This blog post was written by Chana Porter, this month’s instructor for the Fantasy Writing Workshops and mentee Sharon Young
I have the absolute privilege of leading a series of workshops at Girls Write Now this August, focused on World Building in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Throughout this series, we’ll be focusing on creating setting, developing complex characters, exploring ritual and culture, while using hands-on techniques to break through writer’s block and other possible pitfalls of writing long fiction.
For our first workshop, we focused on developing specificity of setting, to create the sights, sounds, and smells of our imaginary worlds. During this long writing exercise, students used a well-known fairy tale to explore setting, reframing the classic story in a modern context. Here’s a fairy tale Sharon Young, an attendee, adapted for her first exploration of developing setting. Read Sharon’s retelling below, and stay tuned for more updates on this series!
There’s this lizard that camouflages itself from its prey. Spiders, snakes, birds, and even other lizards all want a bite out of it. It survives by disappearing into tree bark, mimicking its surroundings. Not an exciting life, but enough to get by.
Maisie felt like this lizard. Adapting to whatever it took to survive.
Both of her parents were well respected scientists. They loved watching PBS documentaries and taking her to museums where they were granted discounted passes. At her 8th grade club fair they insisted that she signed for every science program.
The intelligence must have skipped a generation. Maisie never attended a single robotics meeting. She went to film club instead. During the robotics exhibition she casually stood by a random mechanism while her parents marveled over the wiring and coding.
And now there was this.
“Over 8 million people living in New York City. Pools of high schoolers to choose from. And Maisie has been selected to attend the prestigious Atticus High School!” Her dad proudly announced to her Gran from Alaska over the phone.
Maisie could hear him from her loft bed. Carefully pushing aside his stack of Stephen King novels, she tried to shut the door to their small bedroom crammed with various miscellany. How can they afford the tuition when they can barely fix this place up.
Maisie stepped on an astronaut Barbie she’d received many holidays ago. She’d specifically asked for a dancer. Her dad claimed it sold out. She stuffed it beneath the futon that her parents shared.
Gran was the first person he’d shared the news with. Then his close colleagues at the clinic. And probably the night class he taught at the community college
“My daughter. Can you believe it?”
Maisie stared blankly at the glossy brochure of the school campus. Students in white lab coats meticulously poured unidentifiable liquids into beakers. Another page proudly displayed the school’s mathlete champions. She never imagined that she’d get in. But something about her dad’s celebrity status in the science world told her otherwise.
Atticus wasn’t a place that could be easily overlooked. For startles, it occupied an old church building on the top of a hill. Maisie could see the tower from her apartment. The facade was antediluvian and crumbly. Paint peeled off the walls. The floors were always dusty, no matter how many times the janitors waxed it over the holidays. And with 340 students enrolled, it wasn’t a place you could be ignored.
At the school orientation a sea of navy and white uniforms occupied the lawn. For once Maisie got her wish. She blended with the crowd. Conversations buzzed around her about the renovated library and the new software for the computer lab.
“Did you catch yesterday’s episode of Supernatural?” she asked a curly redhead girl seated next to her. The fold – in chair squeaked as she shifted.
The principal gave a groundbreaking message on how their generation was set on change the future. Pure intellects. She felt like a fraud.
By the middle of September she found herself struggling with her advanced math and biology courses. Why do I need to learn college material when I haven’t even seen high school material? Her parents were never home to help, always busy or working late shifts at the lab.
“If you don’t pass the final, I’ll have to fail you,” Mr. Yomishida told her two weeks before Thanksgiving break. “I’ll have to call your parents.”
“No they’re … busy during the day,” Maisie stammered. She’d lied about struggling in her core classes. Her dad beamed at her every morning like a shiny new award.
“That’s my good girl.”
“They’re going to find out eventually,” Mr. Yomishida straightened her stack of failed quizzes on his desk. “Attend homework help in the library in the meantime.”
Maisie was paired with Frank, a junior honor student. She found herself improving, just barely though. His tedious lectures dragged on. Sometimes she’d rather confront her parents than listen to Frank rant about dark matter. A boy sitting three rows in front stifled a laugh behind his book when Frank’s hands flailed in the air.
One Monday afternoon Maisie found herself dozing on her biology book. She’d tried reading a couple of pages before Frank arrived to spare her from his lengthy explanations. The LED lighting made her sleepy and she smelled like dusty books. Her phone vibrated against the oak table. The librarian shot her an irritated look.
Frank: Can’t come today. got a student council meeting
Maisie: thats ok. nobody can cover for you?
Frank: I’m the president
“Hey,” a boy slid into Frank’s usual seat. The one who always cracked up from Frank’s wild hand gestures. He flashed a smile. “Marcey, right?”
“We have study hall together.”
“Right, you’re the bathroom monitor. Thought that face looked familiar”
“And you’re the one who scored a 5 on the AP world history exam.”
“So, I’m asking you to tutor me. Mine ditched for jazz band.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because I don’t wave like I’m about to set sail on the Titanic.”
Maisie bit her cheek to stop herself from laughing, a trick she’d learned from sitting with Frank for two hours daily.
“Ok, and if I agreed…”
“I’ll help you. You won’t be sorry”
She considered her options. Parents. Final. Frank.
He got up abruptly to leave.
“Wait,” she half whispered half called. “I don’t know your name.”
“Just call me … R.”
Something about his response told Maisie that wasn’t his name. But before she could call him back, he was already out the door.
Once again, Maisie was left alone.
Chana Porter is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn, New York. Her plays have been produced and developed in New York City by Rattlestick Playwright’s Theatre, Primary Stages, PS122, Dixon Place, True Love Productions, The Invisible Dog, and the White Bear in London. She has led classes and workshops in “Writing From The Body” as an artist-in-residence at Cave and Space on White, and as a guest teaching artist at Hampshire College. She is currently pursuing an M.F.A at Goddard College in Creative Writing and writing a series of Young Adult Science Fiction novels entitled New Human Classics.
Sharon Young is a high school junior at The High School for Math, Science, and Engineering. She started writing stories in second grade and never stopped. In her spare time she enjoys photography, daydreaming, walks in the park, and cupcakes.