Teaching Story Craft

When I first started teaching the science fiction class at the university, I struggled with what sort of paper I could expect from the students.  Because it was a G.E. course, I had a lot of aspiring engineers and scientists in the class and very few English majors.  I couldn’t expect them to know how to do close reading or apply literary theory.  My solution was to teach them story craft.   First, we talk about how science fiction starts from a “What if?” question, imagining a world with a fundamental change of some kind, often regarding new technology.  Then we talk about character, setting, plot, and style. As I continued to teach the course, I added some material about the difficulties of exposition, point of view, and verb tense.  Then I added some discussion of different ways of representing dialogue.

My original intention was to teach these concepts so that they could write more insightful critical papers.  However, it soon became clear that many students wanted to use these techniques to write their own stories.   I thought it was cool that engineers wanted to write stories, so I began offering a choice of assignments, a critical paper or a short story.  In current versions of the course, about 90% of the students choose to write a story.

I created a four-page handout with advice about the basics of story craft.  You can download it here.

I warn them about some of the typical mistakes new short story writers make.  The most common problem is to have two and a half pages of exposition about the world and the character before anything happens.  In every published story we read, I read the first sentence or two aloud and ask, “What expectations do these sentences create?  What does the writer imply about the character and the world?  How does this grab your interest?”  And I ask them, “How many pages of a story would you read if it is all description and nothing is happening?”  They admit that they would get bored.  But they still write these stories.

The other common problems usually involve weaknesses in characters or worlds, a lack of conflict or motivation, or too much influence from current TV, movies, or video games.  We might have a highly developed character that is some version of the writer, with not much of a world and no real conflict.  Or we might have a highly detailed and well-planned world with cardboard characters.

I don’t worry too much about these problems.  They are beginners.  It is probably the first science fiction story they have ever written and it may be their last.  Still, learning the craft and applying it causes them to read stories with greater awareness.  They learn to tell good writing from bad, as long as it is not their own.  And I always get some good stories.  I can tell because I forget I am grading and get engaged with the story as a story.

In addition to the handout linked above, I have a couple of templates for  character development and world building.  These can be used by new writers to think more deeply about their characters and the worlds they inhabit.  It is also interesting to divide the students into small groups and have some of them design a character while others build a world.  Half-way through the activity, you merge the groups and see what happens when one group’s character is thrown into another group’s world.  This requires some adjustments, as when one group’s fish-like being ends up on another group’s desert world with three suns.

This course is one of my favorites to teach and a big part of that is watching them learn to analyze and write science fiction stories using these concepts.

Science Fiction Epistolary

This started out as an assignment for my English 301 “Professional Writing” course.  I was teaching memos, emails, letters, reports and other common workplace genres.  The actual assignment said:

Office Blog (A weekly blog post on Blackboard consisting of an email, memo, or letter related to an ongoing situation or problem in the fictional workplace you imagined. After you post, comment on at least one other student’s post.)

I made this assignment because I wanted English majors to have an opportunity to write a lot of business-oriented documents while also developing their creative writing skills.  Because I had not used this sort of epistolary assignment before, I decided to write the assignment myself as a science fiction story called “Missing Intentional Manifestation Unit.”  See what you think.  Also available as a .pdf.


Missing Intentional Manifestation Unit

Deity Supply Enterprises
We Bend the Universe to Your Will

To: Teleportation Department
From:  Shipping Department
Subject: Missing Intentional Manifestation Unit
Date: Elapsed second 1,000,41699,01404 K

Around about elapsed second 1,000,41617,01139 K we shipped a selection of 12 Low-Power Intentional Manifestation units to Teahouse Demi-God Training Dojo,  in pocket universe 71B.  Records indicate that the shipment went out via standard interdimensional wormhole vortex.  However, one of the units did not arrive at its intended destination.  The fluxproof wrapper apparently disengaged during transit.

This is annoying and potentially dangerous.  The unit in question conforms to user expectations, reads the user’s intention and manifests it in whatever surrounding environment within which it is activated.  Such units are not approved for use by beings below Deity Five certification and are completely illegal in cultural environments below Tech 3. We must trace this unit and retrieve it.

Please initiate interdimensional trace procedures and report back ASAP!


Data Trace

Deity Supply Enterprises
We Bend the Universe to Your Will

To: Shipping Department
From:Teleportation Department
Subject: Missing Intentional Manifestation Unit
Date: Elapsed second 1,000,51655,01504 K

Data tracing indicates that that at the time of shipping a Delorean (Tech 3.2) Enforcer-Class warship was having a skirmish with a RRisconic Entity (Tech 0) in an adjacent dimension.  The warship’s probability disruptor may have affected transport. Warship destroyed. (RRisconic Entities have no tech, but they don’t need it and are very powerful when angered. Deloreans can be idiots when something gets in their way.)

The Intention Manifestor does not have a reading in any commonly traveled dimension or pocket universe.  It is probably floating in an uninhabited bubble of space-time.  Will continue trace, just to be sure.

Happy Fangledors!  May your simpkins return to roost!


