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Final Prompt and Some Good (Secondhand) Advice

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Feb. 19th, 2008 | 09:27 pm
mood: excitedexcited

After the first three scene-prompts, our professor handed out the fourth last week with the statement that this would be the last. He had originally planned to do six; had we messed up? No, actually, apparently we had done better than expected, already getting a handle on what he had hoped the prompt would make us grasp. This was mostly about our individual voices, our takes on a scene which was very similar in setup. Anyway, evidently we did it. Good for us!

So! The final scene. We were writing science fiction this time: a spacecraft from Earth is searching for intelligent life in or near a wormhole when it receives a message, possibly from nonhuman sentient beings: "This she-wolf is a gift for my kinsman." (This is, in fact, the oldest known sentence written in a form of English, dating back to the fifth century CE.) The characters we had to include were a commander, his fourteen-year-old daughter, and their humanoid companion robot. This scene had less inherent resolution than the others; he left it up to us to decide whether the message is really from some intelligent life form and, either way, how the humans react. Naturally, there was a wide spectrum of response.

Initially, I wasn't altogether proud of my own piece for this week, but I've come to like it better, and the professor liked it, too. I did notice a few things about my writing, which is what the professor keeps saying these prompts are about: teaching us to recognize our own styles so that we can do what we already do more consciously, maybe be smarter about it, know our strengths and weaknesses, and so on. Thus, I will note:

1. Writing a robot with any degree of intelligence (read: ability to speak) means, for me, overwhelming temptation to make it the straight man in humorous stituations. (Straight machine. Whatever.) There is a kind of "robots say the darnedest things" aspect to it: a machine is not self-conscious, and can answer even silly questions seriously. Excellent fun.

2. I cannot write science fiction without actually including aliens. (Guess what? I included aliens.) This is well, as I prefer my science fiction to mirror my fantasy, only with "science" as the catch-all explanation instead of "magic." If it's got spaceships but no lasers, talking robots, or aliens, then why am I reading it? There may be exceptions; I just haven't seen them yet.

3. Apparently, I can write fairly convincingly from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old girl. Well, in all fairness, I was one for an entire year.

Also in Advanced Fiction class today, we got what I think is excellent advice on starting a novel (or story, or scene, but particularly a novel; I can see some scenes as actually necessitating otherwise): do not start with one character alone. Obviously, this is not an absolute. Some good novels start with a character alone or even a sentence of setting which doesn't mention any character at all (as with the awesome first line of my favorite book, Howl's Moving Castle). However, interaction is interesting, and it can also be easy to fall into the trap of beginning with a character just puttering around before the action starts - or even, if you're not careful, waking up.

I already tend to open frequently with dialogue, especially in short stories, but this simple piece of advice gave me exciting ideas on how to edit the beginnings of both Rabbit and Cougar and Lord of the Dark Downs, neither of which seemed quite good enough to me. Guess what? Each of them starts out with a main character acting alone. (In the case of the former, he actually is alone; in the latter, other people are in the room, but she is not interacting with them, and they really aren't important.) In Rabbit and Cougar, the second character is introduced just halfway down the page! If I move that up, the beginning suddenly goes from basically non-action to a strange first meeting of two very different people. And in a puff of interest, a story is born.

This is most exciting, as we will each be submitting first page of a novel for our next class. I feel that using an edited version of one I've already written would be cheating, so I will write a new one; I have several files containing story ideas, many of which have definite novel potential, and I think I know which one I will pick out. The only thing that worries me slightly is that this violates my policy of not starting a new novel until I have finished at least the rough draft of the last one (currently, Lord of the Dark Downs, which I have been unable to work on much recently due to much other work). Oh well. I still think this first-page assignment will be great.
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