A Portal Into Another World: Lisa Tuttle on sci-fi and fantasy – 5 February 2020

Award-winning, American-born, Lisa Tuttle was welcomed by a full house at Ayr Writers’ Club this week. She fascinated sci-fi fans and encouraged those of us who are not such fans, to take a tentative step into the mysterious, magical, miraculous worlds imagined in this genre.

Having longed to write from an early age, in a book-filled house, Lisa began telling her sister other-worldly stories when they were children. Her teenage years were dominated by sci-fi magazines and fanzines which absorbed her and enabled her to connect with other enthusiasts. Before long, she had started her own sci-fi society in Houston, Texas, for which she also wrote, garnering – for the first time – positive feedback from readers, other than her family.

During her time at university in New York, she began sending her short stories out to ‘real’ magazines but it was a six-week, writers’ workshop, called ‘CLARION’ in late 60s, New Orleans, which was a real turning point, and “a dream come true”. One story, written at that time, became her first published piece, and led to a career during which she has written both short stories and novels, as well as some non-fiction. It was a collaboration with George R.R. Martin (of Games of Thrones fame) which gave her the courage to attempt novel writing, an experience which, she said, was wonderful when they found themselves ‘in-tune”, and made the struggle of pushing through difficult passages so much easier, and less lonely.

In terms of definitions of sci-fi, we learned a great deal: it can include horror, fantasy, magic, and ghost stories, have real world settings or fully imagined worlds, but is best summed up as providing ‘a portal to another world’. Often, an editor will dictate a publication’s ‘definition’, thus limiting types of stories accepted. The genre has, in recent times, expanded and become more mainstream, encompassing pieces which might be described as near-future thrillers. It is, however, still difficult to find a market for short stories, with publishers proving reluctant, unless a writer has already been successful with a novel. Sci-fic is not autobiographical in nature, and this may explain why young, enthusiastic writers are often drawn to the genre, as it tends not to depend on life experience.

For Lisa, however, elements of life can find their way into the narrative. A good illustration of this, was demonstrated in the extract she read from The Silver Bow where she employs her experience of working as a librarian, a new take on an old Scots’ tale, as well as using the geographical location of her home, as key elements of this spooky, unsettling tale, in which a librarian finds herself being introduced to four, ancient, female, ‘living’ generations of the same family, the oldest being “a very large doll…” with eyes that “bulged from a bald head”. The extract was at once repulsive and humorous – a delicious combination.

And so, to writing tips. Is writing sci-fi more difficult? Yes and no! The skills are the same but there is the necessity to be ‘science-aware’ and logical, as the writer must find a way of making ideas seem ‘possible’, even rational. Be aware of the possibility that simple sentences can be interpreted from an inventively-sci-fi viewpoint: “She turned on her side”. If ‘she’ were a robot, what might ‘she’ be ‘activating?

To plan or not to plan? Lisa prefers the freedom of organic writing which she finds more pleasurable but acknowledges – from bitter experience – that a degree of knowing what will happen is necessary, especially for novels. Should you choose to base your tale on an existing legend or myth, a structure already exists.

Creation of names? Lisa was interesting on this point, too. Why go to the trouble of inventing an unpronounceable name with which your reader will struggle? Instead, think about the thing/person/place you have created and perhaps reflect function or movement in its name.

Dos and don’ts: avoid being formulaic and using sci-fi clichés; try to establish a writing routine but if you are having a ‘bad’ day, walk away. Doing something completely different can unlock the problem. Don’t be distracted by the internet.

And remember, a piece that is not ‘right’ for one publisher may be ideal for another – do not assume a rejection means your work is BAD.

Having received a generous injection of wisdom, we left feeling transported, encouraged and uplifted.

Now, where did I park my spaceship?

Carolyn O’Hara

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