This Intro to Writing Science Fiction class is killing me.
I spend so much of my time struggling to read through seemingly endless pages of passive verbs and switching tenses that my brain wants to explode.
And suddenly I understand why my Intro to Creative Writing class was so restrictive. In 2009, when I first took Patrick Michael Finn’s class, I was so frustrated. What do you mean it has to be ten pages or less? And no speculative fiction? So, you’re saying no spaceships or alien races?
What the hell am I supposed to write about?
And then I spent two years writing general fiction, honing and perfecting my ability to tell compelling and interesting stories in as little as six pages. Actually, I wrote and published a story that was just less than three full pages three years after that Intro class.
And here I am today, in a class that has almost no restrictions.
In fact, it has a page minimum. All stories must be at least 10 pages long, with no maximum page limit. That’s insane. Multiple stories have been 30+ pages, and guess what? I don’t read them all the way through. I see enough within the first 8 pages to know whether the story is worth reading.
Because they are riddled with “newbie” mistakes.
Now, I understand that this is an Intro class. The professor even said that those of us with experience probably shouldn’t take the class (but there’s no Intermediate Writing Science Fiction course). But, he’s not really offering any guidelines or feedback. I feel like I’m teaching the class, along with a couple other people whose stories have been at a higher level as well. So many times I’ll write a comment on a manuscript, then laugh, because it’s something Patrick would have said.
And I feel bad for these new writers. They’re hearts and brains are in the right place, but they’ve basically been thrown into the Pacific, told to breaststroke home, when they don’t even know how to dog paddle.
It’s painful to watch. And it happens 4-5 times a week.
And so now I understand Patrick’s limitations. And I appreciate them so much. Things that I consider basics in writing, aren’t universally known. People have to be taught. Shown. And these poor students are being taught by having their first drafts (and quite possibly their first ever attempts at story writing), butchered by fellow students.
So, what are these “newbie” mistakes that are driving me insane?
- Tense changes. Pick one. Present or past? Also, 9/10 times, you should pick past.
- Point of View change. “I went to the store, and she bought eight apples.” I’m not kidding, this is a thing. Pick one and stick to it, religiously. Also, when starting out, 9/10 times you should pick third person.
- Passive voice. “She was having a hard time controlling her emotions”. NO! “She struggled to control her emotions”. There are times when passive voice is unavoidable, and that is the absolute only time you should use it.
- Dialogue punctuation. It is either incorrect, or simply doesn’t exist. No joke, I read a story this term that had ZERO dialogue punctuation. “‘I don’t understand you’ he glared at her. ‘What’s to understand’ she asked.” Please, please, please, research proper punctuation for these scenarios! You are not Cormac McCarthy, so use proper punctuation! “‘I don’t understand you.’ He glared at her. ‘What’s to understand?’ She asked.”
- Adverbs. Can you use them? Yes. Should you? Debatable. Sprinkle them in. Chances are, if you’re using a bunch of them, the writing is suffering. I will say, I haven’t noticed too many adverb abusers yet.
- Length. This is what’s really killing me. This is a short story class. We’re reading and analyzing professional short stories. Now, they’re all about ten pages each. Some a little longer as they have more world building, character development, etc. So, when a student posts their rough draft and it’s 50 pages long, I’m immediately skeptical. Then I read almost 10 pages and I still don’t know what the plot is? Oh, then I’m pissed. Most of these stories could be shaved down to a fraction of their current length, but these writers don’t know that, because they haven’t learned to tell stories that way. They haven’t learned to start as close to the action as possible. They haven’t learned to develop characters and plot while describing someone/something. So they info dump, and give needless backstory. And. it. is. boring. as. fuck.
I’m dying. I opened three submissions that I’m supposed to be critiquing this week, not a single one of them was less than 15 pages. One of them was 40+ pages. And by page eight I gave up because the two established characters were still standing in the same room talking around the same vague issue. I scrolled through to the end to see what happened, and by then there were three new characters that apparently have nothing to do with the initial scene. Which means that the initial scene is COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY!
I work two jobs, have another class to work on, a husband to spend time with, a house we’re trying to buy, a lit mag to edit, and a mountain of books to read. I absolutely do NOT have time to critique your FORTY PAGE monstrosity of a “short” story!
Please. Just, please. Read short stories. Mimic them shamelessly. Not a single short story we’ve read this term just blathers on about the relationship between two characters while they talk to each other about nothing. Not a one. So please, I’m begging you, STOP!
Ok. This is a little more accusatory than I initially planned. I know that it’s not really the students’ faults, it’s the professor’s. But I’m also incredibly frustrated. My short stories were never like this!
I keep all my original drafts. I’ve gone back and read the first short story I ever wrote. 12 whole pages. Guess what? No switching tenses, no uncertain point of view. Some passive voice, some wild adverbs, but nothing that made the story unbearable. Nothing that obscured the story itself, or left the reader unsure of motivations and intentions.
That being said, it’s not a good story, and I have zero intentions of sharing it with the world at large. But it’s a hell of a lot better than most of what I’m reading in this class.
So please, read fiction. Read in the genre you’re trying to write. Please stop torturing me!