Two weeks ago, I was invited by Wells College to give a reading and a master class on writing. I enjoyed writing this, and as I was, I was thinking it would be fun to share this at Rykaworld.
Many of you are already science fiction writers or fans.
And, you know science fiction does one thing particularly well. It inspires people to build their futures. Sure, people call it escapist, but you know that escapist usually meant optimistic.
Escapism has a way of coming true—because we want things to be that way.
This is exactly what I was thinking when I wrote Light From Uncommon Stars. I wanted to write a tale about space aliens, violinists, demons, and donuts. But not your ordinary, everyday tale of space aliens, violinists, demons, and donuts...
Instead, I wanted to make the space aliens Asian refugees, the violinists transgender runaways. I wanted to evoke the names and faces of people I’ve known all my life. In Light From Uncommon Stars, I wanted to share my hometown, the miso soup, kiwi boba, weekend menudo, and Chinese BBQ duck. I wanted to share the donuts, and the donut people, of my childhood.
I wanted to write a tale about space aliens, violinists, demons, and donuts. But more than that—a tale of space aliens, violinists, demons, and donuts that I could believe in.
Because I wanted it to be that way.
But how would it play to Altair? Beyond Antares? Heck, how would it play to readers of Amazing Science Fiction?
Since it was science fiction, I rewatched and read classic Star Trek and my favorite space operas. I watched way too much YouTube. I haunted my local violin shops, pestered luthiers, even bought an instrument off of eBay to learn firsthand how a violin feels as it sings.
All to find striking true images to make my work more vivid and engaging.
Which seems normal to a poetry workshop, right?
But to the science fiction community?
My book has been called bizarre, weird, a mashup, indescribable, wtf—luckily usually in a good way.
It’s gotten truly beautiful reviews, and was just nominated for an Ignyte, a Ray Bradbury Prize, and a Hugo Award. I am super grateful.
But I think it’s interesting that the science fiction/fantasy crew—who have Jedi and balrogs and wizards and intelligent planets and freaking John DeLancie…pause at Vietnamese donut aliens from outer space, a demon-touched lesbian musician, and a violinist trans girl with a kiwi boba.
Why wouldn’t this fit in a story? I could fit all of the above in a poem (except for the space alien parts) and folks would be like snap snap snap.
I found that the SFF community is opening to new things—Light From Uncommon Stars is doing super well, but—for all its claims to be amazing and astounding and boldly going where no one has gone before—when does someone like this get to command the Enterprise?
In SF/F the so many details seem almost like writing in form. Your ways to travel faster than light are there. This is what your hero can look like. Yes, the anti-hero is always a good choice—shall we equip him with a blaster? Or is he a chosen one? Here’s your choice of villains. Oh, here’s the bikini armor for your hero’s hot sidekick. And here’s an elf.
I can’t think of many poets who would be comfortable with so many restrictions. I can’t even get some poets to write sonnets.
There is no way most of my poetry friends would limit themselves that way. Listen to these poets. I can just hear them saying, "What about my truth, my world—all the particulars that make me me?
Again, the science fiction community has been opening to new voices and ideas, and the change has been stunning. And, I think all science fiction and fantasy readers benefit by reading of a larger universe.
However, some science fiction/fantasy writers may wonder then, "What if I'm straight and cisgender and a white man?"
Actually, I know this for certain because I was asked this question verbatim. Actually, many times.
I don't think anyone's background is so bereft of interest that they can't draw upon it to create good work. Part of why queer voices are so compelling is because they're new... frankly because queer voices and trans voices and voices of color were rarely published by mainstream process.
So, in that, all I can do is shrug and say it's about time!
However, insular thinking hurts all writers, regardless of background. There should never be a safe way to write a great story.
With that being said, I humbly suggest that poets, who have no illusion of ever being safe because we're never going to get paid for our work, have a lot to teach those SF/F writers who wonder how to create stories that ring true with someone else's soul.
And so, here are some tips for science fiction writers that I have learned from my time with poets and poetry:
Have you checked for clichés? Poets hate them. Don’t think archetype or trope—think cliché. Try to ask yourself—do I really need to write that same old plot, that character that same old way? Do I really intend need that alien to act that predictably? Do I really need Cardassians? Or am I just asleep at the keyboard?
Have you represented your community? Not the ones who bullied you, but the ones who shared the bad times with you. The ones who let you sleep on the sofa. The elders who talked sense into you. Again, poets have a reputation for being loners, and we can be, but we also share readings where no one is published and zines where no one is getting paid (too many of them). And that weaves some pretty strong community ties. Poets know—dysfunctional or not—that community is strength—how about your community? They brought you to the airport. Why not bring them to the stars?
Ranting much? Are you really being bold and going forward, or is this wish fulfillment for a less complicated time, or a place to vent. Ranting at an open mic is pretty easy to spot. In fiction, sometimes it’s harder to call the BS, but ranting still is not easy to do right. Instead....
But seriously, have you ever done an open mic? Maybe not literally, but maybe so! See how your writing works, not just to the audience, but to your breath. Can you read your words without stumbling? Do you know where the beats are—both in meter and in plot—and how is the audience reacting?
And one structural matter. Open your manuscript. Go to a random page. Read a sentence. Why is it there? Your world may have elves speaking different languages—but what about the language in which the book is written? Most poetry and poets distill language—every line matters—so ordinary language can become something wondrous. Even if you only do this for a key passage or two here or there, imagine what that might do to your work!
I hope you all enjoyed this little chat. It was a lot of fun to put together, and once again, thank you so much to all of you for your time,
And to Wells College, the Visiting Writers Series and the Women, Transgender, and Queer Studies Program for inviting me letting me share my thoughts with you.
Please take care everyone! And good writing to you.
Cover: Scene from "Klingon Tamburlaine" Part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2019. https://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/6010