I went to Alt.Fiction at the Derby Quad on Saturday last and it was great. From reading associated blogs and tweets (search ‘altfiction’ on Twitter), it seems most people went to panels or hung around in the bar talking to people. As an unsociable sod, I sat through all the workshops that were provided (except Horror; had to eat some time). Luckily, my daughter, Vicky (twitter), spent her time catching up so I learned about what people were up to from her afterwards.
10am, Fantasy, Mark Chadbourn
The room was full; about seventeen people in all, I think (see Mark’s pics here and here; some people missed off). Mark began telling us about the state of the fantasy market and that, after a few years of same-ish stuff, publishers are now looking for new ideas (so no more Tolkien-esque or semi-medieval worlds). He then told us to look inside ourselves for our ideas: use what we know or what we are passionate about. And it worked. He had us imagine a world based on what we knew well and then write ten lines about it: either starting lines, description or keywords. The first thing to come to my mind were the featureless faces of buildings where I worked when contracting in London so I worked up an idea starting from there. He then had us describe a character from that world, again in ten lines: who they were and what their key flaw was. Finally we had to write the plot in only two lines: what does the character want to achieve and what stands in their way. This was a good start to the day. Already, I had an idea for a series of books which I would definitely pursue.
11am, Science Fiction, Tony Ballantyne
Another full room (I’ll have to stop saying this; every workshop was pretty much full). Mark first handed out a sheet with an extract from Wikipedia on ‘incluing’. This is a way of avoiding the dreaded ‘info dump’. I have been accused of this trait in my short stories so was keen to hear what he said. There was some discussion around the room about different novelists’ ways of handling info dump and Tony read out some of the worst excesses from the Stieg Larsson books. He then handed out another sheet with some of the physical improvements that the Warhammer 40K Space Marines have had done to them. We then had to work in pairs to write up two of those improvements into a short piece of text. It was an interesting exercise.
12am, Dark Fantasy, Kim Lakin-Smith
This was, for me, the best workshop; Kim’s approach really got the creative juices flowing. She started out talking about dark fantasy and the ‘magic mirror’ that it holds up to the world to produce a ‘distorted reflection of life’ showing the ‘juxtaposition of human and monster’ in each of us. Next she looked at fairy tales, the origin of fantasy aimed at adults, and the darkness they used to contain (and how people like Angela Carter and Neil Gaiman have tried to reclaim that aspect). Kim then gave us a page of images of some archetypal fairy story characters: Baba Yaga, Anansi, Rumpelstiltskin and the Green children of Woolpit; and described them. We had to choose one of these characters to incorporate into a story. Kim then had us do four exercises:
1) Describe a street: any time period, any season, but at 3:30am.
2) One person is awake in the street, child or adult. Why are they awake? They are in the grip of a strong emotion. How do they feel?
3) They see our chosen archetypal character at the end of the street. How does the person feel about seeing this character?
4) The character offers them a way out of their earlier strong emotion.
Kim’s workshop approach had me working more intensely than I have done for some time. I may not write up that particular story but will try to recapture the feeling I had while in the workshop next time I start a story.
1am, pretty much wrung out by now, I retreated to the bar for beer, panini and a quick catch-up with Vick.
2pm, Screenwriting, Stephen Volk
Stephen kicked off by giving us each a page of script, saying that this was the industry standard way of presenting scripts and that the best tool for ensuring this standard was the Final Draft software package: not a cheap option (£170 from Amazon). He then read out a short story that he had written and the ensuing discussion focussed on what questions one would ask if turning this story into a film. Next, Stephen read from an original script of his, showing how the first few minutes, typically the title sequence, sets out the themes and tropes of the film. He then had us think about how we might open a film of his earlier short story and we discussed this for a bit.
3pm, Audio writing, Simon Guerrier
Simon was standing in for someone else so I was impressed that he came up with an interesting and entertaining workshop at short notice. Pretty sure he has done this before 🙂 He gave us all the beginning of one of the Doctor Who Companion Chronicles scripts, ‘The Prisoners’ Dilemma’, and had two of the workshop participants read the parts up to the title sequence (cue Dr Who theme tune!). We then paired off and Simon had us write our own starter scripts, with each pairing having to handle a different Doctor-Companion set. Me and my partner (sorry, forgotten the name: maybe that is why I never socialise) had Colin Baker and Bonnie Langford. The subsequent readings were hilarious with Simon commenting on each script. This was great fun.
4pm, Comics, Liam Sharp
Liam did not run a workshop, as such; he answered questions from the participants about writing for comics (of everyone there, only a couple of people were artists as opposed to writers, and both of them were writers as well). But the session did prove both interesting and insightful. I had never considered writing for comics before but am quite keen on the idea now. Liam talked about different ways to lay out the story for a comic and showed us several examples. I really wish I could draw 🙂
That was it for the day. I was completely knackered. I made my way around to the room where books were being sold but everyone was packing up. I managed to pick up a copy of Murky Depths. Afterwards, Vick and I made our way out for a couple of cold coffees. We both were interested in the later session on social sites for new writers but too tired to hang around. We’ll have to pace ourselves better next time.