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Writing Science Fiction by ARTalk

[by Susan Shepherd '11] Writing takes time, but fortunately MIT gives you good excuses to do so.

[by Susan Shepherd ’11]

It is probably a well-worn maxim that writers write. That is, there are many people who are interested in writing. A lot of people periodically have brilliant ideas which they then go over in more detail, developing characters and the setting and the various twists and intricacies of a satisfying plot. Unfortunately, not all of these people go on to write their ideas out. The minority that does go to the work of writing their ideas down will eventually turn into writers.

But writing takes time and time is something which you give to MIT for safekeeping upon arrival. (In theory, MIT returns your time to you upon graduation. I haven’t graduated yet so I have no direct knowledge of this.) The truth is that classes and clubs and UROPs and just hanging out with friends will take up a large amount of your time, and it is very tempting to just put the writing off. “Just one more day…I’ll get to it tomorrow after my project’s done…Maybe next week…”

Fortunately, MIT provides a reasonably simple solution. Since you need to have taken eight HASS—Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences—classes in order to graduate, why not make sure that some of those are writing classes? It will give you an excuse to read something entertaining and call it “work,” and it also forces you to set writing deadlines for yourself.

Even more fortunately, MIT offers a wide variety of courses—something I’ve already mentioned here. I’ve already mentioned that MIT has classes on playwriting and rhetoric, among many other subjects. But they also offer classes on genre fiction and science fiction, taught by an MIT Professor who is also a professional writer: Joe Haldeman.

I signed myself up for both, to maximise my chances of getting into one of them; these classes are frequently oversubscribed. But I was very lucky, and quickly learned that a spot had been reserved for me in both classes.

Writing Science Fiction was everything I had hoped for. The reading assignments were varied and included both classics like “The Cold Equations” or “Scanners Live in Vain” as well as just-published short stories, such as “Bug Eyes.” Our first writing assignments were to write story beginnings, to show us that even within narrow parameters—for example, my randomly-drawn-from-a-hat prompt had to do with parallel universes.

But the best part, at least for me, was having to complete and revise a short story for the class. Since we offered constructive criticism in a round-table format, every person had the chance to share his or her thoughts. If twelve of the sixteen other students agreed that Character A was acting against his best interests without adequate explanation, they could tell you so—but the other four also had their chance to say what about Character A let them ignore his flaws and focus on the rest of the story. If a given section of the story was unclear, you would find out. But if a section was deliberately ambiguous and your readers split three ways as to what it meant, that sends a clear signal that your writing is probably just the way you want it to be.

Genre Fiction followed a similar format, but the genres could range from science fiction to mystery to romance to fantasy, or anything in between as long as it was written well enough. The reading focused on disaster fiction, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. The students had the choice of writing two short stories or a single long story; I stuck with the single long story, and discovered that when two psychics who dislike each other end up in the same room, every reader on earth will guess that one of them will die or be driven crazy about two pages before you intend your reader to figure this out. (Oops. There goes your dramatic tension.)

But even though it was in many respects a humbling experience, I am very glad that I took Professor Haldeman’s classes. Previously, I had never made a serious effort to write short stories; I tend to story-build in such a way that I gravitate toward longer works.

I encourage all those who are interested in writing, and especially in science fiction, to consider taking one or both of these classes. It is an opportunity not to be missed.

15 responses to “Writing Science Fiction”

  1. Narce says:


    Wait, we were using numbers?

  2. Narce says:

    Btw, loved your entry ^.^ Writing my own fiction is certainly much more enjoyable than the crap we have to do in AP English classes.

  3. i do believe you’ve been spammed!

  4. tito says:

    I found your article very interesting. I am still a high school student, but MIT has always been an aim of mine since I love the sciences. But I also love to read and write, mainly fiction and although I am currenty taking a creative writing class, it has not helped me at all due to the teacher and his teaching methods. It really pleases me to see that MIT does offer such courses when it comes to writing and that I can also work on expanding my “writer’s ideals” if and while I am there. Thank you for writing this article.

  5. tito says:

    Oh and along with that, I do love to write science fiction. Although not things that are like star wars or such things. But mainly mild on the fantastic side and more on the action side. It also makes me feel better to see that it isn’t just me who has a problem with writing longer stories, and now I see that there is a way in my possible future to improve that. Thanks again… =D

  6. JLAB '13 says:


    Okay, now that that joke’s finally played out, has anyone heard of National Novel Writing Month? I’m a writer myself, and I’ve found that this is the best tool for me to make myself write. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November (30 days), and it’s the only thing I know of that can make me sit down on a daily basis and write. I’ve completed my goal four years in a row, now, and it helps stimulate my writing short stories as well. Anyone else do NaNoWriMo, or have ideas about how to make yourself write?

  7. Tito says:

    Yes, I heard of NaNoWriMO last year. But I was informed halfway through the month and was not able to reach the goal. Although I will certainly try again this year. There is one site…something along the lines of…that has a writing tool which you can type in and if you pause for too long it will so a series of things based on your settings, it is very helpful.

    I also like to keep a poetry journal. It is like my “diary” but not really. I let my emotions out and ideas flow daily. Sometimes I forget to write in it but nonetheless it really helps to get the creative juices flowing. I found that even though it is poetry it helps me with writing as well.

  8. @ Tito

    Poetry still is writing.

  9. tito says:

    Oops, I just realized that I made it sound like it isn’t. Of course poetry is writing. I meant, shorts stories and novels…etc.

  10. Jean '13 says:

    Oh, The Road is great!

  11. @ JLAB ’13 + Tito:

    Yeah actually Susan (same blogger) talked about NaNoWriMo in a blog last year:

    I had never heard of it before coming to MIT but it’s really fantastic, I’m glad it’s there and amazed by people who do it.