This is our monthly Shiny! speculative writing group letter. Our first regular letter! I’ve been thinking about who we are as a group, and what we’re trying to do, and the obstacles that we might need to navigate.
I decided on magpies, because I love magpies.
They are inquisitive, curious, and creative. These are skills we need in this group, as we explore and investigate the complexities of the present in order to imagine more hopeful futures.
And they are forever seeking out the shiny hiding in the gutters and the trash and the deepest, thorniest thicket. We need this skill, too. The little bits of sparkle that we find together in this group will help us build nests for the future. (It is important to note that magpies aren’t actually more drawn to shiny objects more than any other bird – if you are a sparrow or an eagle or robin or a turkey vulture, you, too, are valuable and necessary and you, too, will help build the nests to hold the future.)
And magpies are brilliant and adaptable – recognizing the faces of allies and threats, using tools, adapting to hostile contexts. Magpies are one of the species that have fully adapted to urban living, and that thrive in spaces that have been fundamentally altered by human intrusion. This is another skill – to adapt, to recognize threat and to thrive despite it. (And perhaps to swoop at the heads of a threat, like Australian magpies do!)
So, my lovely magpies, let’s dive into this letter.
You’ll find the craft lesson first, then shared writing from the February session, some recommended reading, the writing prompts for March.
Shiny! is open to writers of all experience and confidence levels, and the reason we are not engaging in craft lessons at our in-person meetings is because, although ‘steering the craft’ (to borrow from Ursula K. Le Guin) is important, first we must be invited in. First, we gather up our words and our threads of story. First, we learn the sound and feel of our own voice. That’s what we’re doing in the in-person writing sessions. Once we have gathered a rich pile of words and stories, then we can figure out what to do with them.
Then we learn how to string those words together in ways that are most effective, and how to use our voice in ways that are most accessible to our audience. That’s what we’re hoping to do in these craft lessons.
You do not need to engage with these craft lessons in order to participate in either the in-person or the online group. They are entirely optional. However, if you do decide to engage with the craft lessons and would like to chat about them or receive feedback on your work, you can bring them to the group or email them to me. (We will eventually have a dedicated online space, most likely a Discord server, but since this is all volunteer on my end and I’ve got a bit of a learning curve to get that set up, we don’t have it yet. Bear with me!)
So, our first craft lesson!
We are starting with dialogue, since this was one of the requested topics at our launch party in January.
One of our participants shared that they have lots of character sketches and settings and narrative ideas, but they struggle with how to write dialogue between these characters.
This was a shared experience for many of us!
There are whole books written on the topic of writing dialogue (including a wealth of books on screenwriting, which offer insights that can be translated over to other forms of writing). Many of us speak all the time – to each other and to ourselves. We play over conversations in our minds, remembering or rehearsing. We listen to other people engaging in dialogue, too. We are surrounded by dialogue!
But it remains challenging to write, partly because we are so immersed in conversation throughout our days, and what we write on the page sounds off if it is exactly like what we say and hear throughout the day. Our writing needs to capture the feel of conversation, and that means that we need to learn which parts of spoken conversation need to be cut away in order to leave the core intact and convincing.
Here are a couple exercises to work with:
Practice rewriting dialogue
Record yourself having a conversation with a friend. This works best if the conversation is about something, so that you have some clear themes to work with. I suggest recording five minutes of rich conversation (which may mean setting your voice memo recording and then chatting for twenty minutes, and choosing the richest five for this exercise).
Transcribe those five minutes of conversation.
As you’re transcribing, pay attention to all of the filler in the conversation, and all the bits that could be edited out in order to make the dialogue easier to read.
Once you’ve done this, rewrite the conversation. Keep the core of it – the meaning, the flow, each person’s separate voice. Work on shaping that dialogue into something that reads smoothly but remains true to the actual conversation you had with your friend.
Dialogue or description?
