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.