Literary Freeware: Not for Commercial Use
People often ask where science fiction writers get
their ideas. They rarely ask where society gets its
science fiction writers. In many cases the answer is
science fiction workshops.
Workshops come in many varieties -- regional and national, amateur and professional,
formal and frazzled. In science fiction's best-known workshop, Clarion, would-be
writers are wrenched from home and hearth and pitilessly blitzed for six weeks
by professional SF writers, who serve as creative-writing gurus. Would-be sf
writers can receive actual academic credit for this experience.
But the workshopping experience does not require any shepherding by experts.
Like a bad rock band, an SF-writer's workshop can be set up in any vacant garage
by any group of spotty enthusiasts with nothing better to occupy their time.
No one has a copyright on talent, desire, or enthusiasm.
The general course of action in the modern SF
workshop (known as the "Milford system") goes as follows.
Attendees bring short manuscripts, with enough copies for
everyone present. No one can attend or comment who does
not bring a story. The contributors read and annotate all
the stories. When that's done, everyone forms a circle, a
story is picked at random, and the person to the writer's
right begins the critique. (Large groups may require
Following the circle in order, with a minimum of
cross-talk or interruptions, each person emits his/her
considered opinions of the story's merits and/or demerits.
The author is strictly required, by rigid law and custom,
to make no outcries, no matter how he or she may squirm.
When the circle is done and the last reader has vented his
or her opinion, the silently suffering author is allowed
an extended reply, which, it is hoped, will not exceed
half an hour or so, and will avoid gratuitously personal
ripostes. This harrowing process continues, with possible
breaks for food, until all the stories are done, whereupon
everyone tries to repair ruptured relationships in an orgy
of drink and gossip.
No doubt a very interesting book could be written
about science fiction in which the writing itself played
no part. This phantom history could detail the social
demimonde of workshops and their associated cliques:
Milford, the Futurians, Milwaukee Fictioneers, Turkey
City, New Wave, Hydra Club, Jules Verne's Eleven Without
Women, and year after year after year of Clarion -- a
thousand SF groups around the world, known and unknown.
Anyone can play. I've noticed that workshops have a
particularly crucial role in non-Anglophone societies,
where fans, writers, and publishers are often closely
united in the same handful of zealots. This kind of
fellow-feeling may be the true hearts-blood of the genre.
We now come to the core of this piece, the SF Workshop Lexicon. This
lexicon was compiled by Mr Lewis Shiner and myself from the work of many writers
and critics over many years of genre history, and it contains buzzwords, notions
and critical terms of direct use to SF workshops.
The first version, known as the "Turkey City Lexicon"
after the Austin, Texas writers' workshop that was a
cradle of cyberpunk, appeared in 1988. In proper
ideologically-correct cyberpunk fashion, the Turkey City
Lexicon was distributed uncopyrighted and free-of-charge:
a decommodified, photocopied chunk of free literary
In September 1990 I re-wrote the Lexicon as an installment in my critical
column for the British magazine Interzone. When Robin Wilson asked me
to refurbish the Lexicon yet again for his book Paragons in 1996, I
couldn't resist the temptation. Now I've raked it over once more. I'm always
open to improvements and amendments for the Lexicon. It seems to me that if
a document of this sort fails to grow it will surely become a literary monument,
and, well, heaven forbid. You can email me about it: I'm firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some Lexicon terms are attributed to their originators,
when I could find them; others are not, and I apologize
for my ignorance.
Science fiction boasts many specialized critical terms. You can find a passel
of these in Gary K Wolfe's Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy:
Glossary and Guide to Scholarship (Greenwood Press, 1986). But you won't
find them in here. This lexicon is not a guide to scholarship. The Workshop
Lexicon is a guide (of sorts) for down-and-dirty hairy-knuckled sci-fi writers,
the kind of ambitious subliterate guttersnipes who actually write and sell professional
genre material. It's rough, rollicking, rule-of-thumb stuff suitable for shouting
aloud while pounding the table.