(This exercise is adapted from the book Writing Dialogue by the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto.)
Put two characters in a setting where they’re stuck together. (The book recommends a car, but I’ve also found waiting room, plane ride, or ticket line settings useful.)
Write the same scene twice, once using only dialogue (what are the characters saying to each other?) and once using only description or summary (what is happening around the characters?)
Which works better?
That wasn’t the plan!
Write a two-part scene.
In the first, have your character imagining what they will say in a conversation that they’re anticipating.
In the second, write them actually having the conversation.
We’ve all had the experience of anticipating a conversation and then having that conversation actually happen, and it rarely works that it goes exactly as planned. (When it does go exactly as planned, this is its own kind of shocking!)
If your character’s conversation does not go as planned, what are the variables that push the conversation off the anticipated track? What is the result of this?
If the conversation goes exactly as planned, what is the outcome of this? How does your character feel? What are the effects on their life or the lives of those around them?
One of our writing prompts was rolling three Magic & Fairytale Story Cube dice. We got a wizard, a treasure chest, and a knight. Agnieszka wrote three haikus, and has allowed me to share them here.
Cloaked in patient leadership,
They stand with courage
An alchemy of wisdom
The Knight (for Tiffany)
The pursuit of truth,
Through deepest sorrow of loss,
Your shining armour
Oh, the joyful abundance
Of being open
To the beauty of pleasure
If we are going to, as Walidah Imarisha suggests, write “fantastical literature that helps us to understand existing power dynamics, and helps us imagine paths to creating more just futures,” then we must be actively and intentionally working to decolonize, to be actively anti-racist, to be working towards justice. And I think that if we want to write good speculative writing, in any genre, we also need a sense of hope and possibility – sometimes our efforts towards justice, especially if we are writing from a place of privilege and trying to be in solidarity, can feel stripped of playfulness and joy. I think we need to find that joy. Our selected links for this month are tied to these ideas.
With the colonial violence being enacted against Wet’suwet’en by the Canadian government, knowing what is happening and how to be in solidarity is important, even if our writing is on other topics. These big moments in our collective narrative are important for speculative writers because in these moments, possibilities for other ways to be in the future open up. So our first link is not related to writing speculative fiction, but it is related to our goal of imagining more just futures. The Wet’suwet’en Supporter Toolkit offers a wide range of ways to support, including links to further resources. As you read through this, what becomes possible in your writing? Does the history shared here, and the story of resistance and resilience, change how you might write possible futures?
Our second reading is Kate Heartfield’s article at Article Magazine, Decolonizing the Future: How a new generation of Indigenous writers is changing the face of science fiction. This is a beautiful read, full of recommendations for books and articles and to read, and clearly articulating why Indigenous science fiction is so important. One thing I love about this essay is that it makes clear that Indigenous communities have been imagining possible futures for themselves that have always stood against colonization, and have affirmed Indigenous rights. Written a couple years ago, I think that this essay is a beautiful pairing with the Supporter Toolkit – the land defenders are holding the future, and Indigenous speculative writers have been imagining that future into possibility. “The concept of “the future” only exists in the present. It can be shaped by the same colonial structures and narratives that shape the North American present, or it can affirm Indigenous land and sovereignty.”
Our third reading is for those of us who want to write, and may not be sure what stories are ours to tell, and how to tell them in respectful ways. Amal el-Mohtar offers a brilliant and comprehensive answer to the question, “How can writers represent people on the margins in their stories? How do writers know when they are being allies and when they are talking over people who could be speaking for themselves? How can I tell, as a writer, when I’m telling a story that isn’t mine to tell?” It can be found in her essay, Writing the Margins from the Centre and Other Moral Geometries.
