Write Your Own Science Fiction Story
By Tish Farrell
Compass Point Books, 2006
Write Your Own Fantasy Story
By Tish Farrell
Compass Point Books, 2006
If you finished the sentence above with "the 1930s and 1940s," give yourself credit for knowing the history of the genre. If you finished it with "twelve," give yourself even more credit for knowing one of the genre's proverbial lines (and if you know that SF fan Peter Graham is credited with coining the line, you get bonus points). And if you have someone in your life who is twelve, or a bit younger, you might be interested in these two new books.
But first, a confusion. I picked up these two tiny books, Write Your Own Science Fiction Story and Write Your Own Fantasy Story, from the library with the full intension of mocking them. These slender (64 pages each) hard covers look like everything that librarians and middle school teachers love—clear titles, a series, things that blend entertainment with education, etc.—and everything that fans familiar with genre fiction might hate. The front cover of the book on writing science fiction shows an alien face (very close to that of a classic Grey, with oversized eyes and a pointed chin) in the foreground, while lightning strikes a flying saucer in the skies behind it. The back cover's got an alien and a robotic hand, both sort of hovering in mid-air. The fantasy book shows winged spirit creatures rising out of the sea to spiral around a rock tower (similar to the spirit spiral in the 1935 film of A Midsummer's Night Dream with Mickey Rooney). On its back cover one finds a winged dragon creature (suspiciously D&D-ish), and the band of heroes from The Wizard of Oz. Oh great, I thought. We've got books on how to write science fiction and fantasy stories that are essentially a mishmash of all the genres and all the media.
Guilty. Young readers do indeed get that, as well as what's essentially a template on how to write stories (as you might expect by the fact that Compass Point has put out six books with similar titles, including Write Your Own Adventure Story and Write Your Own Historical Fiction). But you know what? These books aren't half bad. In fact, the instruction they give on writing is better than a lot of the instruction I got in college. Therefore, I'd like to apologize for my skepticism and discuss what they have to say about writing and genre fiction.
To begin, yes, they draw on films, cartoons, comic books, and television extensively, as well as some other odds and ends (such as ads, and graphics that are openly computer generated). However, the book on science fiction also includes pictures of rocket launches, people peering into microscopes, representations of DNA molecules, and so on, while the guide to writing fantasy includes samples of old maps, pictures of ancient sculptures of mythical beasts, and images of geographical oddities such as volcanoes. Both books include many pictures of writers. In both cases, those portrayed are in part authors who defined the fields (L. Frank Baum), people who are defining it now, especially those who write for both young adult readers and adults (Le Guin, Pullman, Pratchett), and those who write specifically for young adults. These authors, such as Kate DiCamillo, may be unfamiliar to adults—but clustering them like this provides each readership a window into what the other is reading, and sketches into place a kind of Midgard Bridge between the two realms. When you include the quotations and summaries of work habits from even more authors in both realms, the result is a pair of books that gives the impression that kids can read anything and enjoy everything. In a time when so few are reading, that's not a bad thing.
Rowling is cited, of course, and you can find more than one photo from the Harry Potter film series—but she's not given any more emphasis than Barrie, Tolkien, or Baum, and not much more than Pullman. Many books are sampled along the way in both guides, and a longer reading list is found at the back of each book. While an adult might find the contents busy—at least one graphic per page, and at times as many as five, along with changing colors and fonts—I suspect younger readers will find it homey, sort of like reading a fine bound web page.
But what sort of genre fiction are such readers guided to write, and what kind of writing instruction in general are they given? Starting with the latter point first, the instruction is surprisingly good. The opening pages provide flowcharts and general tips, and accent forming the habit of writing and learning skills, over, say, inspiration. Both books assume that everyone can generate ideas—and both clearly communicate that writing is work. They also include publication as a final step in the production flow chart. Writers who read these books won't assume some act of isolated creativity, but instead will plan to share their work with others, and assume that they should. Tips are given on brainstorming, on learning the genres, on studying major genre themes—would-be science fiction writers are guided to read Verne, Wells, Le Guin, and Card, among others, while aspiring fantasy writers are guided to Tolkien, Lewis, Roald Dahl, Hans Christian Andersen, and mythology in general—and then on through style, building tension, story openings, characterization, plotting, dialogue...and revision.
Some of the advice is clunky, or too basic even for younger authors—the section on names is a good example. The advice on coming up with names is both silly (R2D2 has a poetic ring to it?) and overly simple; it won't produce the sort of focused names that show up as examples in the suggested authors. However, much of it is either standard fare delivered in a confident, compressed fashion, or surprisingly good. For example, both books include brief "Case Study" examples. These include summarizing how Greg Bear's Dinosaur Summer builds on Doyle's Lost World, telling how Robert J. Sawyer mined stories he'd written during high school for ideas found in his first novel, and how Eoin Colfer found time to work on Artemis Fowl. In short, the writing instruction is business-like and inspiring. It grabs for the magic of Tolkien and Wells while pointing readers to many hours of reading and writing.
