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.)
- A portal opens (or closes).
Good luck, my lovely magpies!