And lastly, the joy and playfulness, and how friendship makes the future possible. Read more from Amal el-Mohtar in her story Pockets, at Uncanny Magazine. The thing I love most about this piece is how it demonstrates what friendship can mean – the care that Tessa and Nadia and Warda take with each other, the way they check in about what they each need… it’s beautiful. It reminds me of some of my own friendships, the ones that make it possible to stay in this world even when the world is hard and terrifying. The friendships are my favourite thing about this story, but I also love the pockets!
In addition to the readings, I have an announcement!
The Spring 2020 round of An Unexpected Light is open for registration! Participation is limited in this six-month online narrative therapy and speculative fiction course. Shiny! is an offshoot of the first round of this course, which has been really well-received! If you’re enjoying this group, you might enjoy the course, too.
You can find out more (including a link to download the updated syllabus) here.
Our next in-person writing session will happen on March 1, 2020, from 4-6 pm at Loft 112 in Calgary, Alberta. We’ll be writing on the following prompts (probably not all three, unless we are a very small group!) Since our craft lesson this month was dialogue, our writing prompts are loosely themed around communication.
Shiny! is explicitly a speculative writing group, but “speculative writing” can encompass a vast diversity of genres and styles. Whatever you write, keep an eye on the speculation of it. What are you imagining to be different than what is currently known of reality? And Shiny! is also an explicitly justice-focused group, hoping to write our way into more just, more liberated, more possible futures. So if the dread rises up in you and the only future stories feel dystopian, reach in for your inner magpie, wise and adaptable and possible, and find even the tiniest sparkle to grab onto. Bring that sparkle into your story.
If you will be attending the March event, you can choose whether to write on these ahead of time and then polish them at the event, or write another piece on the same prompt at the event.
If you’re following along at a distance, you can write along with these prompts and share them by email if you’d like them included in next month’s letter. To write along, set your timer for 20 minutes and write! Feel free to edit and rewrite or keep writing past the timer, but also don’t feel obligated. Sometimes it’s worthwhile just to get a little bit of writing done, even if it’s not perfect or complete.
“I trust that help will come eventually if I persist in my curiosity, my investigation.” – Susan Power. Write about the help that comes to your character, and about the curiosity and investigation that made it possible.
A hand-written note from another time. (Note, you can take this in many directions – a note found in a book far in the future, a note sent to the past via time travel, a note from or to an ancestor, a note never meant to be found and discovered somehow, etc.)
This is the text of the introductory email sent out to participants in the Shiny! speculative writing group. The email is a digital version of the launch party we hosted in Calgary on January 26, 2020. (This email will also be sent out to new participants who sign up for the email list.)
The goal of this post is to let you know what to expect from the group, set out the various ways to participate, and share the schedule for 2020. This email also includes some writing generously shared by participants at our first Shiny! writing group meeting on February 2, 2020.
Our monthly emails (the first of which will be coming out mid-February, 2020) will not include quite so much background, and will not be as long.
So, first, introductions.
The first introduction is for the group itself.
Shiny! a speculative writing group is an offshoot of An Unexpected Light, a six-month online course in narrative therapy and speculative fiction. Although Shiny! extends the work that we’re doing in that course, and exists because course participants asked for it, you do not need to be a past or present (or even future) participant in the course in order to be part of this group. You can download the syllabus and find out more about upcoming rounds of the course here.
An Unexpected Light was created in response to a growing sense of hopelessness and despair within my communities, and Shiny! extends this work into an ongoing, inclusive, joy-and-justice oriented writing group.
Hello! I’m Tiffany. I will be our facilitator.
I’m a white settler on this land, and the in-person events for Shiny! will happen at Loft 112 take place on Treaty 7 land. This is the traditional and ongoing home of the Indigenous signatories of Treaty 7, which include the Blackfoot Confederacy, including the Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani First Nations; the Stoney Nakoda, including the Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations; and the Tsuut’ina First Nation. This land is also home to the Metis Nation of Alberta, Region 3, and to all of the Indigenous folks who live here. The ongoing effects of colonization and capitalism mean that this land is home to many Indigenous folks whose traditional land is elsewhere or unknown. Shiny! is explicitly an anti-colonial and anti-racist group, and recognizing the ongoing effects of the colonial project is part of that work.
