Recently I was asked to present a half hour workshop to secondary students at a local school on developing speculative fiction themes in writing. As is my way, I said “Yes” first and worried about how I was going to do that later.
And I worried a lot. Half an hour? To cover ALL of specfic? Give me half a year, maybe, and I might be able to come close to covering the subject. And why me? Where were my credentials? One creative writing diploma, one four year old national award and zero formal teaching qualifications do not an expert make. I kept waiting for Neil Gaiman’s Fraud Police to burst through the door.
Once I’d drafted my presentation, I tried it out on a couple of my own kids. The first fifteen minutes were taken up with my talking, and in the second fifteen minutes we tried our hand at brainstorming a speculative fiction story or two. Dragons, bunyips and Vikings were mentioned. Environmental and social themes were explored. Declan pronounced the session “awesome”. I took that as a win; at not-quite-fourteen, he is well past the stage when he thinks his mother’s every word is golden, so I was fairly confident he wasn’t just sucking up. It was a much better reaction than the last time I showed him a WIP, when he said, “What the hell is wrong with you?” (Although given my favourite genre, that too could be counted as a win).
Another thing I’d said “yes” to was running an extension writing group at the primary school at which I work (Hello? Fraud Police? Yes, they’re actually paying her to do it!). Bring on the next set of guinea pigs.
I tried to impress on these young minds the desirability of original thought. Don’t just write down the first thing that comes to mind, I counseled, because the first thing is likely to be something you’ve seen a million times before in books and movies. This led to such gorgeously outrageous oddities as chocolate-breathing dragons and evil megalomaniac penguins toting machine guns that shoot marshmallows (‘cos chocolate-breathing dragons are allergic to marshmallows, dontcha know). I had my frowny face on when they suggested in the next brainstorm a school camp, a lake to which all children were forbidden to go, a disobedient child who goes down to the lake and is never seen again…wasn’t this the plot of every second Goosebumps book ever written? But then they busted out the giant fluffy bunny. Mr Bunny offered to help search for the missing child, but it turned out – shock, horror! – that he was the villain all along. Way to subvert expectations, Grade Sixes!
The workshop with the high school students was a different kind of fun. The teacher had booked two speakers for the same day, and the kids had to choose between mine and a presentation on writing your first novel. One young woman asked, “Which one has the violence?”
I raised my hand. “That would be me.”
Sure enough, when it came time to commence brainstorming, she started the ball rolling. “Someone should die at the beginning. And someone should die at the end.”
“Method of death?” I asked.
“Half-eaten,” she promptly replied.
“Well, in that case…” I started a list down the side of the whiteboard of what would be forbidden from our brainstorm. No werewolves. No zombies. No vampires. No fanfic. And because we introduced unicorns to the plot, no rainbow jumping.
Although it went against a 21st century author ‘s every instinct, I had to advise the kids NOT to buy my book.
“Not unless you’re over 16,” I said.
“Not unless you’re over 18,” amended the teacher.
“Oh, but I’m going to read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, so I can’t imagine this book could be any worse than that,” said Little “Miss Everyone Must Die” (I’m pretty sure she only said that so she could have the sadistic pleasure of seeing her teacher cover her ears with her hands in despair).
It turned out that I had pitched the workshop too low for this articulate, deep-thinking group of kids. There I was blathering on about characters, setting and conflict, and there they were chipping in on the theme. With a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting, two deceased young princesses and a murderous unicorn (we never did nail down whether it was a rabid unicorn, were-unicorn or a unicorn under the sway of mind control courtesy of a secret third sister), they quickly identified the theme as the loss of innocence.
By the end of the session, we had everything sketched out except for the middle part of the plot. “That’s the part I always have trouble with,” one girl said sadly. “I can work out the beginning, the end, I’m all over the themes, but I just don’t know how to progress the plot.”
I felt sad too. I needed more than five minutes or half an hour to work through that problem, and even then I don’t know if I could have helped.
I have no idea if they enjoyed or benefited from the workshop or not. They’re teenagers, so who could say? I know I had fun. And they ‘paid’ me at the end in chocolate.