The Writers' Greenhouse
Imaginary Worlds: New writing course starting February 2017
Imaginary Worlds genres: fantasy, science fiction, Young Adult fiction, urban paranormal, steampunk, dystopia

 

The genres of imaginary worlds are rich and various - much more so than people often realise. They overlap, blur boundaries, play at the edges, and constantly invent new genres which multiply faster than the names we can invent for them. This eight-week evening course explores world-building for any kind of imaginary world, whether you want to develop a world you've already started building or create a world from scratch.

Email megan @ thewritersgreenhouse.co.uk to get updates on when the next Imaginary Worlds course will run.

Course overview

Develop your world-building to improve or invent your own imaginary worlds: • explore the many genres • how to constrain magic • make unlikely stuff convincing • your world's physical detail • why your world matters • ripple-through effects • names and language • your characters' political and economic realities • techniques for exposition

In the first two weeks, you'll create multiple story ideas and build on two of these: one in the 'fantasy' camp (completely invented worlds and ideas using magic) and one in the 'sci-fi' camp (future worlds and ideas using real-world explanations). Over the next five weeks, you'll continue to build on either or both of those worlds, to develop their physical detail, why they matter, their ripple-through effects, their names and language, and your character's political and economic realities. If you're developing an existing world, you'll use the multiple story ideas to feed new possibilities into your world, then build on your existing world or one of the new ideas, as appropriate. In the final week, you'll discover a range of techniques for how to orientate your reader in this wonderful new world while telling a story.

Throughout the course, we'll look at extracts from a range of authors, plus articles and panels from FantasyCon and World Fantasy Con where top authors have discussed their approach to world-building.

Email megan @ thewritersgreenhouse.co.uk to find out when the next course will run and / or be added to the list

Weekly topics

Week 1: Genres and magic

Explore genre labels and create heaps of story ideas in multiple genres, and start developing your first story: with an idea that uses magic, create and constrain how the magic works in your world

Week 2: Unlikely stuff

A wildly imaginative world: Keep your "crazy" ideas and make them convincing! Start developing your second idea: with an idea that uses a sci-fi / real-world setting, turn the unfeasible into the stuff of story.

Week 3: Your physical world

The details of your world: flesh out your story's landscape, flora, and fauna, avoid the famous fox-hare-plain problem, and use collage as a way to create a tangible sense of place.

Week 4: Why your world matters

Theme is the heart of imaginary worlds: when you invent a world, it works how you believe it would - or could - or should. Deepening your theme also generates more events for your story and develops your cast.

Week 5: Ripple-through effects

Small changes to a world have long shadows. Explore how moving away from obvious choices changes the very landscape of your world to create something much more unique and truer to your vision.

Week 6: Playing with language

Explore ways to name characters and places, get some linguistic insight into making up snatches of a language, and start developing your world's idiom: the sayings, proverbs, and metaphors its inhabitants would use.

Week 7: Living in your world

The political and economic realities of your world shape your characters' daily lives and are a rich seam to tap. Playing with the possibilities also creates more ripple-through effects and ideas for events.

Week 8: Writing in your world

Writing in a world your reader's never visited requires deft exposition. Learn how to orientate your reader in this wonderful new world while telling a story. Part Dark Art, part bagful of techniques!

Recommended reading

These are the books we'll be touching on in class. You do NOT have to read the books in advance - you'll get the book blurbs and extracts from them to read in the class - but they're all highly recommended! The one exception is Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go: it's impossible to discuss it without spoilers, and it would be such a shame to spoil it, so please make sure you read that one. Note: if you read slowly and would like to get the extracts to read before class, let me know so I can email them to you before each week's class.

  • Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveller's Wife
  • Cixin Liu, Three Body Problem
  • George RR Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go - NB: Read this one in advance, to prevent SPOILERS
  • Ken Liu, The Grace of Kings
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
  • Malinda Lo, Ash
  • Nalo Hopkinson, Midnight Robber
  • Nisi Shawl, Everfair *
  • NK Jemsin, Fifth Season
  • Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix
  • Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
  • Peter F Hamilton, The Neutronium Alchemist
  • Robin Hobb, The Farseer Trilogy
  • Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games
  • Terry Pratchett, Jingo

* Depending on availability. Everfair's recent prize win means the publishers are struggling to keep up with demand.