I am non-binary, and use they/them pronouns. I co-facilitated a Non-binary Superpowers narrative therapy group with my colleague Rosie Maeder in Adelaide, South Australia, and we published a collective document in the International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work. You can read a PDF of that document here.
I’m also fibromyalgia-enhanced, and constantly working to make peace with my inner demons.
I have degrees in English (Hons) and Women’s Studies (Hons) from the University of Calgary, and a Master of Narrative Therapy and Community Work from the Dulwich Centre and the University of Melbourne. I’ve been published in a few places, and have worked as a professional editor for quite a while. I’ve been facilitating writing workshops and groups for over a decade.
We will be getting together in person most months in 2020, with the opportunity to write together, and to share our writing and respond to each other.
The next introduction, you!
This group is open to participants of every gender, orientation, ability, neurotype, race, class, body size, and experience with writing. Youth over 12 are also welcome.
You do not need to be a published or experienced writer to join us – everyone has a unique and valuable voice, and imagining possible futures is work for everyone.
You do need to be interested in and invested in justice and liberation in order to participate in Shiny! The goal of this group is to write possible futures that are more just, more inclusive, more free than what we have now. The status, as Doctor Horrible so rightly put it, is not quo. I hope that this group will help us find ways to challenge the status quo, to find ways forward into futures that are more colourful and more liberated. Futures that refuse patriarchy, colonialism, racism, fatphobia, ableism, ageism, transantagonism, heteronormativity, and all the host of other systems and structures of harm that surround us in the present.
I am so excited to share this space with you!
So, what can you expect from this group?
The in-person meetings will include time to share snippets that we’ve read and appreciated over the last month and to reflect on writing that has really resonated for us, time to write together, and time to share our writing.
These meetings will happen on the first Sunday of most months at Loft 112, from 4-6 pm.
Our confirmed 2020 dates are:
March 1 (at Loft 112)
April 5 (location and time TBD – this will also be the launch party for the spring round of An Unexpected Light!)
May 3 (at Loft 112, tentative)
June 7 (at Loft 112)
July and August dates TBD
September 6 (at Loft 112)
October 4 (at Loft 112)
November 1 (at Loft 112)
December 6 (at Loft 112)
Participants are welcome to write between sessions and bring that writing to the group if they want.
The emails will hopefully support that writing! And also be a way for people to fully participate from a distance.
The Shiny! online component exists in order to make the group accessible to participants who can’t make it to the in-person meetings because of work schedules, childcare, disability, distance, or any other reasons.
There will be two emails per month. The first will be short, and will be sent out the day of the in-person writing group and will share the writing prompts that set for that session.
The second will be more substantial and will go out mid-month, with the first email going out mid-February 2020.
The longer emails will include:
Some reflections on our topic for the upcoming month.
A couple writing prompts.
Selections of writing shared by participants in the last month.
A small link roundup relevant to our topics.
And a craft lesson each month!
These lessons are entirely optional, and nobody will be grading you! But if you want to fine-tune your craft, hopefully these lessons will be a resource. The craft topics requested at the launch party are:
Narrative voice and perspective
How to write short fiction
How to write mystery
These longer monthly emails will be shared as blog posts, which you can find on my website or on Patreon, with a link to the blog post sent out to the email list. If you would like to be added to the email list, let me know!
Here are the two prompts we wrote on at our first writing group session on February 2, 2020.
First, we read an excerpt from Alexis Pauline Gumbs story Evidence in Octavia’s Brood. This was a letter written from Alexis beyond capitalism to Alexis within capitalism. (Although I can’t share that excerpt publicly here, you can find more of Gumb’s amazing future-thinking in this podcast episode.)
