Thursday, October 2, 2008

Conference Notes: John Claude Bemis on Fantasy Settings

Members of SCBWI-C: Go to the SCBWI-C page and download the handouts from this workshop—they are very good.

The best thing I got from this workshop was the idea that in a fantasy or science fiction work, the setting isn't just the physical time and place the story is set in, it is also the rules of that world. Wow. That is just seriously brilliant.

Bemis used Philip Pullman's Golden Compass* as an example. The setting in this (horrible) book is not just the physical world or the time period of the world, but also the rules about daemons and talking polar bears and golden compasses.

At its core, SF/F is speculation. The question "what if." Test your fictional world. Add in a "what if" and evaluate how that would change the world and the rules of that world. Bemis started us off with the idea of "what if everyone had six fingers?" This led to interesting discussion: perhaps people with five fingers would be considered deformed, music would be played differently, maybe the sixth finger would have an evolutionary purpose, such as a second opposable thumb. Consider all the possibilities and add those possibilities into the text of the story.

Bemis suggests looking for unusual connections in developing the world of our SF/F stories. Anyone can find history in a museum—a good book will find history in a hardware store. Also, use lateral leaps in writing. Break up "sets". Everyone associates vampires with evil—so turn it on its head and write a good vampire. Switch around elements: we associate zombie with graves, but set a zombie story in a cheerful high school and you've got a more unique story. Use frames, such as the Passion of the Christ in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.**

One activity I particularly liked was called "Asking the Oracle." When you have a problem in your text—i.e. you need to get a character from one place to another, but don't know how to do it, then "ask the oracle." Use a completely random thing and create a meaning around it. You could open a random book on your shelf to a random page and pick the first sentence of the book—then make whatever that first sentence is be the answer.

To give us practice, Bemis had use write down a problem in our work. In my current WIP, I've got a murderer. I know why he goes crazy and kills people, but I wanted to know what the straw that broke the camel's back for him could be. Once we wrote the problem down, Bemis gave us a random answer: "Twinkle, twinkle, little star." Now this answer worked perfectly for me—I'm writing a SF. So, I came up with some ideas based on this random event and one of them—the murderer hears a child singing the nursery rhyme and knows that child will never see real stars—is a scene that I'll be using in my writing, something I'm considering developing into an entire motif.

Bemis does give us one warning with writing SF/F: Don't make anything possible. "Fantasy, more so than any other genre, needs rules."

*I hated The Golden Compass. I don't think much of Philip Pullman--he sounds like a bit of a self-righteous jerk to me, and he killed off too many good characters in his Sally Lockheart series. Also: he pissed me off with his views on religion. Besides, the writing just wasn't that good. So, ha! I'm not gonna link to his stupid book :P

**Ha, ha! I will link to CS Lewis's book. Take that, Pullman!***

***Yes, small, mostly meaningless victories amuse me.
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