Again, you DON'T have to read the books in advance, but if you do want to buy them, Blackwells Oxford (on Broad Street) has helpfully agreed to make sure they have plenty in stock. I advise people to buy books from local physical bookshops rather than Amazon whenever possible, as that's much better for authors and for the book trade.

To book

The next dates for the Imaginary Worlds course aren't yet set. If you'd like to come on the next course,email me so I can add you to the list.

Where

Upper Wolvercote (North Oxford). There's free parking, a great bus route (#6), and beautiful canal-side walking routes.

Cost

£240 total for 8 weeks, payable in instalments with a £30 deposit

 

The recommended reading: in detail

Over the 16 weeks until the course, I'll be updating the list each week with the blurb and some background info about each book. You can check back for more details, or follow me on Facebook/writersgreenhouse or Twitter @writersgreenhse to see the latest. I'll also post round-ups of four books at a time on the blog. You can join the mailing list to get that emailed to you.


Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

The kingdom of the Six Duchies is on the brink of civil war when news breaks that the crown prince has fathered a bastard son and is shamed into abdication. The child's name is Fitz, and his is despised. Raised in the castle stables, only the company of the king's fool, the ragged children of the lower city and his unusual affinity with animals provide Fitz with any comfort. To be useful to the crown, Fitz is trained as an assassin; and to use the traditional magic of the Farseer family. But his tutor, allied to another political faction, is determined to discredit, even kill him. Fitz must survive: for he may be destined to save the kingdom.

The blurb for this book reads like fairly standard "sword-and-sorcery" style epic fantasy, but Robin Hobb's books are anything but standard. They're definitely within the genre of epic fantasy and use a lot of the genre's features , but with fabulous freshness, they duck a lot of the usual cliches and take an unexpected approach to some of the familiar tropes. The characterisation and sense of place are especially good, and the books are shot through with a deep sense of wisdom. I don't think I've ever used my Kindle's underlining feature so much.

This is the first book in the Farseer Trilogy, and if this one hooks you, you're in luck: several other trilogies follow the same characters and world, alternating between the Farseers and the Rain Wilds, all with gorgeous cover art by Jackie Morris. The chronological order for the trilogies goes...

  • The Farseer trilogy
  • The Liveship Traders trilogy
  • The Tawny Man trilogy
  • The Rain Wild Chronicles (four books)
  • Fitz and the Fool trilogy (in progress)

What these books do especially well: so much to choose from here... A fully realised world and sense of place, with varying geography and cultures; well-constrained magic; making small changes to the usual "fantasy world" and allowing those to ripple through fully; not using the usual feudalism=sexism trope.


Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

It's Carnival time and the Caribbean-colonized planet of Toussaint is celebrating with music, dance, and pageantry. Masked 'Midnight Robbers' waylay revelers with brandished weapons and spellbinding words. But to you Tan-Tan, the Robber Queen is simply a favorite costume to wear at the festival -- until her power-coprrupted father commits an unforgivable crime. Suddenly, both father and daughter are thrust into the brutal world of New Half-Way Tree. Here monstrous creatures from folkklore are real, and the humans are violent outcasts in the wilds. Here Tan-Tan must reach into the heart of myth - and become the Robber Queen herself. For only the Robber Queen's legendary powers can save her life... and set her free.

Midnight Robber is a wonderfully unexpected mix of genres, starting off in a future world with some exciting new tech, feeling more like fantasy for much of the book, mixing in folklore and myth, and towards the end starting to feel a bit magical-realist, all sprinkled with Carribbean dialect. In the prologue, I found the dialect a tiny bit heavy, as I'm not used to it, but after a couple of pages I could tune my ear into it more easily (and I also checked ahead to see if the rest would be a bit lighter, which it was). Once I was into the story, the dialect felt lighter and also an essential part of creating the book's atmosphere. Most of all, the book's world is splendid and rich - I was gutted when it ended, because I'd have happily spent a full trilogy living in and exploring that world! A lot of fantasy draws on vaguely European landscapes of fields, mountains, plains, etc, and in the weaker books a paucity of animals, just foxes / hares / snakes / birds; to be in a compelling and fully realised jungle, replete with a jungle's many creepy crawly bitey things and humidity, was pure delight.