Apologies

Deity Supply Enterprises
We Bend the Universe to Your Will
Pocket Universe 93012, Portal 42, Array 4, Plane of Being 39
Stardate 5435542

Teahouse Demi-God Training Dojo
Moon of Tunis
Pocket Universe 71B

Oh Most Gracious and Benevolent Beings:

We were so sorry to hear that one of the Intentional Manifestation Units you ordered was lost in transit.  Our entire shipping staff is inconsolably rolling on the floor in grief.  Once we have finished our lamentations, we will get right to work producing a replacement unit and shipping it your way, double-protected against flux storms and unfortunate probability adjustments.  We will make sure it is a deluxe model equipped with enhanced benevolence and happiness potential.  Customer satisfaction among both deities and their believers is our highest priority!

Our trace indicates that the unit in question was deflected in transit by a probability disruptor in an adjacent dimension. There is a slight possibility that the unit is stuck in a warp loop and will eventually manifest in your location. If this happens, please notify us as soon as possible.  Do not attempt to use the unit.  It will undoubtedly need calibration and may not work as designed.

One thousand face palms in your direction,

Bloog Glaxon
Shipping Minion 85th Class
Deity Supply Enterprises

Continue reading “Science Fiction Epistolary”

Where Does Writing Go?

Do you want to be a writer?  Do you want to get paid?  Is it even possible in an environment of internet publishing that has brought traditional newspapers and magazines to their knees?  You might want to look up Dr. Sarah Mesle, visiting professor in English at UCLA, Senior Humanities Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), and co-editor of avidly.org, who gave an informative talk on publishing in the digital world to students, mostly English majors, at Cal Poly Pomona, last Wednesday, May 14, 2014.

Dr. Mesle said that the purpose of the Los Angeles Review of Books is to “revive and re-invent the book review.” Avidly.org, which she started with Sarah Blackwood, and which exists as a “channel” of LARB, “specializes in short-form critical essays devoted to thinking and feeling about culture.”   Articles on both sites tend to be written in first person and take a subjective gonzo-style approach.  For example, a piece on Avidly called “Silly Theory” by Jordan Alexander Stein describes his friends in grad school learning about theory by making jokes about it (The illustration for the piece is a parody of the the Obama “Yes We Can” poster that says “Yes We Lacan”).  Dr. Mesle’s latest piece on LARB is about the latest episode of Game of Thrones and is called “Ten Things I Hate about My Favorite Show.”

I am jumping ahead in the presentation, but Dr. Mesle discussed the importance of developing a voice, a persona, perhaps, though she did not use the word, a “brand.”  However, Dr. Mesle noted that she presents herself differently in different contexts.

 


Here is her photo from UCLA:                       Here is her photo from LARB:

1   2

Dr. Sarah Mesle at UCLA                         Dr. Mesle at Los Angeles Review of Books


 

Dr. Mesle had lots of solid advice for students aiming at publishing careers on the Internet.  She said

  • Know your readers, know your effect.
  • Basic strategies don’t change in different registers.
  • Writing isn’t magic.  It’s a craft.
  • Believe in your voice.
  • Keep it in perspective.

The first two points are basic rhetorical concepts of audience and purpose.  It is true, but not obvious, that whether you are writing a sermon in the high style or assembly instructions in the low style, or conversation in a dialect, rhetoric applies.  The latter three points are good advice for those who are intimidated by writing itself and by the blank screen.  You don’t have to be a genius.

The next set of points were about a particular stance toward the world and toward text.  She says

  • Be interesting (and college is where you go to learn to be an interesting person).
  • Learn to be interested.
  • Learn to love sentences and stories.

One could dispute the assertion about college, but the rest is hard to question.  To write, you must be interested in ideas, people, and things.  Knowledge brings interest, interest leads to more knowledge.  Language is the medium of learning, and of expression.  And without doubt, the world is made of stories.

The last point she added to this set was “Grammar matters.”  Don’t submit material or post it to your own sites with obvious, or even not so obvious, grammatical mistakes.  That doesn’t mean you can’t play with language, use dialect, or break so-called rules.  Just make sure you know what you are doing and understand the effect on the reader.

Dr. Mesle advised students to read the Internet and read their own reading.  In other words, pay attention to how what you read affects you.  What makes you excited? What makes you bored? What do you learn from that?

She also said that she wishes now she had taken a design course and a programming course.  Writers who publish on the Internet are probably going to be involved in visual design as well, and maybe even coding.  At any rate, those who know these things will be more marketable.

Dr. Mesle closed with some ideas about getting published.  These were

  • Pick the low-hanging fruit: Easy places to publish.
  • Start your own site (Learn WordPress).
  • Pay attention to what succeeds and why.

She noted that posting to Twitter is good practice because it forces you to be concise.  It is hard to be funny in 140 characters. She also recommended writing captions for the New Yorker cartoon contest for the same reason.

Finally, she had some suggestions for pitching a piece to a website:

  • Try to get an introduction to the editor (This helps you get out of the “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts).
  • Write your email in the style of the piece you are submitting (It also helps to be familiar with the style of pieces that are usually published on that site).
  • Tell the editor your audience and effect.

At the end we had some discussion about what she means by “effect” here.  Is this the purpose?  Is this what Aristotle calls “pathos,” the effect on the audience?  Is it the effect of the persona of the writer has on the audience, an effect of ethos, or a kind of schtick? I think it is a bit of all of these.

It was an interesting and useful talk that left the students in attendance with much to think about.