Campbell and Crawford award winner; novelist [Walkabout Woman, Vanishing Point, The Stars Dispose, The Stars Compel]; instructor at Gotham Writers Workshop and Western State Colorado University.
I’m a huge advocate of teaching across the genres. And I believe that none of us should disrespect any of the other genres or subgenres; we all have important lessons to learn from all of them. Especially when I’m teaching non-speculative fiction writing students, the benefits that I present to them that we Spec. Fic’ers bring to the table are: #1 – Worldbuilding/Using Setting to Multitask; #2 – We’re a literature of ideas, so we have that plus all the other narrative elements to play with; #3 – Related, that allows us to go more wild and crazy than the other subgenres – we can take more chances; #4 – Because we don’t share the same kinds of standards and benchmarks as the other subgenres we have to borrow from them (so we have SF mysteries, fantasy romances, slipstream thrillers) – we’re pretty much perfect Borrowers and Thieves already!
Author of The Blues Ain’t Nothin’; editor of The Book of Dead Things, Spooks!; originator and guiding spirit of the late, lamented Twilight Tales reading series in Chicago; currently host of the Gumbo Fiction Salon reading series; instructor of the Fantasy Writing Workshop at Columbia College Chicago.
Some students know very little about fantasy beyond Harry Potter, Twilight, and Worlds of Warcraft. It is my job to introduce them to the basic fantasy tropes; various sub-genres and story forms; and general foundations and expectations in the field, while simultaneously steering them away from the clichés and overused paths. I require them to write, revise, polish, and submit at least one story after we’ve done our market research unit. I stress that originality is a key component to making a sale early in their careers. With the publishing goal in mind, I strongly discourage them from writing about vampires and zombies, or anything set in a medieval castle. I stress that yes, stories like these are still being written and published, but they aren’t likely to jump a new writer out of the slush pile.
In the beginning of the semester, I have the class write a shared fantasy encyclopedia, choosing topics from lists I’ve compiled for the unit that week. First they do monsters or unusual creatures—there are no unicorns or European dragons among the choices. Next they do gods, but again the list includes cultures and mythologies seldom tapped, or the lesser-known gods from the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Norse pantheons. Other units vary depending on whim and class interests, but they often include Historical People, Magical Items, and Divination Techniques, among others.
I have them brainstorm potential story ideas based on each of their encyclopedia topics, with an emphasis on figuring out the fundamental rules of their fantasy element, then deciding how to use those rules and quirks in plotting a story. Hopefully, among the many story ideas they have to rough out as they practice integrating the fantasy element throughout the plot, they’ll hit on an idea they want to flesh out into a full story. That will then go through multiple rewrites, revisions, and finally, submission to a pro or semi-pro fantasy market.
Amy Sterling Casil
Science fiction writer (Imago and countless short fiction); author of more than 20 non-fiction books, MFA in Creative Writing, Chapman University, 1999; English and creative writing teacher at several schools including Chapman University and Saddleback College; former SFWA treasurer; nonprofit executive for the Beyond Shelter charitable organization in Los Angeles.
It’s been a long time since I’ve specifically taught SF writing. But it has to begin first with the idea.
Everything else comes next. That is the biggest difference between SF and any other genre. Also, first, second, and third thoughts have to be considered and discarded. It’s a virtual guarantee that someone’s first, second, and third thoughts—especially if they haven’t read a lot—will be someone else’s ideas, often ideas readers are familiar with.