A Universe of Fiction

As I write this, I’m putting the finishing touches on my June craft workshop. This year, I’m teaching mystery, which I have taught before.

My students aren’t run-of-the-mill beginning writers. I teach craft to professionals who want to change genres or learn a new genre or refine their techniques in the genre.

Whenever I teach, I make the students read at least eight works before they come to class. That way, we have common reference points, and I’m not  using movies to illustrate story-telling techniques. I’m using the novels and short stories which we have all read.

When I finish teaching this workshop, I will develop the reading list for October’s science fiction craft workshop. I’ve tried to teach sf to professionals before, and it hasn’t gone as well as the mystery or plain old short story classes.

Writing science fiction requires the writer to not only walk and chew gum at the same time, the writer must also juggle a few apples and hip-check everyone she passes. Writing good sf really is a high-wire act.

And “good” sf changes from decade to decade, year to year. With the mystery class, I assign breakout novels from various generations, and show how tropes can be renewed. Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, for example, takes Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and asks, “What would she be like if she were an older lady from a traditional African culture?” The similarities between the tropes are amazing, but the stories feel very different due to the setting. Plus, Christie is still accessible, even if her attitudes toward life are archaic at best.  The same with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, the fathers of the American mystery.

It’s tougher to do this with science fiction. Not only are the science concepts outdated or just plain wrong in eighty-year-old sf, but the attitudes toward women and minorities are so egregious as to make the books almost impossible to read. Some classics still survive, but most of them are like Citizen Kane. The movie feels unoriginal if you watch it now, because every movie after it featured the same ground-breaking camera techniques, the same storytelling arcs.

Classic sf has influenced the genre so profoundly that modern authors are reusing the techniques whether they want to or not.

I’m prepping for the mystery class, but thinking about science fiction. Read old sf? New sf? Year’s best anthologies? If so, which ones? Do I cover all the subgenres? Do I declare alternate history to be science fiction on its face or do I use Sheila Williams’ definition? She insists on alternate science history for Asimov’s Science Fiction, and I think she might be onto something for that.

What about space opera and starships that go “whoosh!” as they travel through space? What about paranormal romance? What about that mushy area between science fiction and fantasy, not just the area held by time travel and alternate history, but the one that might be soft science fiction or hard fantasy. You know, like Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy series. The one where magic became the way of the land, instead of science. You know, the series that got its start in that hardest of science fiction venues, Analog.

I felt this way when I planned the first mystery workshop. The topic is so vast, the possible reading material so overwhelming, that I can’t cover it all in a one-week course. The course also includes writing stories and writing proposals in each subgenre, just to make sure the writers get what we’re learning. There are only so many hours in the day, and for some obscure reason, I plan to sleep for a few of them. (So, I’m sure, do the students.)

Sometimes I think subgenres are less important in sf than they are in mystery. Cozy readers don’t read noir. But space opera readers will read hard sf. Hard sf readers will read futuristic romance (if they can do so on an e-reader). Sometimes I think sf readers are sf readers are sf readers.

So I toy with making the poor students read history tomes and travel guides, and then have them mix up everything into an sf stew. And sometimes I think they shouldn’t read at all (and then I discard that idea. Dean and I have inspired a lot of male students to become professional romance writers [forty novels sold and counting] just by forcing the poor souls to read romance novels. The guys decide they like the books and want to write one, and they do very, very well.)

So I’m planning to teach mystery and I’m thinking about sf. Typical me, combining genres.

I’ll have a list in a week or so, and then I’ll revise the list, and then I’ll revise it again, and finally, I’ll have to post it. I’ll be dissatisfied with it partly because it’s not long enough. The students will hate it because the list will seem too long. And it’ll all work out just fine.

I hope.

Teaching a class is like writing a novella. It takes a bit of organization, and you need to know what direction you want to go in. But the students, like characters, make the class their own, and they’ll nudge it into the places they want it to go.

I’ll let them nudge, because that’s where I learn. In those questions I don’t have a rote answer to, those questions whose answers I might not even know.

The first question is, of course, what should I teach? Followed by, how can I teach it? Followed by, what do the students need to know about science fiction? (With the added question, am I the person to teach that—the question quickly discarded, because my name is on the class as instructor.)

Eventually, once I answer the preliminary questions, I can figure out what we all need to read. Because I do the reading too. Sometimes the books are new to me (The Alexander McCall Smith was, when I used it in class) and sometimes they’re old favorites. And  yeah, I make the students read something of mine. Not because I’m egotistical, but because you’d be surprised how many writers take classes from writers whose work they’ve never read.

Why would you take a craft workshop from someone who might not write to your taste? So I force them to read something of mine, and if they don’t like it, then they should truly take everything I say with a gigantic grain of salt. (They should always take what I say with a grain of salt anyway.)

So, you catch me in a world between workshops this evening, with a universe of fiction at my feet. Eventually, I’ll pluck the right stories from that universe for the October class. But at the moment, the possibilities are vast and nearly endless—rather like science fiction itself.

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