Subverting Cliche at Shared Worlds: The Scaly Ones Are Always Evil

This summer I had a wonderful teaching experience, serving as the assistant director and resident writer for Shared Worlds, a unique world-building/writing camp for teens hosted by Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. For two weeks, along with Wofford staff, I helped nineteen highly creative teens from as far away as Japan create fantasy/SF worlds and then write stories set in those worlds.

(The Shared Worlds students in high spirits, with Jeff on the left, and Tobias Buckell, center, flanked by TAs Stephyn and Zach.)

Also assisting were several visiting writers, including Tobias Buckell, who flew in right after an appearance at Comic-Con in San Diego. Buckell focused on cliche and archetype, getting the students to see their worlds and their writing in a different light. I thought his teaching style was great, engaging the students through a combination of lecture, workshop, and video.

Buckell used the hilarious Skeleton of Cadavra trailer as the jumping off point for a discussion of when to use cliches and when to subvert or think beyond them. As Buckell said, “You can put your heart and soul into something and readers go c’mon—really? Because the writer has missed some portion of the cliches out there.”

One of the first answers when he asked the students for examples of cliche came from Lyndsey Werner, who replied, “Anything Hollywood, especially romantic comedies.” Later, during a discussion of Nature as Villain, student Miranda Severance memorably said, “It’s always the scaly ones that are evil. Never the fluffy ones.”


Buckell showed the students several strategies for subverting cliche, including use of humor, mixing-and-matching, and by asking more questions about a character or situation. Student Taylor Livingston even came up with her own strategy that she called “shredded flows.”

Buckell also spoke about his Caribbean heritage, and about how he has incorporated it into novels like Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, and the forthcoming Sly Mongoose. The only Caribbean SF he had as a reference point as a beginning writer was Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net, which “gave me the inspiration that my kind of SF might be welcome.”

This discussion came at the perfect time, as Ekaterina Sedia, author of A Secret History of Moscow and Alchemy of Stone, had just visited to talk about diversity. Sedia focused on testing the worlds the students had created to make sure they weren’t monolithic, that they had thought about gender and ethnic stereotypes, and especially that they had considered using non-Western examples from the real world in coming up with their milieus. She made a strong impression on the students by making them ask questions they might not otherwise have thought to ask.

In addition to workshops and lectures, the students also got plenty of CGT, or creative group time, where, as camp founder and director Jeremy Jones says, “They have to negotiate, discuss, and really listen to each other. They apply what they have heard or read elsewhere. They make stuff up. They bounce ideas off each other. They have a professor and a college aged teaching assistant in there with them, but ultimately they—the students—are doing the heavy lifting.”

The usefulness of this time can’t be overstated. I was continually amazed at how the students would soak up a workshop like Buckell’s and then, literally overnight, after CGT, have integrated their new knowledge with their worldbuilding and creative writing assignments.

Shared Worlds also provided ample evidence of what individual ambition across different media can do to support a group effort. For example, when one group created cool but disjointed written descriptions of several animals native to their planet, a student with art talent got to work drawing all of the animals. In doing so, the animals, as illustrated, became more uniform and more recognizably part of the same planetary ecology. This allowed the students to finalize the animals in a much more logical fashion.

To support the inter-disciplinary approach, we also brought in Will Hindmarch, who has been involved in game development for White Wolf. Hindmarch did a brilliant job of teaching them creative writing using metaphors from the gaming world—a language with which all of them were  intimately familiar. This gave them yet another perspective, and renewed enthusiasm, just as they were in the final stages of finishing the fiction based on their worlds. (Not to mention that the night of gaming Hindmarch did, along with the midnight trip to B&N for the Stephanie Meyer book release party, will live in the students’ memories for a long time to come!) 

Shared Worlds grew out of Jones’ experience teaching high school kids, where he found “that the more speculative fiction I assigned, the more students read in general.  Greg Keyes once said to me that if you give kids the fruit of the tree of literature, they will discover the root. If you give them just the root, it will kill the tree, or at least kill their desire to read any more. A lot of parents and teachers, it seems to me, are worried that their kids don’t read much. And they figure that if a kid is only going to read a few books a year, those books ought to be classics. This makes a certain amount of sense, but it often backfires.  Sometimes it turns kids off to reading in general. The trick is being willing to trust young readers to find the classics but also let them explore and get passionate about what’s relevant to their lives. No one likes to be forced to do anything.”

What did the students get from Shared Worlds? In a purely practical sense, private wikis detailing their worlds and, in a month or so, a printed anthology of their writings that gives each of them the pleasure of seeing the tangible results of all that hard work. They also began to get their first sense of the wider SF/fantasy community, as Dot Lin at Tor, Wizards of the Coast, and Prime contributed free books, artists like John Picacio and Bruce Jensen contributed art to spark fiction ideas, and sites like SF Signal ran world-building posts in support of the camp.

Next year, Shared Worlds will probably have three tracks—fiction writing, game development, and visual arts—while expanding the number of student slots to at least forty, with a corresponding growth in support staff.


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