Book - Equinox

Book cover. Mirror images of people silhouetted in a forest.

With his latest SF/F novel Equinox published next week by Ad Astra, author David Towsey has written an EXCLUSIVE article for us about the trials of being a Fantasy Writer in a Creative Writing Workshop. Read ‘But How Do They Grow Carrots?’ below...

The creative writing workshop is, for many people, a real melting pot of emotions. It can be exciting, daunting, inspiring, humbling, and much more besides. I’ve had my share of workshop experiences as a student across a number of university creative writing courses in the UK, and then as a lecturer in the very same system. But I’m also a member of multiple private workshop groups. There are a lot of common themes to be found in workshops, such as a general feeling that everyone is there to practise their writing skills, but it’s also true that no two workshop sessions can ever be exactly the same. There are just so many variables, from the texts looked at, to the individuals present and how they’re feeling on the day, to how feedback is handled.

Now, so much has been written and said about creative writing workshops generally, both on the positive and negative sides of the debate, that I don’t really want to wade into those deep waters with this article. Instead, I want to talk about a specific ‘workshop variable’ that I’ve noticed regularly in workshops I’ve participated in and facilitated over the years: the fantasy writer.

Being a writer who is interested in the speculative side of storytelling, be it fantasy or science fiction or horror, can be an alienating experience. There are, of course, plenty of communities (online and offline) that specifically cater for speculative writers. There are MA courses that have a speculative focus. And I’m sure there are writers of SF/F who congregate to share drafts of novels, short stories and poems. But even with all of those available avenues, I think it’s fair to say that many SF/F writers have at one time been the sole genre writer in a workshop group.

What does that mean for those writers in practice? Well, it’s a spectrum really, but for the purposes of this article I’ve tried to identify three broad categories that go some way to describe participants’ responses to the fantasy writer and their text.

The first is what I call The Disclaimer. This is often a gentle pushback from members of the workshop group in the form of a disclaimer: ‘I’m not much of a fantasy reader, so…’ A caveat given to feedback, to flag up that the individual isn’t necessarily the target readership for the piece but that they’re trying to be as helpful as possible. And often what follows that disclaimer is extremely useful for the fantasy writer. A reader who doesn’t read fantasy can still identify plot, pacing, characterisation, language use – all the regular feedback areas. Does genre have some influence on these? Of course. But it doesn’t totally obliterate everything a workshop participant knows about something as essential as characterisation.

The second category I’ve found is the But What About X? This happens when a member of the workshop group feels so at sea in a fantasy setting that they start to call everything into question. But what about gravity? But what about the way people procreate? But what about the growing of carrots? That last one was from a workshop where I shared a very early extract from my first novel, Your Brother’s Blood. It was a domestic scene in which a family was trying to come to terms with the fact their dead son had just come back to life as an undead character, sitting right there at the dinner table with them. I felt that this unnatural, fantastical and frankly horrifying concept should be the focus of the scene – not how the family grew their carrots.

As the fantasy writer in this situation, it can be dispiriting and frustrating to have your reader’s attention so far from where you intended it to be – even more so to have to explain yourself and your creative choices in that same moment. But it’s important to resist any strange urges to explain that gravity still exists in your text, or that people with magic abilities still make babies in the usual way, or that carrots can still grow in fantasy soil. The ‘But What About X?’ category is symptomatic of a reader unwilling or unable to suspend their disbelief, and therefore unable to enter into the contract that the reader-writer relationship is based upon. Other genres face similar problems – whether it’s a reader refusing to accept contemporary language being used in historical fiction, or believing that a detective should have more emails and admin to see to during the solving of a case, or that saving one person is important enough to endanger hundreds of others in an action adventure, or… the list goes on.

The final category I’m going to call Literary Snobbery. This is perhaps the most obvious of the three, and sadly the most destructive. At its worst it can manifest as a strongly negative force that can totally destabilise a writer during the early stages of a project, or in their longer writing journey.

