Five Lessons from Speculate 18
Speculate was the inaugural Speculative Fiction Writers festival, held in South Melbourne on a clear, chilly autumn Saturday.
A great assortment of authors, scholars and others from the writing community shared their wisdom and experiences, too much for me to summarise in a review. Instead, I thought I'd share a single takeaway and challenge from each of the sessions:
Session 1 - The Once and Future Fantasy.The opening session of the day spoke about the realm of fantasy, from origins to now.
On the topic of tropes, and Tolkien’s influence on the fantasy genre, the panel discussed how Tolkien’s races were inspired by his desire to create a mythology for England at the time of his writing.
Similarly, superheroes like Spiderman and Captain America were born out of cultural fears of their era, like radiation, and Nazis.
Challenge: If you feel like there are no original characters left, look at what's in the public consciousness now. What defines contemporary times? What are people afraid of? Leverage that.
Session 2 - The Language of Imagination.Hair is 90% of your selfie, proclaimed a salon’s curbside chalkboard that I passed on the way to Speculate. It's also the first thing 90% of writers use to describe their characters, according to the second panel. Alison Arnold argued that the less you show of a character, the more the reader can invest with their own imagination.
Challenge: While there was debate about how much, or little, of a character's demographics and appearance should be described, the request was made to rely less on hair.
Session 3 - Science Fiction: The Past, the Present, and What's to Come.The rapid pace of technological change (in contrast to the slow speed of the traditional publishing process) means speculative fiction at the time of writing might be out of date by the time it's written.
Aurealis co-editor Dirk Strasser listed some 2018 trends in the science fiction genre: Cli-Fi, social-issues space-opera, generation ships, and gender identity.
Before taking this as a challenge to cram all those plots into a single story, consider
Sean McMullen’s monologue about how all future trends had been done before, and even the ideas we think are modern were technically possible decades earlier.
Challenge: Go back to the past - the conflicts, struggles and characters of yesteryear - to find fresh inspiration for the future. Time is cyclical anyway.
Session 4 - Dungeons & Development: Character Under Pressure.The post-lunch session gave me chills, because of the live string section who knew just the right moment of the roleplaying display to fade in with a long note from a violin.
The Dungeons and Dragons scenario was part narrative, part improv, and highlighted the importance of giving characters three dimensions, and the ability to make mistakes.
Challenge: Write characters strong and deep enough to mess up, and then recover. What the author knows is the wrong decision might seem like genius to the character, and stimulate new, unexpected conflict.
Session 5 - Setting: Colouring the Pages.The final session. Four seated authors, illuminated under the warm spotlights of the dark theatre, spoke to setting and its importance.
Setting is non-negotiable, its the world the author delivers to the reader, and without it the tale loses its authenticness.
Alison Goodman spoke about aesthetic cohesion, that the setting should be in service of characters, to bring out the best in them, or test them in the most interesting ways.
Challenge: Identify in your work were setting and character are adjacent, but not touching. For example, instead of “It was cold,” it could be “The freezing air stung her cheeks.” Or, “the blizzard concealed her attackers from view, they circled each other, footsteps in the field disappearing under fresh powder as quick as they were spotted.”
Did I mention that Melbourne was chilly?