The prompt was: Write a letter to yourself from a future beyond an oppressive system that currently constrains you. (Some of these letters are generously shared below, and brought me to tears in the session!)
Our second prompt was generated using the Magic & Fairy Tale Storycubes, and we wrote stories that included a knight, a wizard, and a treasure chest.
Letter to Self from a Post-Apocalyptic Future.
February 2, 2020
(How amazing that I can send this to you! So much has changed over all these years…)
The world made it through!
Somehow, we were able to stop destroying.
I don’t think anyone believed it would ever actually happen… that humanity would finally see Itself as intrinsically part of the Organism that is Earth… that all the self-harming practices – even if they relieve the pain of regret-isolation-sorrow – could be lessened respectfully… and that we-Earth can love us/Itself with compassion again.
Yes! We forgave each other! And Earth forgave us! Forgiving/forgiven for all the damage and harm done out of fear and misunderstanding. We moved forward, toward a patient re-learning how to care for and respond to the loneliness that drove us to distraction, production, the whole illness of progress.
Honey, I know that you *know* how hard this is to do. When the pain strikes, and it seems like nothing will stop it and pretending to “be normal and go shopping” seems like the only way out.
Sweetie, forgive yourself for not knowing. Continue doing what you are doing. I am telling you from here that imagining different possibilities in response to the pain and the regret and the fear, is exactly what was needed.
Relieving the pain makes perfect sense! No judgement against any human on Earth! Searching for true relief – the collective relief, for everyone, every life – through patient, respectful questioning – that is the work that eventually brought us towards Healing. Hope and peace.
We finally saw what really mattered! We saw how incredibly beautiful it all was, we all were! How unbelievably “enough”! And we could stop the cutting, the burning, the packaging, the injecting, the improving. And we stopped!
We looked at each other and at the Earth, and we were stunned. By the sheer beauty and wealth of just being and wealth of Being Just.
We really breathed! We breathed the Air. The Water that remained was slowly but steadily healing Itself because the Earth loves to heal. The Green things gracefully returned.
We were patient and respectfully waited. We used language and music and art and all the ingenuity of Earth to bless Life. With respect and awe.
Agnieszka, I know you offered yourself in Love and Compassion to People/Earth around you.
And I know you were often bound by rules/constructs in your society that created tensions and fear. I am so glad that you didn’t let it stop Your loving and forgiving (despite the harsh pressure to focus on the capitalistic bottom line).
I am so glad you persisted, because your persistence kept the Love growing, and practicing forgiveness allowed it to grow big enough for the Healing to take.
This Healing couldn’t happen without Forgiveness. So, thank you.
Love yourself fiercely. Always.
It’s the fuel of all our Potential.
From a place where you have all the time, the energy, space to do things. Where you are no longer obligated to keep a space in your mind for bills, money and the like.
Don’t worry, each step takes you closer. Each choice, and while it seemed impossible, you weren’t the only one. Everyone wanted to be free of the burden that is capitalism. Time has the value you want in it, and not defined by dollars. Passion is first and no longer questioned as a “side hustle”. I remember the horror, the sadness each time someone asked “what next” expecting the answer to be monetizing. There’s no worry about those kinds of things. There is space enough for everyone to explore, enjoy and live.
Lazy and productive are opposite sides of a coin that is no longer valid. And with them went famine, suffering and the pain of depriving people of the necessities.
The calm that exists because of it is wonderful and is like a vacation that never ends. I remember vacations and loving the way the days were shaped by desire and curiosity. I remember loving them. I know you love them. Imagine a world like that.
Don’t worry. You’ll see it. You’ll enjoy it, and it will all be surrounded by the wonderful relationships you, we, spent so long cultivating.
I wish these letter could carry pictures to show but they only carry words and you’ll have to trust. Trust me. I am you. Trust yourself, and walk forward.
