here to share a few simple things I do to help the planet and the local environment. You might be able to do them too!

  1. Plastic bags. 

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I’m not perfect. I don’t always remember my reusable shopping bags – sometimes you have to pick up a few things at the shop that you don’t anticipate when you leave the house.

But I take reusable ones when I can. I refuse plastic when I can at smaller outlets – they do try to foist them on you to display their brand. I reuse the plastic bags at home if I can; reusing is the step before recycling, which you can do at many supermarkets nowadays. I’m sure you know all the grim facts as well as I do.

If you’ve got an absolutely grotty plastic bag covered in some kind of fridge slime or what-have-you that you cannot reuse or recycle, at least tie it in a knot before you pop it in the bin so it can’t catch the breeze, fly away from the tip and end up in the sea.

 

2. No dryer.

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We don’t have a clothes dryer at my house. None!

A clothes dryer has a pretty massive appetite for energy, so we don’t use one. Now, I know this won’t be possible in all climates and regions, but it was pretty easy for us to adjust to having no dryer! In summer, we use the line outside. In winter, we have a couple of clothes racks indoors, and the clothes dry in the indoor heat or the sun through the windows. It works brilliantly.

If we want something dried within an hour or so in winter, we pop it on the heaters. We have a special heating system, though. We burn wood, which we mostly get from huge fallen trees and branches in the forest around our place, in our specialised firebox which heats a water jacket. The water is pumped all through the house to metal panels on the walls. Clothes draped over the toasty panels dry off pretty soon.

I realise this is not possible for everyone – but you might come up with an equally innovative solution that doesn’t involve a dryer.

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Tree of life

Lately I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about natural history, so that’s the subject of today’s poem.

As regular readers may know, I’m a bit evangelical about evolutionary psychology (ironic as that is). I find a lot of comfort in the natural laws of the universe. I know some people find it horrifying to think that good and evil don’t exist (in my view, they’re just values we’ve attached to selfish and altruistic behaviours which help or harm one another’s survival) or that consciousness terminates at death, or that every person is more of a physical what than an indelible, spiritual who. There are those of you who, I’m sure, would feel lonely or unprotected without belief in a higher power, and that’s perfectly valid.

In fact, sometimes it is frustrating, even despair-inducing, to have the worldview that nothing happens for a reason and nothing has any greater objective meaning. But for me, the vast indifference of the universe means that we’re free. Nothing’s out to get us, or to help us, except each other. The only reward for kindness is a good reputation and a shot of endorphins, and the only punishment for crimes is being shunned and badmouthed by the tribe. The answers to questions like ‘what is the meaning of life?’ and ‘why are we here?’ become a lot less thorny, at least for me, when there’s just nature, and us existing as and in nature. Prejudice isn’t some evil seed planted in the soul, but a relic left over from when it was reasonable to be suspicious of difference (because the clan in the next valley might eat you when times were hard).

What’s the meaning of life?

Whatever you want.

Why do we suffer?

Because some people have something wrong with their brains that programs them for selfishness rather than the survival and well-being of the group. Sometimes it’s just time for that seismic plate to shift. Sometimes machines break, even printers. Especially printers. I’m sorry, and I’ll do my best to help you deal with those times.

What is love?

An automatic bonding process, advantageous to survival and breeding, which produces hormones that make us feel good so we’ll stay alive. (I ought to point out that knowing/believing this doesn’t make you love people any less.)

Why are we here?

Because monkeys got smart, and had babies, and look! Here we are, caring for our disabled, and giving away money to people we’ve never met, and nursing thankless amphibians back from the brink of extinction for no other reason than we like having them around. We did that! At least, I believe we did. We’re so good at surviving that we have compassion left over to spend our energy and resources helping others! I love that. I find that really amazing.

Even having friends is a concept totally alien to most species on earth! That’s our incredible social wiring kicking in. ‘I like them and they like me. I can trust them to help me build a shelter and get some food! And I will do the same for them. And then both of us will keep our DNA alive long enough to pass it on.’

Still, the magnitude of the universe and geological time is a little saddening sometimes. Humans as a species have only been here for about 200,000 years. Individual humans, living in prime conditions, live for around 80 years. There are so many things we’ll never see or know – in the past, in the future, in each other, in the billions of galaxies we may never reach and certainly won’t reach in my lifetime.

Fossil records and genome mapping have helped us to sketch out the story of life on earth, but natural selection is such a long process that there’s a whole lot in the estimated 10-billion-year lifespan of our Earth that we’ll miss out on. There’s no single ‘missing link’ between species – there are hundreds, thousands of missing links. The images we have do not flow together smoothly like a hi-def film. They’re black-and-white snapshots, sometimes blurry or cropped weirdly or over-exposed or damaged or taken from really far away. A fossil is an impression of a thing, not the thing itself. A fossil of a dog, for instance, probably wouldn’t preserve soft tissue like ears or jowls, or keratinous parts like nails or fur.

So here’s to all the wonders of times gone by, knowledge of which may never be better than plain old guesses, clues and the power of looking. The first few lines of this poem fell into kinda-sorta iambic pentameter by accident, but I liked the rhythm and thought an archaic sound seemed appropriate so I stuck with it.

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Creepy baby Jesuses in medieval art: a review (featuring Madonna)

And so we return to our perennially popular medieval art series.