What this book does especially well: Many things - but for the Imaginary Worlds course, it's a particularly fine example of creating a world that doesn't follow the usual sci-fi / fantasy template, and also of filling it with flora and fauna.

Hopkinson's other novels use a similar freestyle approach to genre and play with language, so if you like Midnight Robber, you have another five novels you can read: Brown Girl in the Ring, The Salt Roads, The New Moon's Arms, The Chaos (Young adult), and Sister Mine. She's also published six anthologies of short fiction.


The Neutronium Alchemist by Peter F Hamilton

Neutronium Alchemist by Peter F Hamilton

**** SPOILER ALERT! **** This is actually the second book in the Night's Dawn trilogy - the first book in the trilogy is The Reality Dysfunction. So if you want to start reading at the beginning, then skip the blurb.

The ancient menace has finally escaped from Lalonde, shattering the Confederation's peaceful existence. Those who succumbed to it have acquired godlike powers, but now follow a far from divine gospel as they advance inexorably from world to world. On planets and asteroids individuals battle for survival against the strange and brutal forces unleashed upon the universe. Governments teeter on the brink of anarchy, the Confederation Navy is dangerously overstretched, and a dark messiah prepares to invoke his own version of the final Night. In such desperate times the last thing the galaxy needs is a new and terrifyingly powerful weapon. Yet Dr Alkad Mzu is determined to retrieve the Alchemist - so she can complete her thirty-year-old vendetta to slay a star. Which means Joshua Calvert has to find Dr Mzu and bring her back before the Alchemist can be reactivated. But he's not alone in the chase, and there are people on both sides who have their own ideas about how to sue the ultimate doomsday device.

Peter F Hamilton writes fantastic beasts of books, great whopping volumes. I love long books and series of books - I've never understood some people's dislike for them, because what are you going to do when you finish besides read another book? Why not carry on with the same book? That's even better! If you like long books as much as me, this author's a winner: most of these tomes clock in around 1000 pages, and they come in THREES.

Hamilton writes serious solid sci-fi. Most sci-fi gets divided into "actual sciency stuff" (extrapolating a scientific principle) and "space opera" (lots of planets and aliens), but he does both together. His books are huge in scope as well as actual size, with a substantial cast and usually about five plot threads running together, but absolutely worth any momentary confusion of "Who's that again?" The metaphysical payoff at the end of his novels is invariably spectactular, leaving your mind reeling with ideas.

I do have a couple criticisms of his work. He definitely has a sexual "type", which becomes increasingly clear across the books. By the seventh nubile girl with freckles across her breasts - well, le sigh, but whatever. That said, his female characters are generally strong, complex characters. He also goes into more detail than necessary sometimes with the tech - by the third page explaining how a spaceship works, I tend to think "I wasn't planning on building the bloody thing!" but some might enjoy that aspect. And sometimes, with 5 threads, the tension is lost, because when you return to that thread, you've forgotten the cliffhanger you left it on. But these are very minor quibbles compared to his book's strengths.

What these books do especially well: fantastic themes, which culminate powerfully in each trilogy's ending; heaps of new ideas with careful thought of how these ripple through the society; some brilliant science.

I heard Peter F Hamilton speak at a panel at the World Fantasy Conference, and afterwards asked the panel which of their ideas they thought most likely to come true some day. Hamilton said that his idea of OC tattoos, circuitry under the skin, were already true, and he was kicking himself for not having patented the idea!


The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Emperor Mapidere was the first to unite the island kingdoms of Dara under a single banner. But now the emperor is on his deathbed, his people are exhausted by his vast, conscriptive engineering projects and his counsellors conspire only for their own gain. Even the gods themselves are restless. A wily, charismatic bandit and the vengeance-sworn son of a deposed duke cross paths as they each lead their own rebellion against the emperor's brutal regime. Together, they will journey to the heart of the empire; witnessing the clash of armies, fleets of silk-draped airships, magical books and shapeshifting gods. Their unlikely friendship will drastically change the balance of power in Dara...but at what price?