It all fell apart. Everything broke. Nothing is the same. The toil and pain, the exhaustion and the sadness, the aches, the darkness. And more than anything, the fear. It all came crashing down around us. We just couldn’t keep it aloft. It had gotten too heavy. It got wide, and tall, and blocked out all the goodness in the world. It grew sharp edges that tore at our hands, covered in the salt of our sweat, and seeped into our aching muscles. Our nerves were on fire, and our tears streamed non-stop. Until one-day we gave up. We gave in. We stopped holding it up. In the end, it fell heavy upon us. Set to crush every person to nothingness.
We were crushed. We died. But it was not at all what we expected. For what died was not our spirit. Not our bodies. No. What died that fateful day was our fears. Our old ideas. For when it all came crashing down, we realized its immense size and weight were illusions. It’s needles and knives, imagined. Like kinetic sand, it only held its shape because of we all pushed so hard to keep it up. Once we stopped pushing, once we stopped caring, it crumbled into such a fine dust that a light breeze was enough to whisk is away.
Now a warm wind blows, unencumbered by our fears. It fills our souls and lights our minds. We understand that we do not need towers, we need plains. We are all important. There are no gods among us, because it will only create devils. There are no leaders, only advisors. We are all peers, on different legs of the same journey. With different destinations, but all going in the same direction. Towards hope, and love.
So, Joseph, keep your hope. Do not give up as you may have thought about. Be ready to give in. And together we will all get through. The other side is so different and so much better than anything we know right now. Better that we could have imagined. You can do it.
I am so excited to share this space with you.
(Though also excited to never again try and create so many rows and blocks of content in the email list platform. Yeesh!)
There is no cost to participate in this group, but if you’d like to support the work, you can find me on Patreon or you can make a donation through etransfer or at the events.
Have you missed the in-person writing workshops that used to run regularly through Writing in the Margins? Me too!
Introducing Shiny! a speculative writing group.
We’re having a launch party on January 26, from 4-6 pm, at Loft 112 in the East Village here in Calgary. Our first regular writing event will be February 2 from 4-6 pm at Loft 112, and we’ll be meeting on the first Sunday of most months throughout 2020.
Shiny! is an offshoot of An Unexpected Light, a six-month narrative therapy and speculative fiction course. This writing group is open to anyone, whether you’ve taken the course, or are planning to take the course. The group does extend the Unexpected Light conversation about how we tell stories of hope and possibility in times that feel increasingly impossible, but participation in the course is not required.
This launch party will be a combination info session, coffee-and-tea chat, and writing group. Come find out what it’s all about!
Our goal is to build and support a community of writers engaged in creating what Walidah Imarisha describes as, “fantastical literature that helps us to understand existing power dynamics, and helps us imagine paths to creating more just futures.”
Shiny! will include an ongoing online component, with monthly emails including writing prompts and opportunities to participate in virtual writing community, as well as details about in-person events in Calgary, Alberta (and elsewhere). The online component isn’t quite ready to launch yet, but is being designed so that the group will be accessible to folks who can’t make it to in-person events, for whatever reason.
All forms of speculative writing are welcome – science fiction, fantasy, mythology, poetry, and speculative non-fiction including memoir.
Shiny! is an explicitly welcoming space for marginalized and targeted groups, including trans, queer, fat, disabled, neurodiverse, Black, Indigenous, people of colour, and others. An Unexpected Light’s syllabus is full of the speculative work of marginalized writers, and their ability to imagine more just and possible futures has made our work possible.
Everyone has a valid and valuable voice, and writers of all experience levels are welcome.
This launch party will take place on Treaty 7 land, the traditional and ongoing home of the Blackfoot Confederacy, including the Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani First Nations, the Stoney Nakoda, including the Wesley, Chiniki, and Bearspaw First Nations, and the Tsuut’ina First Nation. This is also the home of the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3, and of all the Indigenous folks who live here.
There is no cost to attend, but donations will be accepted to help cover costs.
Read Walidah Imarisha’s interview at EAP Magazine.