To give a personal example, I once presented an extract of a work-in-progress to a workshop where the facilitator – a person in a position of authority – asked me in front of the whole group why I was ‘wasting my time and talent’ on a fantasy story. Snobbery, plain and simple. And, like most snobbery, it was entirely based on ignorance; in this case, ignorance of the broad church that is fantasy, a genre that encompasses such an enormous variety of writing. It was indeed a destabilising experience. I looked around the group and wondered why everyone else wasn’t having to justify the genre or mode of writing they’d chosen to express themselves with. I was lucky enough to have someone from the group come up to me afterwards and tell me how badly they thought the workshop was handled, and that they enjoyed fantasy. It was good to have an ally in the room, and I valued their feedback so much in that group. Which reminds me, I really need to reach out and thank that individual after all these years.

There are also softer manifestations of Literary Snobbery that a fantasy writer has to face in workshops. I’ve heard other facilitators casually suggest that fantasy as a genre can never be ‘well written’. Or that fantasy readers are not as sophisticated as readers of other kinds of fiction. These biases aren’t often hurled directly at writers in a workshop setting, but they can underlie some of the comments and discussion. It’s a vibe that you quickly become attuned to. And like most soft forms of power, it’s all the harder to fight because it doesn’t present as openly and obviously as a more direct confrontation might.

At this stage of my writing journey (and of this article) I wish I had a solution to all of the above. A pithy line that you, the fantasy writer, could start a workshop with or put at the top of your extract to magically avoid these situations. Surprise, surprise, I don’t. But I do hope that even just identifying these experiences and sharing them might help one or two fantasy writers realise they’re not alone in facing the challenges of the workshop environment.

For what it’s worth, I’ve found the only way for me to navigate the workshop as a fantasy writer is to manage my own expectations. It is not my job as a workshop participant to change hearts and minds – which is just as well, because that’s one hell of a task. I accept that my three pages of fiction aren’t going to make a fantasy reader out of someone who doesn’t yet enjoy the genre. So, I look past The Disclaimers to the valuable feedback that often comes after. I patiently explain that just because someone can magically fly, it doesn’t mean the laws of physics don’t apply to everything in a world, and then ask the But What About X? what they thought of the dialogue in a scene. And when it comes to Literary Snobbery… I take a few deep breaths, try to remember that everyone has their own stuff going on, then, as politely as I can, I call bullshit on any overt prejudices.

I do this as a participant, but also when I’m acting as a facilitator. Because yes, a fantasy writer is a specific variable to introduce to a group, but it is in the mixing and collision and fusion of those variables that the truly exciting things happen in a creative writing workshop. To lose that would be to the detriment of the group, the individual writer, and, perhaps, wider literary culture as a whole.

We're very grateful to David Towsey and our friends at Ad Astra and Head of Zeus for the article above. Equinox by David Towsey is published by Ad Astra on 12th May.


Christophor Morden lives by night. His day-brother, Alexsander, knows only the sun. They are two souls in a single body, in a world where identities change with the rising and setting of the sun. Night-brother or day-sister, one never sees the light, the other knows nothing of the night.
Early one evening, Christophor is roused by a call to the city prison. A prisoner has torn his eyes out and cannot say why. Yet worse: in the sockets that once held his eyes, teeth are growing. The police suspect the supernatural, so Christophor, a member of the king's special inspectorate, is charged with finding the witch responsible.
Night-by-night, Christophor's investigation leads him ever further from home, toward a backwards village on the far edge of the kingdom. But the closer he gets to the truth, the more his day-brother's actions frustrate him. Who is Alexsander protecting? What does he not want Christophor to discover?
And all the while, an ancient and apocalyptic ritual creeps closer to completion...

David Towsey is a graduate of the Creative Writing programmes at Bath Spa University and Aberystwyth University. Born in Dorset, he now lives in Cardiff with his girlfriend and their growing board game collection. Together, they write under the pseudonym of D.K. Fields whose Tales of Fenest trilogy is also published by Head of Zeus. David's first novel, Your Brother's Blood, was published by Quercus, and was the first in the Walkin' Trilogy. He is also one half of the indie games company, Pill Bug Interactive.

Images - book cover: Ad Astra, headshot: Two Cats In The Yard Photography

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