The Grace of Kings is book 1 of The Dandelion Dynasty, but feels and works like a standalone book, with narrative satisfaction at the end. It's epic fantasy, in the sense of being set in an imaginary world and exploring its large-scale politics, but without many of the usual tropes of that - notably, no magic and no mythical beasts - and using tech with steampunk leanings, while not overtly being steampunk in other ways. Its main concern is with politics: how political machinations work (or fail), changing perceptions, and the personalities behind it. It had much less description than epic fantasy usually does, which is a shame for me, as that's what lets me imaginatively inhabit a world, but the rest was good enough to keep me engaged.

What this book does especially well: Its precise exploration of politics is fascinating, especially in how tightly this is woven with an understanding of characters. Each time a character does something that thrills or disappoints you, you have a sense that that was, perhaps, inevitable in their personality.


The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire - neither Offred's nor that of the two men on which her future hangs.

The Handmaid's Tale is an absolute classic dystopia - first published in 1985, it still feels chilling and prescient today. Although it's set in the future and definitely a dystopia, it's usually counted as "literary fiction" rather than sci-fi / fantasy. There's an unfortunate snobbery at work, where some circles refuse to consider that any sci-fi or fantasy could be literary, and if something is clearly literary as well, then it somehow gets elevated to "not sci-fi / fantasy" even though it clearly is. The same happens with Atwood's other books (in fact even she says they're not SFF) and with Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let me Go. It's a shame that people insist on this snobbery and these silos - but if anything, it goes to show how very vast the genres of "imaginary worlds" actually are.

What this book does especially well: Atwood's prose is beautiful, pure and resonant as a crystal chiming (hence the literary accolades, which she certainly deserves) and its theme is strikingly powerful.


A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

Winter can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun. As Warden of the north, Lord Eddard Stark counts it a curse when King Robert bestows on him the office of the Hand. His honour weighs him down at court where a true man does what he will, not what he must ...and a dead enemy is a thing of beauty. The old gods have no power in the south, Stark's family is split and there is treachery at court. Worse, the vengeance-mad heir of the deposed Dragon King has grown to maturity in exile in the Free Cities.

A Game of Thrones barely needs any introduction any more, though you may not know that that's the name of the first book only, and the full book series is called A Song of Ice and Fire. And if you're feeling impatient for the next instalment of the HBO series, spare a thought for readers who started the books when the first one came out in 1996!

If you only know the story from the TV series, or were put off the TV series by the excess breastage, then I highly recommend the books. The TV series has done a fantastic job of condensing and adapting the story, and the casting is particularly rich, but there's a wealth more detail in the books, and they are absolutely not sexist at all. Everyone suffers, and the forces of war and patriarchy play out exactly as they genuinely would, but this is in no way misogynistically done, and if anything it's an extensive critique of our feudal-fantasy dreams, where we fill fantasy books with castles and wars, not thinking carefully about how that would actually work. These books take it seriously.

Also, while the TV series is all about the sex, the books are much more obsessed with food. Seriously: lay in plenty of food before you start reading. In particular, you'll need roast chickens, wheels of cheese, vegetables drowned in butter, stuffed chillies, and loaves of fresh bread. For starters.

What this book does especially well: George RR Martin's world is exceptionally well realised, with vast detail in every aspect of culture and people's lives, and close attention to the ripple-out effects of every choice.


The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

1967: Ye Wenjie witnesses Red Guards beat her father to death during China's Cultural Revolution. This singular event will shape not only the rest of her life but also the future of mankind. Four decades later, Beijing police ask nanotech engineer Wang Miao to infiltrate a secretive cabal of scientists after a spate of inexplicable suicides. Wang's investigation will lead him to a mysterious online game and immerse him in a virtual world ruled by the intractable and unpredicatable interaction of its three suns. This is the Three-Body Problem and it is the key to everything: the key to the scientists' deaths, the key to a conspiracy that spans light-years and the key to the extinction-level threat humanity now faces.

This is hardcore hard sci-fi, taking particular scientific principles and exploring them fully. If you're happy reading *A Brief History of Time* and the like, you'll love this - it's chokka with genuine science, fascinating extrapolations, and physics dilemmas. But if physics isn't completely your thing, you might find this hard going, because lengthy passages are devoted solely to the physics, and the story wouldn't make sense if you skimmed them - the science *is* the story. A Marmite book, then! Incidentally, it was translated from Chinese by Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings, who's also on the recommended list.

