Conference Notes: Orson Scott Card

Last month, I had the privilege of serving at the Speculative Fiction: Southeast 2015 conference. This was a general market con with a heavy emphasis on writing workshops. The conference headliner was Orson Scott Card. Just a little exciting.

You could probably hear my squeeing no matter how far you are from Florida.

On day one, I taught the same Unventing Languages workshop I gave at Realm Makers 2014. Then I attended a worldbuilding panel on which Card was one of the speakers. I neglected to take any decent notes, but the one thing I remember was something that Card also states in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. That when you work to hard to incorporate mythic archetypes, your stories will fall flat. If you just focus on telling the story, the mythic underpinnings will be present without being obvious.

Inevitably, archetypal themes will show up again and again. But they only work if you are not aware of them; the moment you consciously treat them as formulas, they lose the power to stir the blood of any but the most naive readers.—Orson Scott Card, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy

We’ve all heard about archetypes and monomyth and how effective they are at engaging readers. I suspect that what Card is getting at is that you can’t let the formulas dictate the story.

On day two, I was moderating a panel about editing when Card kicked off his three-hour workshop. So I missed the first hour and a bit of his talk. Since I came in late, I was way in the back, which is why my photos are so crappy.

Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card • Photo by Kristen Stieffel

When I arrived, Card was discussing one of my favorite subjects—viewpoint. He didn’t use my preferred term, deep point of view, but what he advocated was just that—getting into the character’s head and eliminating the narrator.

Why limit yourself to a screenwriter’s tools? Do the thing a movie can’t do—get inside the viewpoint character.—Orson Scott Card

He noted that too often amateur writers try to create “suspense” by concealing information from the reader. This is rarely as effective as writers think it will be.

Suspense does not come from not knowing what’s going on—only confusion.—Orson Scott Card

When you’re deeply embedded in the character’s viewpoint—regardless of whether you’re writing in first or third person—information received by the character must not be hidden from the reader. If you need to control the order of information—what we need to know and when—then control the order in which the character receives it.

Even though this was Orson Scott Card, I found myself in the familiar position many of us have when we’ve been working the conference circuit for years. We’ve heard a lot of this before. I mean, Card didn’t really teach anything I haven’t heard before. Nevertheless, he’s an engaging speaker and if you have an opportunity to hear him teach, take it.

Orson Scott Card’s public appearance schedule

Here are a few more of Card’s bons mots:

The paper does not contain the story. The story does not exist until it’s in the reader’s head.

Twister is the best movie ever because the dialogue is alive every second.

In science fiction, you can’t mess around with literary stuff. You have to actually be clear.

Writer’s block is a sign that you don’t believe in and care about what you’ve written or are about to write.

When your subconscious says, “Stop!” you should listen.


About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

4 comments on “Conference Notes: Orson Scott Card

  1. I understand about the familiarity. Most days I go to conferences for the networking, because the best teachers tend to agree with each other, especially as they mature.

    Still, thank you for the following quotes!

    “Writer’s block is a sign that you don’t believe in and care about what you’ve written or are about to write.”

    “When your subconscious says, “Stop!” you should listen.”

    Mostly because I’ve learned them the hard way, so it’s nice to see other writers agreeing with it. For years, my writers block has literally been “I don’t care” which tells me something about the story isn’t true to what I really want to write. And the subconscious thing? I’m still learning to listen to that. 😉

  2. Great stuff, Kristen! My thoughts are similar to Janeen’s. After consuming decades of how-to books and Writer’s Digest magazines and blog posts, there isn’t much “new” that I hear at conferences. But it’s always a good shot in the arm, and often I’ll get timely reminders that help me out of whatever pit I might be in at that moment.

    Great point about the archetype thing. It reminds me of something I read recently about premise vs. plot. A premise might be a great overarching idea, but it isn’t until you have a series of escalating events and challenges that you really get a *story*.

  3. I agree, there’s little truly new “how to” tips but it’s always good to be reminded of basics.

    I’m curious, though, what Card meant by staying away from the literary stuff or how he defines it. His own Ender’s Game series has been classified as literary SF by various SF sites, along with such classics as A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Left Hand of Darkness, and Babel 17.

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