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Writing Conference - Being Weird on Purpose - Writing Speculative Fiction

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Being Weird on Purpose - Writing Speculative Fiction, as presented by Candas Jane Dorsey.

This was my favourite panel of the conference. She talked about speculative fiction - What it is, and some tips on how to do it well. Her talk was quite dense and I know I missed writing down a lot, but here are the key points.

  • All fiction is speculative. Even if it takes place in this reality, it is never 100% accurate. Towns are made up, dialogue is constructed. Inner thoughts and feelings or real people are speculated on.
  • Humans love allegories. We generalize from experience until we see meaning in patterns. Speculative fiction offers patterns. Allegories can bypass human defenses and biases
  • Realistic fiction is actually quite new, and was not the default historically.
  • The term 'speculative fiction' first was used to be more inclusive of other languages and cultures that use a variety of terms to describe the same sort of thing
  • There are many lists of things not to do, but all the 'don't do this' rules can be broken by a clever writer - you can break the rule if you do it WELL

Spec fic vs literary - In speculative fiction the journeys the characters understand (physically, mentally, emotionally, etc) are often longer, and they tend to have outcomes. A literary story may cut short or not be fully resolved. A quote from someone I missed - "Fantasy is a self-coherent narrative', meaning that it doesn't subvert the elements of a story, it moves in a predictable way (of course there are examples of more experimental stories, but generally speaking).

'Delaney's Levels of Subjunctivity'

Subjunctivity - The relationship between something proposed or portrayed (especially in science fiction) and reality; degree of realism or probability.

She talks about Delaney's three levels of Subjunctivity as a way of figuring out if something is speculative fiction or not.

1. Reportage level - This writing described things that did happen, factual events. This covers things like memoirs, newspapers, news reports (barring fake news of course)

2. Realistic Fiction - Things that 'could have happened'. The didn't, but they don't violate the rules of our reality. So this is things like from modern mainstream literary fiction to romance, high literature, pulp fiction, coming of age stories adventures. They may have made up towns or people, but the rules of the world and the setting are largely the same as our own.

3. 'Could NOT have happened' level - Elves do not exist, dragons do not fly. No matter how realistic the setting (urban fantasy for example), it is impossible for this story to have happened. As soon as a fantastic element is included, it infects the story with this level of subjunctivity. Think LOTR, Harry Potter, ghost stories, paranormal romance, magical realism, surrealism, horror, fantasy, etc. Sci fi fits into a strange place with several levels of subjunctivity. It sits at 'could not have happened' based on reality right now, but extrapolating trends could push it into 'has not happened', or even 'has not happened YET'.

Spec fic, and especially fantasy, has internal rules. You have to change the rules of your world so the cool thing you want to happen falls into the 'could have happened' level. If it falls into the 'could not have happened' then your world is either poorly explained, or you have a plot hole. Our worldbuilding when we first start out, often is like fanfiction of our own world, its incomplete, not fully realized. You get the DnD style of characterization, Bob has 12 strength points. But WHY is Bob strong, what made him that way? Your worldbuilding too will have consequences, your characters shouldn't trip over cool ideas and mess up the plot.

 

She talks a lot about the work of Samuel Delaney, who has several books and essays that Dorsey uses to teach this subject.

  • With spec fic you can say things that are metaphorical in the real world, but are interpreted literally in fiction. Consider "She gave her heart up willingly"
  • The background is equally as important as the foreground with spec fic - ie, the worldbuilding that is needed to explain how this world works.
  • "The door dilated" is the sentence she gave as an example. That one word, dilated, tells us so much about the setting. Doors are different here, perhaps designed to accommodate a different shaped being. Humans don't need round doors after all. What can we infer about the world from that one word?
  • "The red sun was high" - This tells us that maybe there is dust in the air, or a sunset. But that's not the whole sentence. Heinlein wrote, "The rest sun was high, the blue low." - This tells us a lot more, there's two suns, so its not earth. This world might have different gravity, plants, ways of life. Even the shadows would be different. So much worldbuilding with just a couple words. It is unnecessary then to explain that 'Bob lives in a binary star system'
  • Your own language is such an important tool in spec fic, you can use it in a very short way to create a whole world. Another example "The city floated over the plain this week." - The addition of 'this week' tells us that not only does the city float, but it is mobile and doesn't stay in one place.
  • Spec fic readers love the detective work of piecing together the details. This is another reason why info dumps are bad. It removes the mystery and feels so clunky.

Exercises:

1. In your WIP, find a lump of exposition/info dumping, and see if you can find one adjective, one verb, and one noun (at least one of each) to tell this information in a descriptive sentence instead. Are there are ways to use the senses to make it all snap into place?

2. For the people of the world of fairy, or Mordor, the things we see in the books are normal. They don't require extra information and backstory. For them, magic (as an example) is normal. From your WIP, find a secondary or background character and write a short scene in which they go about their day. All the extraordinary things of your setting are normal for them. Show them being comfortable in your world.

3. Interview your characters, ask them 'Where is the voice coming from" - Why do they say what they say, do what they do, what shaped them? They shouldn't be there to dress the set, no Red Shirts or Spear Carriers.

4. Interview your 'really cool idea' too (your worldbuilding premise, the 'what if' question you are asking). To make this idea work, what needs to be different from our world to this one? Pin down what research you need to do. What are the long term effects of the idea? What plot elements have to happen to cause the idea, and what are the consequences of those plot elements.

5. Put two characters in a fairly commonplace setting, and put them through the 3 levels of subjunctivity in short scenes, or even a few sentences. What happens, what needs to change? How do the characters change in response to changes in the setting?

Example - "A kid is sitting under a tree reading a book."
Example - Meeting to talk about writing here and now in this room is very different compared to meeting to talk in Cambodia in 1076 when the Khmer Rouge were executing all artists and thinkers. Changing the setting changes the danger the characters are in, the tension, the choices they've made to even BE in that place.

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