What this book does especially well: it uses meticulous science to develop an idea that would otherwise seem outlandish and even cliched, it embeds the political realities in its characters' lives, in the future it imagines as well as in the historical past, and its theme - whether or not humans even should be saved - feels painfully relevant at the moment.


Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash by Malinda Lo

In the world of Ash, fairies are an older race of people who walk the line between life and death, reality and magic. As orphaned Ash grows up, a servant in her stepmother's home, she begans to realise that her beloved mother, Elinor, was very much in tune with these underworld folk, and that she herself has the power to see them too. Against the sheer misery of her stepmother's cruelty, greed and ambition in preparing her two charmless daughters for presentation at court, and hopefully royal or aristocratic marriage, Ash befriends one of these fairies - a mysterious, handsome man who grants her wishes and restores hope to Ash's existence, even though she knows there will be a price to pay. But most important of all, she also meets Kaisa, a huntress employed by the king, and it is Kaisa who truly awakens Ash's desires for both love and self-respect... Ash is a fairy tale about possibility and recognizing the opportunities for change. From the deepest grief comes the chance for transformation.

Ash is a children's book (shelved in the 9-12 range) retelling the story of Cinderella, with a few twists - most significantly, in dismissing the traditional trajectory. If you've read Angela Carter's fairytale retellings in The Bloody Chamber, then the "twists" in Ash might seem tame in comparison, but remember who the book's readers are: as an intro to feminist fairytale retelling, this is captivating, and reminds you that you're always allowed to rewrite the stories yourself. Its world-building is light, in keeping with it being fairytale rather than epic fantasy, but the description is still vivid and its use of magic is deft, interesting, and well-described.

What this book does especially well: overturning the usual familiar tropes of its genre and the obvious choices for an unexpected approach.


The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. But Katniss has been close to death before - and survival, for her, is second nature. 'The Hunger Games' is a searing novel set in a future with unsettling parallels to our present. Welcome to the deadliest reality TV show ever...

This is one of the best Young Adult dystopias out there - and that's a broader category than you might realise! The films did the books a real disservice, so if you've only seen the films, get hold of the books immediately. The films were faithful to the books' events, but they completely lost the sense of Katniss's interiority, which is one of the most powerful aspects of the books. Throughout the events of being filmed, hated or adored by the public, dressed up, paraded, etc, Katniss is extremely aware of other people's perceptions of her and plays that with brutal intelligence. This is the flip side of "the male gaze" - the young woman who despises the system and knows exactly how to game it for survival, however reluctant she might be to do that. In the film, all that is shorn away, and all we're left with is Katniss's outward display. I don't know how one would show interiority in a film, but it felt like the most crucial aspect of the book had been stripped out.

What this book does especially well: The political and economic realities of this world play out in every single aspect of these characters' lives, right from the first scene where Katniss illegally goes hunting. It's a masterclass in how to turn politics and economics, which might seem "dry" subjects, into the stuff of story.


The Fifth Season by NK Jemsin

The Fifth Season, by NK Jemsin

This is the way the world ends ... for the last time. It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world's sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun. It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter. It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester. This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy..

Given the book's unbelievably gloomy blurb, I expected an extremely gloomy and dystopic book, perhaps even verging on grimdark - one of the few speculative-fiction subgenres that I actively avoid. But that's not how the book felt at all. The events, on reflection, are often dark, but the book itself is good at chiaroscuro, and rather than dark it feels absorbing, gripping, fascinating. It also has a powerful moral centre, whereas grimdark is more usually amoral. I'd also call it fantasy rather than dystopia, even if it is about a world ending, because it's set in a world that's not ours, with magic..

What this book does especially well: beautiful literary prose, playing with the language and idiom of its world, and a variety of magic unlike anything I've found in other fantasy.


The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

'I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me' So begins the tale of Kvothe - currently known as Kote, the unassuming innkeepter - from his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, through his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-riddled city, to his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a difficult and dangerous school of magic. In these pages you will come to know Kvothe the notorious magician, the accomplished thief, the masterful musician, the dragon-slayer, the legend-hunter, the lover, the thief and the infamous assassin.

