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The Write Life: June 2019

Summer is convention season, which means that just a couple weeks after the OCLS Book Festival, I was driving over to Maitland for a weekend at OASIS, the Orlando Area Science Fiction Society’s annual convention. They were celebrating OASIS 30, but this was my first time in attendance. It’s kind of amazing what can be growing under your nose if you just haven’t looked around to find it.

While OASIS isn’t strictly a writer convention, its focus is on sci-fi and fantasy books, so there were a lot of authors to talk to and plenty of panel discussions geared toward writing. (And some that were geared more toward science, which were fantastic for inspiration and research.)

One of my favorite panels of the weekend was Brainstorming the Science in Your Science Fiction. A panel of experts in several scientific fields—everything from biologists to rocket scientists—were available to answer writers’ questions about their fictional science. I’ve been struggling with some details about what a character is doing outside of her spaceship when disaster strikes, and they had some fantastic suggestions for various things she could be fixing (and what would put the ship in the most peril).

I also had several great one-on-one conversations with authors about how they run their Patreon campaigns, experiences they’ve had in both traditional and self-publishing, and I received an actionable suggestion for how I might condense my ideas for short fiction and actually write a short story! Overall, it was a very useful convention and I’m so glad that I finally stumbled across their group.

(And thanks to the gentleman who asked before putting bunny ears on KL. Classic joke performed with class.)

 

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The Not-So-Lonely Path: Sci-fi in the MFA

When I decided to get an MFA, I knew that writing genre could be a challenge. As an undergrad I was discouraged from writing science fiction, enough so that I took more nonfiction workshops than fiction and didn’t write for a year following graduation. (My realistic contemporary fiction was uninspired, but I wasn’t “supposed” to write science fiction—mentally rectifying that disconnect took some time.) I didn’t want a repeat of that experience, but also in the eleven years between my degrees I had learned a lot about fighting for myself.

After I was accepted to the MFA program—following an application that was basically plastered in warnings that I would be writing science fiction—I still thought I might have a battle. After all, even I, future science fiction writer, had left my undergraduate days brainwashed that science fiction didn’t belong in an MFA program. Even if the faculty accepted me, I could still face challenges from the students.

In my first workshop, I was surprised by the overwhelming support I received. There were a handful of dismissive critiques, but the majority of my classmates treated me like a peer and not like I was an inferior sci-fi writer. One memorable critique recommended that I not be “constrained by the genre” while another student restrained his urge to critique my story using the rigorous standards he would apply to literary fiction (that is a paraphrase, but is fairly close to the actual quote that appeared in his critique). These were the comments I had prepared for and the attitude I thought I’d have to fight. I had thought I would have to demand to be taken seriously, to argue that I was in the MFA program to make myself a better writer—which meant developing the craft of writing as it applied to characterization, description, narrative, world building, and plot. “Literary” is a just word that defines the quality of the writing, not the content, I would argue. It applies to work by Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Nnendi Okorafor, just the same as it does to David Foster Wallace, Junot Díaz, and Donna Tartt. I was ready for this fight!

But it never came. The handful of dismissive and confused critiques in my first workshop were the main confrontation. My classmates were curious and supportive. At a party, a student pulled me aside and quizzed me for an hour about steampunk and alternate history, just because he’d never heard of it before. Basically, my MFA classmates blew away my expectations and set a tone of acceptance not only for me, but for other students who wanted to try their hand at workshopping science fiction and fantasy.

I knew I wanted to approach the MFA on my own terms, and that I would have to work to get what I needed from it. I am lucky that the professors not only welcomed me into the program, but encouraged me to forge my own path. I still read a lot of realistic contemporary fiction for class assignments, but if I was willing to put in extra work, they were willing to let me write papers exploring point of view from robot narrators and examine the differences in structure between Victorian and Neo-Victorian literature. I always say “you get out what you put in,” and that was very much the case for me in the MFA program.

Before the MFA, I was concerned that the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction was too great. I felt like only my echo chamber understood the overlap, but the students and faculty in my program helped me see that we’ve come a long way and that when it comes to accepting science fiction as literature, I am not alone.

Punking a Genre

Punk sub-genres still seem like something the cool kids are doing, but I feel like a lot of people I talk to don’t understand what makes a genre “punk” as opposed to all the other ways that you can describe a genre—alternate history, science fiction, speculative fiction, urban fantasy, gaslamp fantasy, etc. So why do we keep throwing “punk” on the ends of other descriptors?

Punk movements started primarily in the 1970s as counterculture movements, growing out of the music scene. In the UK, unemployment rates were high, the economy was crap, and the youth were angry and had something to say about it. For the purposes of how punk relates to fiction, many punk genres embrace that same DIY ethic and are anti-establishment with an emphasis on individual freedom; in short, the authors are angry and have something to say about it.

So the punk element of steampunk, for example, is not that an author has thrown in anachronistic technology, thrust petticoats into a steam-powered future, or pasted gears and goggles on a top hat. The punk element is what the author has to say about social and political movements that are counterculture to the time period or to their contemporary society. In the realm of steampunk and Victorian culture it might be a story that is concerned with classism or feminism. In the same time period, but set in New York City, a story might focus on Unions or factory work. In Japan it might have something to say about isolationism or feudalism. Or set in Australia or New Zealand it might focus on the treatment of aborigines and be anti-colonialism. What topic is tackled doesn’t matter so much as the fact that a topic is tackled, and that it is a topic that aligns to problems of that time period and culture.

All punk-genres have this counterculture element in mind, so no matter if the story is alternate history and rewriting the 1940s with diselpunk, exploring the 1500s with clockpunk, or if it’s catapulting into the future and commenting on contemporary society through cyberpunk or biopunk, a punk story will have a social commentary that is counterculture to the society presented in the story.

New punk genres are popping up all the time, so now that you know the crucial element, what sort of new punking do you want to see?