Everything I know about writing spec fic I learned from…

Norton Juster.

 If I don’t count the Dr. Seuss book that taught me to read, THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH has probably influenced my life more than any other. My fifth-grade teacher read it aloud to her class, and the idea that words, sounds, or numbers might be alive, inhabiting a particular place, or able to act for themselves knocked me flat. I’d read fantasy before —my copy of THE BORROWERS was tattered and I had a friend I visited specifically for her copy of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH—but TOLLBOOTH was a step beyond because it described not just a make-believe world, but a radically different way of looking at and being in the world right before us. I went through a tollbooth of my own without looking back. 

Words and ideas became playthings for me on a Tollbooth level, not the spelling, grammar, and summer-vacation-essay level. A dimension fell open before me, one in which I could imagine cartoons leaking into the mundane world (REALITY LEAK), numbers that made sounds (THE HUMMING OF NUMBERS), or senses beyond the usual half-dozen (THE FARWALKER’S QUEST). I’m fascinated by books that breach the fourth wall (from playful picture books to Marcus Zusak’s I AM THE MESSENGER). Boundaries like that are for crossing, IMO. Toll optional.

Consider a boundary in your view of the world. (They’re sneaky; we tend to be constrained by them without actually seeing them.) The sky, the definition of what is human, and the boundary we see as death are several that typically  inform spec fic, though there’s always room for fresh eyes. Just as Star Trek has probably influenced the development of communication devices, popular spec fic concepts soon erect boundaries of their own. And what about other boundaries such as birth, the sense of self, the delimiter between macro and quantum physics? Or our expectations of time, which I have yet to see handled in a book in any ground-breaking way, despite scientific suspicion that it doesn’t exist, at least not as we experience it. (Loads of time-travel books work within our fiction-created expectations, but I don’t know any that actually explode the forward/backward model, do you? DUNE may come the closest.)

Hand over your toll and walk through. That’s the hard part. After that, writing about what you see on the far side is easy.

joniicon Joni Sensel, who gets in trouble for crossing boundaries such as wet paint signs.

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6 responses to “Everything I know about writing spec fic I learned from…

  1. I was actually just thinking about this. James White’s Sector Generalseries was a boundary-breaker for me; I could see humans treating aliens, but …vice versa? Um, no. That whole series was amazing.

    …and I cannot wait to read The Humming of Numbers for that same reason. Humming Numbers? Um, no… but yes!

  2. Oh, you’re making me think of some TV series I saw where the aliens were integrated into earth society instead of being a) attackers or b)higher sentient beings here to observe, straighten us out, or laugh at us. Good example!

    I think one of the reasons I loved FEED so much was that it addressed the boundary between the individual and the collective and how it can be transcended by media/marketing.

  3. I love how you describe this all, Joni! And senses beyond the half dozen. I need to read my copy of Farwalker’s Quest!

  4. allegore

    I loved Tollbooth when I was younger! I totally agree with your thoughts on boundary crossing – it’s a great feeling to read a book and feel your world turned sideways with a similar but alien feel.

  5. Parker Peevyhouse

    Tollbooth was so hard for me to read when I was kid. I kept thinking–you’re all doing everything wrong! Wrong wrong wrong!

    It took me a while to embrace the whole idea.

    • allegore

      That’s hilarious! There is an age during childhood when rules are very important – you must have been reading it then! : )

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