The Name of the Wind is epic fantasy at its best, and rather than centering around castles and people of power, it centres around a more marginal figure, at least politically. It's rich, fascinating, completely absorbing - when you've run out of Robin Hobb and are wandering the house in despair for what else might match up, reach for this. Much of the first book is set in the university, with the particular enjoyment that brings - think of the pleasure of reading about Hogwarts, in Harry Potter. Well, this is the grown-up version of that. It's also a valuable reminder that tension in a book, especially a fantasy book, doesn't have to be from huge brewing wars and dramatic quests, but can be something as seemingly ordinary as a character you care deeply about trying to raise the money for their next term of education.

Money is Rothfuss's particular thing - currency, actually - and he pays close attention to it, and manages to make it equally compelling for the reader. If you ever meet him, ask him about his currency system, and then sit back to enjoy the flow of talk and his burgeoning beard for the next few hours. Make sure to stock up with a bottle or barrel beforehand. Everyone has their particular geekery, and this without doubt is Rothfuss's - though he also has a fabulous line in inventing idioms and figures of speech from within his world, or using our idioms and giving them new origins from his world.

My only criticism is that his female characters can be quite weak - absurdly fey, or, if they're a "strong character", borderline psychotic. I've noticed a few male fantasy authors gamely try to write "strong female characters" and end up creating these erratic psychotic people whose behaviour is completely inexplicable (to the reader as well as the hapless man) and in any man would be recognised as violent, abusive, and manipulative. I wouldn't mind if the book seemed to recognise that she's mad as a bag of rats and behaves inexcusably, but she always seems to get a pass. That's the main love interest, alas, but some of the secondary female characters seem quite normal, so that's good.

What this book does especially well: economics, plot tension through small-scale events building, and playing with language.


Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

In one of the most memorable novels of recent years, Kazuo Ishiguro imagines the lives of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewered version of contemporary England. Narrated by Kathy, now 31, Never Let Me Go hauntingly dramatises her attempts to come to terms with her childhood at the seemingly idyllic Hailsham School, and with the fate that has always awaited her and her closest friends in the wider world. A story of love, friendship and memory, Never Let Me Go is charged throughout with a sense of the fragility of life.

It's almost impossible to say anything about this book without committing massive spoilers, or just plumping for adjectives like "extraordinary" and "thought-provoking", so for this, I'm just going to have to say, READ IT. Don't even look at the back-cover blurb, just READ IT. You have to trust me on this. I'm not going to be the one who spoils it for you.

What this book does especially well: JUST READ IT. Sorry, I can't say more.


The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

This is the extraordinary love story of Clare and Henry who met when Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-two and Henry thirty. Impossible but true, because Henry suffers from a rare condition where his genetic clock periodically resets and he finds himself pulled suddenly into his past or future. In the face of this force they can neither prevent nor control, Henry and Clare's struggle to lead normal lives is both intensely moving and entirely unforgettable.

Like The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, this novel is marketed and presented as mainstream or literary fiction, rather than sci-fi / fantasy, though Henry's time-travelling condition is definitely the stuff of sci-fi in its widest sense. How a book is defined is often more to do with a marketing decision or an author's wider identity than the book itself. For instance, some of Octavia E Butler's work has fewer features of sci-fi/fantasy than this book, but is generally grouped with SFF because of her other work.

As with urban paranormal or a near-future sci-fi, The Time Traveler's Wife is set in our world, but with this additional thing: Henry's "Chrono-Displacement Disorder". Niffenegger could have treated that in fantasy style (just as a magic) or as magical realism (without explanation), but instead goes for a medical, chromosonal explanation, which is what nudges it towards the sci-fi side of the spectrum. Actually, the medical explanation is the least convincing part of the novel; it feels like an awkward stretch, and the fancy name "Chrono-Displacement Disorder" isn't enough to make it believable. What does make it believable, though, or at least make the reader willing to suspend any disbelief, is her detailed exploration of how this plays out in their lives.

What this book does especially well: This is a brilliant example of how to make an unlikely / impossible thing believable by exploring how it plays out in real life. Seeing is believing, feeling is believing, and throughout the story we see and feel what both characters experience, to the point where we don't even care about any lingering scepticism.


