Workshop: Philosophical SF

So, this past Thursday and Friday disappeared into the blur of a workshop about philosophical SF. People from the Philosophy Department at St L University put on this workshop, aimed at getting better at writing fiction because fiction is a great vehicle for exploring ideas and (obviously) SFF is a particularly great vehicle in that regard.

So this was a great workshop for the presenters, and I sure hope it was a great workshop for the attendees. I drove up Thursday morning, dropped by Sharon Shinn’s house to pick her up, and then we went to the SLU campus, did the workshop stuff (more about that in a second), drove back to her place, and I spent the night there, which was great. I’d told her I meant to get a hotel room so I could put time into working on Tasmakat rather than driving, and she assured me she had practically a whole extra little apartment built into her house, and while a hotel would have been a lot more boring (and therefore conducive to getting work done) it was far, far nicer to stay with Sharon. I did get some work done too. I’m in a boring transition chapter, part or most of which will probably disappear from the final draft, but since I woke up before four on Friday, I got most of that chapter written right then, so that was much more productive than driving back and forth. Though I have to add, 100% of spaniels surveyed were extremely glad to see me Friday night.

But back to the workshop! Other attendees were Ann Leckie, who turns out to be a very nice person who fortunately agrees with Sharon and me about practically everything crucial (almost all advice about writing is crap, there is no One True Process, literary fiction is a genre, all the truly important stuff). Also, it turns out we went to the same high school, so that was certainly a small-world moment. She was two years ahead of me. We did not intersect and I don’t remember her at all, but she knows classmates who knew me. Did not see that coming. Other attendees, for short fiction, Rich Horton, whom you probably know does a lot of Best Of anthologies, and Ben Kinney, who edits the podcast EscapePod and is therefore also into short fiction.

We did a couple group presentations on publication in general. Obviously I had stuff to say about self-publication; Ann hasn’t done that and Sharon has barely dabbled, so that was something I could contribute. I hope it was clear that (a) I’m still just learning how to do this effectively, but (b) you can start seeing good results from self-publishing long before you figure everything out, though (c) it helps to have a lot of stuff you can bring out in a hurry. Also that (d) having total control over what you write is most emphatically excellent.

Ann did a short presentation on handling suspense, focused on not trying to hide stuff from the reader. Take-home message: think of what you’re doing as revealing information in a controlled way, rather than as concealing information even temporarily. Framing it that way changes how you handle suspense and revelation and this is likely to work better. My take: I never thought of it that way, but this is an excellent way of thinking about exposition, foreshadowing, and plot twists. This also goes along with this recent post about deception, and I think I’d say that thinking about both deception and revelation is good, but framing this problem as revelation is a great idea. That puts the emphasis on foreshadowing foreshadowing foreshadowing, I bet you think you know what’s going to happen next, and boom, here’s the plot twist, which the reader can NOW see coming, but only in retrospect.

I did a short presentation on Big Idea SFF, and what I tried to emphasize – I hope this was helpful – was how many SFF books explore the same big idea and therefore if that’s an idea you’re interested in, read a bunch of ’em and see what they’ve already done. So books that handle “what is identity” and also “created and disposable people” include eg Cyteen by CJC and Kiln People by David Brin, among others. If you’ve already read Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, then another novel that handles the same central idea but in a completely different way is Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill. And so on.

And of course the short fiction guys plus Ann Leckie did a short fiction presentation, and all I’ll say is that there are some great online tools these days for figuring out where to submit short fiction. I’m not at all likely ever to be personally interested in those tools, but if you are, one called the Submission Grinder sounds like it would be super, super helpful. This is apparently searchable, so you can enter “3000 words science fiction minimum pay” and it spits out possible places to submit your story.

The heart of any workshop is probably critiques of submitted stories, so I’d like to just say briefly that most of the attendees were not rank beginners and that everybody, as far as I can tell, already knew how to put sentences together. Sharon did three fast writing prompts – look at these objects, pick one, write the opening sentence(s) of a story based on that object. That kind of thing. Almost all the attendees were willing to share their sentences and I was genuinely blown away by a lot, and I mean a lot, of the sentences they wrote. I had four stories to critique, and while all of them were good in some ways, two were EXCELLENT IN MANY WAYS. I’m not, obviously, a short story person. My judgment regarding whether a story is ready for publication is probably not as reliable as the judgment of the short story people, such as Rich and Ben and Ann. But before the workshop, Sharon and I were talking about the stories and saying probably none of them are publishable as they stand; this one doesn’t have an actual protagonist and I’m not sure I’d say it has a plot either and so on. Then I read my last story and I was like, ON THE OTHER HAND. It had a great first-person voice AND a clear plot AND foreshadowing that I totally missed, but that did a fantastic job setting up the reveal. AND the author also did a great job setting up the reader to think the protagonist is a great guy, maybe not a perfect guy, but certainly a sympathetic character. Then it gradually dawns on the reader that wow, you know, maybe not? And by the end, the reader is quite clear that, uh, no, this guy is not a white knight. A very effective, well-written story.

