Sandra McDonald: Bring Me the Unaware

For the last word on this series, we turn to Sandra McDonald. She is the author of novels The Outback Stars, The Stars Down Under, and The Stars Blue Yonder, and has a short story collection out titled Diana Comet and Other Tales. Her short story “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots” was a finalist in the Strange Horizons’ Readers Poll this year.

As a student studying with a New York Times bestselling mystery writer, I once submitted a magic portal story about men traveling between our world and another. My teacher was perplexed: “Another world? So are these guys hobbits?”

He didn’t have much to offer me in terms of genre advice. He did, however, teach me invaluable lessons in storytelling that I try to pass on each summer at the University of North Florida Writer’s Conference. Often times my science fiction students have never workshopped before. They’ve never heard of the Milford style, they haven’t read widely in the field, and the words “Turkey City Lexicon” mean nothing to them. Sometimes their lack of awareness galls me: one student writing an epic about orcs refused to read Tolkien because she didn’t want to “pollute” her vision of them.

I had to be talked down off the roof after that last student, because who would write a big fat fantasy without reading Tolkien first? Heresy! Surely a writer who wants to be successful in genre should be thoroughly grounded in its expectations, tropes and traditions. But over the years my thinking has evolved drastically. Not only is the outsider perspective valuable, but it’s also a huge asset on the path to creating unique stories.

To paraphrase another teacher of mine, “First you write, then you get it right.” Writing a draft is the foremost task. Writing until drops of blood form on your forehead (Gene Fowler said that) or until you have to fling the beast to the world (thanks, Winston Churchill) or until you fall over your keyboard in exhaustion. And then you get up and do it again the next day, because being a writer is like having homework every day for the rest of your life (said Lawrence Kasdan). Drafting a science fiction or fantasy story in no way requires knowing what a Tom Swifty is, or who Damon Knight was, or who won a Nebula last year. It doesn’t require Clarion or an MFA. It requires the steady application of fingers on keyboard (or mouth near dictation microphone) and then the determination to get better through feedback and revision.

It’s in the “feedback and revision” stage that an awareness of genre norms can be useful. They are bright constellations in the nighttime sky, and writers are mariners trying to steer by starlight. First you have to build the boat, however. That means understanding how story works, finding out what you want to explore in the world, and then worrying about how a particular story fits (or doesn’t) into genre. Mariners who obsess too much about the voyages of others are not likely to set off on unique adventures of their own.

Switching metaphors, to be grounded means to be tethered. Not taking flight. Not rising above. I thought unkind things about the woman who wouldn’t read Tolkien and my teacher’s misinterpretation of a magic portal story. What I didn’t understand is that they had the freedom to soar while I was clinging to my anchors. Bring me the Unaware, I say now: bring me people who have never heard of genre norms, and let’s go exploring.

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