The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

They call her many things - a research project, a test-subject, a speciMen. An abomination. But she calls herself Phoenix, an 'accelerated woman' - a genetic experiment grown and raised in Manhattan's famous Tower 7, the only home she has ever known. Although she's only two years old, Phoenix has the body and mind of an adult - and powers beyond imagining. Phoenix is an innocent, happy to live quietly in Tower 7, reading voraciously and basking in the love of Saeed, another biologically altered human. Until the night that Saeed witnesses something so terrible that he takes his own life. Devastated, Phoenix begins to search for answers - only to discover that everything that she has ever known is a lie. Tower 7 isn't a haven. It's a prison. And it's time for Phoenix to spread her wings and rise.

The Book of Phoenix is the prequel to Okorafor's multi-award-winning Who Fears Death, as the truth behind the mythologised prehistory of *Who Fears Death*. Every book site and reviewer has a stab at naming its genre - sci-fi, magical realism, magical futurisim, dystopia, etc - but The Book of Phoenix definitely has more of a sci-feel to it than Who Fears Death, and while it draws on magic, that's given more of a scientific underpinning.

Wrangling about genre aside, this is a brilliant and extraordinary book, fast-paced, dramatic, wholly convincing, and with those epic goosebump moments that make your skin prickle and which live in your mind's eye long after.

What this book does especially well: convincing scientific underpinnings for otherwise unlikely stuff, strikingly powerful theme, and drawing on a different cultural palette to the overly familiar white-western-sci-fi fare, even down to the literal fare, the characters' food. You don't realise how tediously ubiquitous the usual spaceburger is until someone's eating injera, instead.


Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Everfair is a wonderful Neo-Victorian alternate history novel that explores the question of what might have come of Belgium's disastrous colonization of the Congo if the native populations had learned about steam technology a bit earlier. Fabian Socialists from Great Britian join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo's "owner," King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.

Steampunk is one of the most delightful aesthetics there is - all cogs, steam machines, brass rivets, wood, goggles, cogs, leather, etc, and a generous helping of Victoriana - but that can at times mean a story can get caught up in only the aesthetic and not go any deeper. Plus all the Victoriana can end up an uncritical celebration of Victorian customs and norms, glossing over or even celebrating the nastier side of the era. Everfair takes the machinery of steampunk (quite literally), roots it firmly in the dark side of the times, and uses it to create an incredibly striking alternative history of the Congo. The fanciful automata of other steampunk novels here become equally ingenious but much more necessary prosthetics to replace the hands of those who had them chopped off in slavery - and replace them with better, more skilled, and more dangerous hands that can also be weapons.

What this book does especially well: The perfect marriage of genre and theme, steampunk and colonialism, as if this is exactly what steampunk was supposed to do all the time, we just hadn't learnt how to use it yet.


Jingo by Terry Pratchett

Jingo by Terry Pratchett

'Neighbours...hah. People'd live for ages side by side, nodding at one another amicably on their way to work, and then some trivial thing would happen and someone would be having a garden fork removed from their ear.' And when the neighbours in question are the proud empires of Klatch and Ankh-Morpork, those are going to be some pretty large garden tools indeed. Of course, no-one would dream of starting a war without a perfectly good reason.such as a 'strategic' piece of old rock in the middle of nowhere. It is after all every citizen's right to bear arms to defend what they consider to be their own. Even if it isn't. And even if they don't have much in the way of actual weaponry. As two armies march, Commander Vimes of Ankh-Morpork City Watch faces unpleasant foes who are out to get him...and that's just the people on his side. The enemy might be even worse. Discworld goes to war, with armies of sardines, warriors, fishermen, squid and at least one very camp follower.