I don’t want to sound dismissive of the other stories I read. I liked them all in some ways. In fact, there was another one I absolutely loved because of the astoundingly madcap style. That guy just could not put an ineffective sentence on the page. Plus fantastic use of both italics and capitalized words. Sure, there was no actual protagonist, and yes, some plot elements seemed to come out of nowhere, and I have to admit that while the close setting was hilariously well drawn, the wider world was utterly shrouded in mist. And I wouldn’t call that exactly a happy ending. Or even an ending at all, come to think of it. AND YET. THE STYLE. It was like Wodehouse crossed with Alice in Wonderland, only I’m not sure that’s giving you the right impression. I don’t know what the heck that style reminds me of.

I didn’t read all the stories prior to the workshop, though they were available. Having met the attendees, I may go see if the shared drive is still up and read the rest. But I will add, the person who put the workshop together also has an editor interested in perhaps putting together an anthology of philosophical SFF stories, and I asked her to be sure to let me know if and when that comes out, because I would absolutely buy a copy – especially if those two attendees had a story in it. Should it all work out, I’ll give you all a pointer to it as well.

One final note: If you’re organizing a workshop, you know who you should get to cater the lunch? The nearest Indian restaurant, that’s who. I have NEVER attended anything where the catered lunch was anything other than a not-very-great sandwich and a plastic-wrapped cookie and a bag of chips. Having the Indian restaurant cater the lunch was a fantastic idea and major kudos to whomever thought of it. Also the best possible way to get excellent vegetarian options, as nobody does vegetarian food as well as Indian cuisine.

So that was my Thursday and Friday. I was really bushed when I got home Friday, and have I mentioned that the spaniels were happy to see me? They were happy to see me. I sent Boy Four off to his new home on Sunday, by the way, and yes, my home feels astoundingly empty considering I have six adult dogs. But puppies take up more than their share of the space/time continuum, of course.

Now back to Tasmakat. We have arrived in Gaur, finally, so at LAST we have met Aras’ family. This puts us squarely in the middle of the book, I think. I’m at 130,000 words, so that is just about what I expected. It’s great that some of you are hoping for a long book, in the general neighborhood of 900 pages, because you are virtually certain to get your wish.

Oh, also, unrelated note! Sharon Shinn has a new book coming out this fall and would like cover blurbs, so I may pause reading any more of the Hugo nominees till after I’ve read that. But I have to say, Catfishing on Catnet is tremendous fun. Yes, I know that’s not the one that’s a nominee this year, but I’m not starting with Book 2, thus Catfishing. I’ll probably post comments about that one shortly.

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12 thoughts on “Workshop: Philosophical SF”

  1. While I’d agree personally re the catering, I also remember when my cousins had the gathering the evening before their son’s bar mitzvah catered with Indian food.[1] From the reaction of much of the family, they might as well have served gravel and battery acid. (We made sure to tell them that we appreciated it, at least. )

    There are evidently more people than you’d expect who still find Indian cuisine exotic and offputting.

    [1]The family is on the liberal end of Jewish observance, so whether it was strictly kosher wasn’t a primary consideration.

  2. Mike, my basic reaction is ?????

    But it’s true I think Indian is objectively the best cuisine on the planet and also I personally own at least eight Indian cookbooks. So maybe my reaction is not entirely typical.

  3. I’ve been to an Indian restaurant once, and though they did their best to make me something I could eat, with my food allergies and intolerances (IBS) it was very hard, as most of their cuisine contains stuff I can’t eat. No milk, garlic, onions, pulses, cabbages (except broccoli, cabbage or sauerkraut), no sharp peppers (bell peppers are OK) and no spicy food or MSG, and only very little oil is a list that does not fit well with the cooking style at least at that one restaurant.
    So I can understand some people might have genuine problems with a catered Indian lunch or dinner, if you couldn’t note your things you can’t eat beforehand so they could be taken into account.

    Rachel, could you please remove my comment from the Mr.Death post? I’m glad you had fun at your workshop!

  4. Sure, Hanneke — zapping it now. If I didn’t get the right one, please let me know, but I deleted the one for the Mr. Death post.

    Wow, those are some food allergies!

  5. Hanneke, that sounds rather like my restrictions. the garlic and onions avoidance is a real pain when I want to eat out. I usually go for someplace I can get a slab of meat grilled. I used to love the local Afghan restaurant, and now I can’t eat there.

    On information, the revealing/concealing thereof, the Teen and I have had several conversations about how Hollywood does it differently than animes. She says – having watched far more anime than I – that Hollywood shows us the bomb being planted, then the audience waits for the explosion. What anime does is show the audience something but not enough to tell what is happening, just that there’s something the other side is up to. And clues and more clues (if well done) and eventually a reveal. For her it works a lot better. I tend to agree that it makes for more engagement from my lesser exposure to anime as opposed to the way Hollywood tends to do things. It seems like this ought to apply to narrative in books, too.

  6. OK i’ll bite. What are examples of philosophical SFF? Anthropological is so much more common.

  7. Northern Indian might work for you, Mary. But Hanneke would have a real problem finding anything edible at an Indian restaurant. Potato samosas, maybe. Which are well worth eating, but perhaps not the best full meal.

  8. I can think of exactly one off the top of my head: Martha Wells’ Murderbot. But one story does not make a sub-genre.

  9. Example of philosophical SF: CJC Wave Without A Shore very obviously playing with what if people took this idea of making your own reality if you have a strong enough mind seriously?

  10. Oh, so does Xenocide by OSC. I didn’t think of that aspect of the story.

    The new post is up! Please put Wave Without A Shore there if you get to it, with any comment about the story. I only read it once and don’t remember it well myself.

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