Saturday, March 18, 2006

What I'm Doing in Wisconsin

The Futuristic and the Fantastical—From Genre to Mainstream

Maureen McHugh

Recommended Reading:The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill. The opening sentence of this novel set in the trailer parks of the sun drenched south: “The Minotaur sits on an empty pickle bucket blowing smoke through bullish nostrils.”

Class meets each day from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm. Each class will begin with a writing exercise and a discussion of writing technique, and then we will critique stories and novel excerpts. Fiction for critique can either be short fiction in progress or something developed out of class writing exercises, although the second is marginally more preferable. Standard manuscript format will be used in class (a sample of which is at the end of this syllabus. It’s old fashioned, but there it is.)

The biggest emphasis in this class will be on the workshop of student fiction.That’s what we’re here for.

There may be light reading assignments for evenings based on issues raised in class—examples of things discussed or something that comes out of a discussion of student writing. These materials will be provided.

Writing futuristic or fantastical fiction requires a lot of the same skills as writing any other kind of fiction but it can raise issues that other writers don’t have to deal with. A contemporary writer can describe a guy as having a mullet and loving Dale Earnhardt and some of the characterization is already done. A story set in 2257 is going to be set in a culture where mullets, if they exist, may mean something entirely different. And nobody has to explain what a refrigerator is, but in a fantastical story, knowing the difference between a dubuk and ibur might be like knowing the difference between a car and motorcycle. Everybody does, nobody thinks about it.

I don’t teach world building as separate from other aspects of writing technique, but it’s just one of the particularities that will inform everything we talk about. All of our sessions are flexible, and will change to encompass the issues that the students bring with your own fiction.

Monday June 19 Plot as character in situation. Okay, there’s really no good definition of plot, but one way to look at it is character in situation. Exercises in class will generate the opening of a story and we’ll talk about how openings work for short fiction and for novels. How is plot different in a story that introduces fantastical or science fictional elements? Situations can put interesting strains on characterization. A three hundred year old sorceress probably sees the world in a different way than you or I. What can that do in a story?

Tuesday June 20 Narrative Voice: The Secret Character.In a first person story, the narrator is a character. So in a third person story, who is telling the story? The narrator is the voice of the story, a secret character who requires just as much characterization skills as any other character in a story. Exercises in class will develop an understanding of this voice.

Wednesday June 21 Revision or If I Knew What To Do I’d Have Done It the First Time. Writers revise and revise, but if I knew what to do when time came to revise, I’d have done it when I wrote the first draft. How to revise? We’ll discuss obvious ploys and subtle tricks to help re-invision a written draft.

Thursday June 22 A Day of Long Fiction: Running the Marathon The journey of writing a novel. The hundred page trap. The excitement of the initial idea, followed by the creeping suspicion that things are not going as well as one hoped, through the Slough of Despair to the completion of a first draft. Even if you only write short fiction, someday you may want to write a novella, which is a loooooong short story.

Friday June 23 Endings. The writer James Patrick Kelly once observed that seventy-five percent of the impact of a story comes from its ending. This is, for me, a scary thought because endings are really, really difficult. Sometimes endings are clear—the boy gets the girl. Sometimes I get to the end of a short story and I scratch my head and wonder if I’m stupid. We’ll devise strategies for endings and discuss how stories and and how novels end.


Blogger SquidgePa said...

How does one show the difference between the dubuk and ibur, and yet not telegraph that the difference is connected to a plot point?

March 19, 2006 7:35 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

God, now I can't remember the difference between a dubuk and an ibur. Anyway, there are a number of ways. One is to have a naive character--that is, a character who because they are a child or from somewhere else for example, asks questions in place of the reader.

Another is to just tell the reader. 'Leah saw at once that rose colored aura that signified possession. Since no one had said anything to her about the man being possessed, she assumed the possession was ibur--that is, passive. The possessing soul was quiet and did not draw attention to itself. Had the soul been dybuk, the man would have been acting possessed, acting, in fact, like a different person.'

A third way would be if the narrator was either ibuk or dybuk, then you could simply show it.

There are more, some lame (an entry from the galactic encyclopedia, for example.)

Are you getting over the flu?

March 19, 2006 9:40 AM  
Blogger Greg van Eekhout said...

The sagacity of Maureen McHugh, delivered in Madison. Maaaaaan, this is tempting.

March 19, 2006 4:31 PM  
Blogger Karen Sandstrom said...

It really IS tempting. Dang. Have you ever communicated with Steven Sherrill ("The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break," of course, but you knew that). And have we ever discussed this book and his second?

March 19, 2006 7:30 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Greg, you don't need it, but I'd love to have you there.

Karen, we have. About how fabulous the first book was and...about the second book. (sigh)

March 19, 2006 9:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Maureen -

Two questions:

1. Have you ever come across this Vonnegut essay on science fiction?

I'm a sci-fi dunce, but I loved what he had to say about "noticing technology."

2. Do you know of anyone who uses the term "world building" to talk about/teach more "mainstream" fiction?

I ask, only because part of my senior thesis was about stealing that term from sci-fi and fantasy and applying it to literary fiction, specifically, fiction about small towns, and rural settings.

March 22, 2006 11:41 AM  

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