Anyone who's read Terry Pratchett won't need any intro, so this is for the people who're newcomers to his work. He's often seen as "fantasy comedy" - and yes, this is a fantasy world, and he's extremely funny, but that description belies the depth of his satire and his extraordinarily nuanced and compassionate worldview. I usually advise newcomers to start with one of his later books - "Jingo", "Monstrous Regiment", "Making Money", "Going Postal", or "The Truth", where his social satire is at its peak. The very early books tended to satirise 80s fantasy, which is hilarious if you were reading 80s fantasy, but if you don't know the target, the satire can fall a bit flat. (Most of the Rincewind novels fall into that category, to my mind.) As the books progress, the target of his satire shifts - first a few other fantasy genres (fairytales, The Phantom of the Opera) and then into wider social satire. His warm, wise, and very sharp worldview runs through all the books, but find more expression in the storylines of the later books.

You don't need to read the books in the order they were written, but some do form "runs" that follow the same character. This is one of my favourite infographics of which books go together.

What this book does especially well: It's Pratchett, at the peak of his power, so there's far too much to choose from, but the thing we'll be particularly looking at on the course is how he uses his fantasy world to make broader social statements, and how he plays with narrative expectation to create an ending with real-world complexity.


Frequently asked questions

Is the course suitable for beginners?

Yes: if you've done lots of writing before, great, and if you haven't, that's fine too. The course and the materials are multi-level and use process-teaching: in practice, this means you try out different techniques and experiment with them in class, to explore each topic.

Can I pay in instalments?

Yes. You pay a £40 deposit and can then pay the rest in instalments. Usually, that's two instalments, at weeks 1 and 5. If you prefer to pay weekly or need to shift the payment dates to match your salary date, that's fine.

Do I need to be working on a story or have a world?

No. You'll develop ideas and build your worlds on the course. If you already have an existing story or world though, you can also use the course to develop that world further.

Do you give feedback on our writing?

Yes. The course includes feedback on 2 pieces of writing up to 2000 words each.

How much homework do we need to do?

The homework usually takes about 20-30 minutes a week, and is always consolidating / based on something we did in class. The exception is the 2 pieces of prose writing that I give you feedback on: obviously that takes longer than 20-30 minutes and it's up to you how much you submit, but it's a good opportunity to get feedback on your writing.

What if I have to miss a class?

At the end of each class, I give out a booklet summarising what we've covered in that class. If you miss a class, I usually suggest you come five or ten minutes early to the next class, so I can talk you through what we did. I also email you play-it-yourself versions of the activities we did, which include all the instructions, handouts, and suggested answers you need, and can be used on your own or with a friend or two.

Does it matter if I'm dyslexic?

No. Dyslexia will not prevent you from doing the course and it certainly doesn't stop you from writing well. Hans Christian Andersen, Agatha Christie, WB Yeats, Lewis Carroll, Ernest Hemingway, Roald Dahl, and Mark Twain were all dyslexic. You do the writing; let someone else worry about spelling and punctuation. (A proofreader or a friend can fix your spelling and punctuation, if you need them to.) In any case, the course focuses on world-building, not on your prose style.

If dyslexia affects your reading: I can email you the extracts that we'll read in class, in advance, so you can read them at your own pace and use the class-time to refresh your memory. I colour-code all the materials, so everything is printed on coloured paper, which some people with dyslexia find easier to read. I also use a clear, sans-serif font on everything.

Are the courses accessible for people with disabilities?

I run the courses from home and there are a few steps to get into the house (4 steps from the driveway, 1 to get into the house, 1 into the conservatory, and 1 in the bathroom). I can arrange a ramp for the outside steps, but there isn't enough room to put a ramp at the front door or in the bathroom. If you use a wheelchair, this may be a problem. If you know how I can get useable ramps into more confined spaces, I'd be grateful for the advice and happy to arrange that.
Please note I use light Ikea stools for seating; if you'd like a sturdier chair or one with a backrest, just let me know.

Email megan @ thewritersgreenhouse.co.uk if you have any other questions.

What next?

Summer of Writing Saturday workshops

→ Summer of Writing

See the Summer of Writing 2017 workshops and book your place for this summer

Imaginary Worlds course

→ Email Megan to book your place

Email me to find out when the next Imaginary Worlds course is running and let me know if you have any other questions.

Story Elements course

→ Read about the Story Elements course

Read more about what the course is like, what it covers, and FAQs.

Arrange a guest speaker

→ Arrange a workshop for your group or society

Organise a fun, interactive workshop to introduce your society to creating stories or to explore a topic in-depth with your writing group.

 

 

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