Stefan Ekman has a Ph.D. in English Literature with a dissertation on fantasy settings. He teaches creative writing at Lund University and Kristianstad University (Sweden). He also teaches fantasy and sf on various levels.
The most challenging – and the most rewarding – class I teach each year is the science fiction and fantasy unit of the Creative Writing Program. There, I have two ninety-minute lectures to teach thirty or so students how to write genre fiction. Many of them have no idea what sf and fantasy are.
When I started teaching there, I was convinced that in order to write genre fiction, you had to read genre fiction. I thus expected to see the wheel re-invented, whether in hi-tech or magical form. The best I could hope for, I believed, was a wheel painted in some interesting, new colour.
Every single year, I have been proven wrong.
Now, let’s make this clear: I’m not an author. My background is one where I work with other people’s texts rather than produce fiction myself. I have a degree in English Literature and have worked as genre specialist for a publishing house. But I usually don’t see the need for any definition of fantasy or sf other than “I know it when I see it”. (I have been forced to produce definitions on occasion, but that’s a different matter. It always seemed to me that any definition a critic presented would invariably lead to another critic, or writer, saying, “Yes, but what about …”)
With ninety minutes and no chance to set more reading than would fit on a handout or two– they have little enough time for their writing without having to read stuff, too – an “I know it when I see it” approach simply doesn’t work. A number of students will invariably ask: “What is sf? What is fantasy? I’ve never read any.” The reason for this is that the Creative Writing Program includes a number of compulsory units on writing in a wide variety of genres, from popular science to computer games, from TV drama to, well, sf. Only a couple of students in each year want to become genre writers. A definition, I realised my first year, was necessary.
The hard part was finding a definition of each genre which is specific enough to make sure that if they write according to it, sf (or fantasy) comes out. It cannot be fuzzy or vague, but must offer fairly concrete guidelines. On the other hand, it must offer maximum freedom and cover as much of each genre as is at all possible. Explaining the definitions I now use takes up almost half of the ninety minutes. The rest is dedicated to rules and questions (I provide the rules; they provide the questions). At the end, I feel as if I have chained up whatever creativity they might have had.
And a week later, when I read their texts, I marvel at how people who claimed no prior knowledge of the genre managed to produce texts that are not only well-written but also highly original. And when I see them, I know what they are. (OK, there are also some who are mediocre. Others produce highly derivative work – but they are generally familiar with the genres.) Some of these short stories or opening chapters have stayed with me over the years, small pearls of fiction that only a handful of people will ever have read.
After several years of this, I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ve been mistaken. Are science fiction and fantasy genres that really do not require you to have read widely in them before you write? Is it enough to be told what they “are” and to be given a handful of rules to follow? Can all you need to know about writing genre fiction be summarised in two lectures. I didn’t think so.
I’m not so sure any more.