There are mermaids

In March 2011, I attended a three day workshop in Madison, WI (“The Fire in Fiction”) with superagent Donald Maass and bestselling author Nalo Hopkinson.

I first heard Mr. Maass speak at the Surrey Writers Convention in 2007. It was an hour-long workshop entitled “Three Types of Tension”; my first introduction to the phrase “tension on every page”, and to the colossal difference between (a) polishing the prose that already exists on the page, and (b) putting better, more awesome prose on that page; the kind of prose that fundamentally changes the power of your story. It was a giant eye-opener for me and the other members of my writing group (we attended Surrey together in a small herd). Seriously, you could see the light bulbs going on in our heads as we “got it”.

You can imagine how stoked I was when I found out about this March’s workshop (and the fact that it was being held in the Midwest, in roughly my neck o’ the woods). Writer buddy Enjae and I reserved our spots something like a year in advance… then waited in anticipation.

And the wait was definitely worth it. This was three days, 8 hours a day, of quality time. It was a really packed program. The first two days were the Fire in Fiction workshop, taught by Donald Maass. Here are some of the things we worked on.

  • Protagonists. The three types of protagonists (regular joes, heroes, & dark/supernatural types). What is a “standout” character, and how do you turn your protagonist into one?
  • Antagonists. We often think of antagonists as the “bad guy”, but an antagonist could also be the love interest in a romance. How do you avoid the trap of the “muahaha-type” villain, and make an awesome antagonist?
  • Voice; how we experience the character, through POV. How do you bring out the character’s voice?
  • Worldbuilding. Not the usual “go through and answer this list of 100 questions” type of worldbuilding–but how to get emotions into the description, through the eyes of your character.
  • Turning points in scenes. How to make the character’s emotional journey stronger. Emotions & dialogue in scenes. How to go beyond stating the obvious. How to give “punch” to your big climax scene.
  • Microtension. How to create tension on every page, scene by scene and line by line, via dialogue, action & exposition. How to keep your reader turning the pages.
  • Theme. Not just the story’s premise or something to be tacked on later, but an expression of what matters most to you.

We did a lot of exercises. We asked a lot of questions. Not the usual character-sheet questions. Donald Maass type questions. The kind that are provocative, striking, even weird. The kind that will cause you to look at your character & story sideways, upside-down, backwards & inside-out. This was advanced stuff (to me, anyway), but not completely unfamiliar, and not too advanced for my writing brain to handle. Not at all. It made me realize that in fact, I have come a long way as a writer since 2007. Back then, I was not ready for all these concepts, not by a long shot. Just “tension on every page” was enough to blow my mind. I could have tried to pour more stuff in there, but it would have just rolled off. Maybe in another year or two I’m going to look back at 2011 with the same thought–well, not the *same* thought. I’ll never be that much of a newb again =D

So, the third day was the Master Class in Science Fiction/Fantasy, taught by Mr. Maass and Nalo Hopkinson. In preparation for this class, we had all read Ms. Hopkinson’s The New Moon’s Arms, a spec fic book which not only appealed to genre readers, but was able to cross over to mainstream appeal. In other words, “out of category” fiction. Why would you want to do this? Simple; you want more people to read your books, right?

We dissected every aspect of the story, with the following questions in mind: How do you take a story that contains speculative elements, and make it interesting and accessible to readers outside the genre, not just genre fans? How do you make your story powerful and universal? Ms. Hopkinson took us through her creative process, from the first inkling of the story idea, the first draft, & beyond. We worked on a technique that she called “sensory mapping, or the ritual possession of your reader”; a way to let the reader live inside not just the character’s head, but also their body.

This was when I came up with a great light-bulb moment:

My character has an “extra” sense that most people don’t possess. The problem is that the way I’m telling the story, I’m assuming that he knows what it feels like *not* to have this sense. And then I’m explaining to the reader what the difference is. But really, my character’s way of perceiving the world is the only way he has ever known. To him, this sense is not “extra”, and therefore he can’t explain how “differently” he “sees” things.

This ties in to another important point discussed by Maass & Hopkinson: Science fiction/fantasy/genre writers love to create systems and explain them. And generally speaking, genre readers tend to like the explanation, while mainstream readers don’t care that much about the explanation. They want the human element, the emotions, the universality of the characters & story. Well, actually everybody wants that. A spec fic story that wants to broaden its appeal to non-genre fans, does not need to go into detailed explanations of its fantastic elements. It doesn’t mean that the writer doesn’t still need to know the system and do all their research. For example, for The New Moon’s Arms, Ms. Hopkinson researched the possible scientific basis for mermaids, things such as what physiological differences an aquatic humanoid would have compared to us land-dwellers. But in the story, it’s not all explained in detail. Sure, there are hints, but when it comes down to it… we accept that there are mermaids, and the focus of the story is much more on the (non-mermaid) main character’s emotional journey. The human element.

Which led me to a corollary light-bulb. My character actually *is* a mermaid. OK–not really. He’s a genetically engineered person with extrasensory abilities. I spend a lot of time explaining his strange origin & upbringing, and all the things he can do that normal people can’t, and how in many ways this makes him *not* a real human being. But really, I think every human, at some time or another, in some way, has felt alienated and isolated from the entire human race. I want to make the story more about that.

Anyway, the workshop came to a close all too soon. I had never been to something like this, where you literally work on writing all damn day, and did not anticipate how mentally exhausting it turned out to be. A whole weekend of light bulb moments and pushing our craft relentlessly to the next level! It actually kind of broke my brain… but in a good way.