Previously, we poked fun at our under-privileged forebears by mocking their paintings of elephants, and totally disregarded the artistic and aesthetic conventions of their times by laughing at their ridiculous skeleton drawings. Their bizarre choices were strange to us, but understandable. Dissecting human bodies was considered heretical prior to the Renaissance in Europe, and many European artists had only heard or read about elephants via a Chinese-Whispers-esque series of second-hand accounts.

This time, they have no such excuses. Sure, they may never have seen a Jesus, but they must have seen at least one human baby and/or woman at some point.

All the usual disclaimers apply: this is purely a matter of personal taste and certainly isn’t intended to make fun of anyone’s beliefs. Strangeness is relative. I couldn’t paint this well if I tried. The past is a different country and the standards of beauty held by people in that setting are vastly different from mine.

That said, these are some weird-lookin’ babies.

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Ah, pregnancy. The miracle of life!

This Madonna puts the ‘mum’ in ‘mummy’ with her fetching Egypt-inspired wrappings. She may look a little tired with those triple eye-bags and extra unibrow – but who wouldn’t, in her place? Carrying a tiny, fully-dressed John C Reilly inside a galaxy inside a perfectly round globe in one’s chest would be hard for anyone. Especially if the little bugger kept flipping you the forks and stealing your tampons.

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Mushroom hunter

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Look at these. I picked these. Aren’t they beautiful? Yes, they are a bit of a wild colour but they are perfectly safe to eat. These are pine mushrooms, a.k.a. saffron milk-caps, a.k.a. Lactarius deliciosus. 

Every year, for about two months, these come into season. And every year, I reap the rewards of nature’s Easter egg hunt. They’re a nice easy beginner’s mushroom because they’re distinctive: they have no poisonous or inedible look-alikes that share their habitat, sap colour, markings or gill structure. People have been eating them for at least 3000 years; they were a delicacy in the Ancient Roman empire. They’re really yummy in a risotto, or with butter on toast. You can buy them at produce markets around this time of year, but they retail for AUD$40-$60 so I like to collect them myself, fresh and unbruised.

I’ve been taught by a mycologist to recognise them, so if you’re thinking of going mushroom-hunting, I suggest you do the same. The wrong mushroom can liquefy your liver within 48 hours, and there’s no easy way to tell if a species is poisonous just by looking at it or smelling it.

Here’s today’s poem!

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A tale of two teachers

I’m studying a Masters of Teaching this year. At the moment, I’m on placement, so I’ve been reflecting a lot on what I’ve been reading, teachers I’ve had in the past, and what kind of person I want to be when I’m qualified for this day job. (Don’t worry; I’m still writing.)

I was opining to someone the other day that there are basically four teachers you can be, and every one of them is a Hogwarts professor.

You can be the Snape – the classroom tyrant, who makes kids feel sick just thinking about your class. The Snape is never impressed. His classes may even be traumatic. He doesn’t have favourite students, only favourite targets. He seems to have chosen teaching solely because of the opportunities it offers him to bully children. Discipline is harsh and constant.

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If wizard education reform wasn’t a hundred years behind the rest of the world, Molly and Arthur would be seeing this greasy bastard in court.

You can be the Sprout (or the Lupin) – the maternal or avuncular enthusiast, who teaches because the subject is their life’s passion. The Sprout and the Lupin make lessons fun, so they never have problems with classroom management. Discipline from the Sprout or Lupin is only meted out in the most extreme (read: life-threatening) cases, but comes in the form of a soft, solemn talk that will leave a kid truly repentant and reeling all week. (The Hagrid is essentially the Sprout without a lesson plan.)

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You’ll never love her subject quite as much as she does, but she’s damn well going to try.

You can be the Trelawney – the utter pushover, whose class is a complete bludge. The Trelawney’s class is, at best, a chance to socialise and have fun; on average, a basic waste of time; and at worst, un-teaches you things that are actually valuable. Discipline is non-existent. Every Trelawney thinks she is a Sprout.

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A typical Trelawney’s classroom.

Finally, there’s the McGonagall – the stern but fair leader. The McGonagall seems utterly terrifying the first time students meet her, but over time reveals a wise and kind interior. The McGonagall helps every student achieve their full potential, but she does not muck around. Her classes are for learning, not for fun. Discipline is even-handed, swift and always deserved.

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You know she would have taught you four times more than any other teacher.

I would like to be the Sprout. I hope I am the Sprout. Maybe one day I can be the McGonagall, but right now I’m a bit too young and bouncy (not to say inexperienced) to carry it off. A kid called me the ‘living embodiment of enthusiasm’ last week, which ought to give you some idea of what I’m like.

Today’s poems are about my childhood experiences with a Snape and a McGonagall. The forms of poetry chosen are intended to reflect how it felt to be in their classrooms, with one adhering closely to a strict rhyme scheme and rhythm, and the other in free verse. As a kid, I was lucky enough to have the sense and the skills to stay on most teachers’ good sides, but now I wonder about what elevating me – sometimes publicly – did to those above whom I was being elevated. Obviously, pseudonyms have been used for everyone except me.

 

2001

Thursday morning with Miss Castle.

Silence when Miss Castle speaks.

Traffic light cards on the window

showing we’ve been good this week.

 

Now it’s time to write our stories

with beginnings, middles, ends.

Grade Twos can’t leave for the toilet.

Grade Twos can’t sit near their friends.

 

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