As for the nature of the genres being written, that's a little more complicated. If I had to judge fantasy and science fiction based on these two books, I would make the following observations:
1) The genres are ahistorical. Examples from 150 years ago are plunked on the page next to those from last year. Other examples would guide readers to use older works as models or starting points, as Bear did with Doyle, but otherwise, it's all a great jumble. Now, readers may experience it that way, but there's no sense of history or progress.
2) Attitudes towards race and gender are decidedly mixed. This is directly related to the first point. The illustrations could come from a college brochure or a Benetton ad. All skin tones are represented, and all live in harmony. Girls are as likely to be shown writing as boys. However, because the genres are presented without history, all attitudes just sort of appear there. Peter Pan's comments on girls, Tolkien's relative lack of strong female characters, and Lewis' treatment of the inhabitants of Calorman are all going to be rude shocks to those guided by these books. In that, the books are a touch cowardly.
3) However, the genres are not afraid of the dark. Pullman is given room to speak, and his glorious Dark Materials trilogy is given ample attention. In one of the writing exercises in the science fiction book, readers are guided to imagine they are the only androids in a family of humans. (Start that Phillip K. Dick-style alienation young, that's what I always say.)
4) The New Wave did not happen, and feminism in general wasn't needed or should be subordinated to other themes. While girls abound in the illustrations, and adult women are featured prominently as writers, apparently they got there by, well, magic. There's no mention of a need to remake the genres, and all of the writers who made their name there sort of drop out of the examples. There's no Moorcock, no Ballard, no Delany, no Ellison, etc., and no Russ, Charnas, etc.
5) Hard SF? What's that? I know, I know, you can't really expect middle-school students to be working out the implications of cutting-edge science, but there are a lot of hard SF writers who would be very accessible for this age—Hal Clement comes to mind, as does Larry Niven—writers who tell straightforward stories about mind-blowing concepts. They aren't mentioned. Readers are nudged towards popular science periodicals, but that's about as close as the books get to guiding them to hard SF. (Greg Bear is as close as these books get, and they don't mention his works that accent science more.)
6) Space is a given—and not that exciting. By that I mean, Farrell's guide to science fiction assumes space travel, invasion from other planets, etc. It's a given. It will happen. However, none of the tips guide readers to imagine space itself, to focus on the transport, to explore exploration. This is science fiction for television and video games, not science fiction for the visionary.
7) Magic is a given—and doesn't need to be thought about. The best fantasy books make magic seem, well, magical. They root it in something essential, and these authors make it resonant with emotional and even spiritual meaning. These books focus on interesting outcomes and sudden events that happen without reflection. Even adolescents can reflect on the meaning of power; these books guide them to the shallow end of the spell.
8) SF and fantasy both work off older stories and known themes. The book on writing fantasy makes this point explicitly about fantasy in general, guiding readers to mine older myth systems for story ideas for fantasy; the science fiction book mentions Bear's riff on Doyle, and suggests that writers might do the same. However, what's really more damning is the sense that both genres are sort of closed and known; they are treated as mapped territory. I could see this happening in the guide to historical fiction, but science fiction is particularly known for dealing with the new. This point is, of course, linked to the tendency to de-emphasize both hard SF and the New Wave; the first seeks inspiration for new works in science itself; the second sought it in language and cultural change.
9) Genre fiction is celebrity driven. While this point is true to a fair degree—think of the treatment fans give dream master Neil Gaiman or the pilgrimages paid to Tolkien—these books make it seem even more so. Highlighting the big name authors, especially over the publishing context, plays into the celebrity and bestseller cultures. Admittedly, it also gives student writers glimpses into the work habits of their idols, but at considerable price.
10) Genre fiction moves among media. I mentioned this as a potential negative, but in the end, it comes around to being a neutral observation, or even a positive. When it comes down to it, drawing the line between comic books, or championing, say, the written Wizard of Oz over the film seems a waste of time. Clearly, inspiration flows among these media. What's more, the books borrow techniques such as storyboarding from film to teach story, a useful trick.
I'll pause there for now, but clearly, there's a lot to think about in these 128 pages. These two books aren't perfect, but they may give a more accurate perspective on the genre than many more sophisticated guidebooks, and I for one wish I'd had them when I was in junior high school. And hey, I may even see what happens when I follow their advice now.