Fourteen years ago, I taught my first college-level writing class. Let’s face it, I was very green, an adjunct hired to fill an unexpected gap in the wake of a fast-departing faculty member. Whether I did well or poorly I do not claim to know, but of my eleven students, two had their final projects subsequently published, and one went on to get an M.F.A. in creative writing (which means he’s now flipping burgers in your local Mickey D’s, so next time you’re there, be nice).
The other fact of which I’m sure is that my toss-the-feathers syllabus mixed fantasy and literary readings. Yea and verily, it’s a wonder I wasn’t burned as a heretic — but perhaps the resident firemen, Montag & Smaug, Inc., were extra busy that season.
I’m now on my third go-round as a writing teacher, and while my reading selections remain whimsically mixed, I do have one fresh challenge on my plate: for the first time, I have a student invested in writing out-and-out science fiction. And not just any sci-fi, we’re talking guns-a-blazing space opera.
By the glowing rings of Saturn, what am I to do?
My (anonymous) student first approached me with her story idea as if she needed permission and would not receive it; despite my syllabus, which includes Alice Sheldon, H.P. Lovecraft, and Karen Joy Fowler, she seemed to think crafting sci-fi might be criminal, or at least a mark of poor taste. Of course I encouraged her, but I also said, in what I think now was much too off-hand a way, “Science fiction is very difficult.”
In my life as a playwright, the only form I’m a-feared of is farce. It’s unforgiving, a mechanistic nightmare.
In short fiction, I am similarly leery of sci-fi. The world-building component gives me the Romulan heebie-jeebies. I like to think I handle exposition with adroit grace, but by the polar caps of Mars, I have trouble handling the informational demands of straight-up science fiction.
It’s not that I haven’t published my share. One piece I’m proud of, “Empathy Rocks,” may be found HERE, at Electric Spec. But it’s not a genre I tackle lightly, and for this student, I fret that perhaps this makes me a less than stellar mentor.
What am I supposed to say? “Go back, young lady. Here there be laser powered dragons. Better to imitate Jane Austen, or maybe Edward Abbey. Even Tolstoy would be easier.”
My job: push the story along while forcing my student to provide the following essential information: Who are the main characters? Why are they on vacation together? How did the fugitive on board the ship get there? Why should we trust (or not trust) the jailbird fugitive when she/he/it claims that those on board will come to no harm if they simply trust in what it/he/she says?
(Possibly I should also insist on a better grasp of physics regarding the particular nature of the dangerous local planetoid, but this is not a graduate level class, so I believe forbearance is an appropriate strategy.)
You see the conundrums here, the minefields.
Now add in the physical specifications of the outer-space component, at least two alien cultures, a potential Babel of languages, and all sorts of nomenclature issues. The number of worlds my student might have to elucidate in order to make comprehensive sense of her scenario could very well be infinite.
Yeah. Science fiction is difficult. There’s so bloody much to do!
Solution-wise, Annie Lamott’s essay-writing advice springs to mind. “Just take it bird by bird,” that’s what she’d say, with “bird” standing in for whatever subject lies at hand. And she’s right, of course.
1) Create a character with a specific need, and have that character encounter difficulties in pursuing an equally specific goal.
2) Describe, vividly, the surroundings in which the story takes place.
3) Structure the proceedings in such a way that we have a beginning, a middle, and an end, preferably with a climax of some sort near the end, one where the character either succeeds or fails.
4) Trust in compression. No story tells or describes everything. The key is to find what will best stand in for the whole. (There’s a reason “synecdoche” remains in the dictionary.) Say what needs saying, and nothing more, but use language appropriate to your tone, character, and intentions. Readers will fill in the rest.
Note that these general precepts are as true for John Updike as they are for Kim Stanley Robinson or Elizabeth Moon. Realism doesn’t enter into it; fantasy doesn’t enter into it––and neither does science fiction. The key in most (though not all) great story-telling is to depict characters with whom we sympathize and situations with which we identify.
Nothing to it, really.
As for the seemingly endless world-building requirements that science fiction demands, it’s a matter of judicious balance. My advice to my student will come down to this: don’t answer every question right out of the gate. Let a few queries linger. It’s okay that we don’t understand the world perfectly at the outset; let context guide us, and also confidence. If she, as author, presents her world with the surety of one who walks through it daily, the little discrepancies of her particular environment will sort themselves out naturally, through the action of the story and its characters. Bald-faced exposition will almost never be required.
And this, too, is true for stories in general, not just for the unending worlds of space opera.
Could it be that fate has placed this student in my class not for her betterment, but for mine? To scrub away the last of my fears about crafting cunning, approachable science fiction?
Let’s face it: at the end of the day, the word “science” is only part of the puzzle, a modifier slipped lightly over the ring-finger of fiction itself.
What could be simpler?
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.” In other work, Rigney is the author of “The Skates,” and its haunted sequels, “Sleeping Bear,” and Check-Out Time, forthcoming in 2014.