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21W.759, Fall 2009


Students write and read science fiction and analyze and discuss stories written for the class. For the first eight weeks, readings in contemporary science fiction accompany lectures and formal writing assignments intended to illuminate various aspects of writing craft as well as the particular problems of writing science fiction. The rest of the term is given to roundtable workshops on students' stories.

This course is limited to 18 people. If more than that number have signed up, there's a simple algorithm to choose the 18, which we'll apply at the end of the first class meeting.


  • 22 Sept - First trial beginning (or flash fiction)
  • 29 Sept - Second trial beginning
  • 6 Oct - Third trial beginning
  • 20 Oct - First draft of story - workshops begin
  • Two weeks after return of first draft - Rewrite


Your grade in this course will come from five different kinds of writing:

  • Three trial story beginnings (about 5% each)
  • Your critiques of other students' stories (together about 10% of your grade)
  • Your critiques of the readings (together about 10% of your grade)
  • The rough draft of a story (about 25%)
  • The finished draft of that story (about 50%)
  • Attendance counts.

So a good first draft is important, but you want one hell of a good rewrite.


  • The Best SF and Fantasy of the Year - 25th Annual Collection (BEST)
  • The Hard SF Renaissance (Hard SF)
  • SF Hall of Fame (FAME)
  • latest Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF)

I want your opinions of the readings. At least a paragraph for each story - what you liked or didn't like - and more if you feel like it. Email your evaluation to me by Monday night.

This is the only work I will accept on-line. Everything else is to be printed out on paper.


15 Sept.

Administrative delights. "What is SF?" and what is it not. How to start a story. A seemingly sadistic assignment that is for your own good.

Read for next week: FAME: Arena, Fondly Fahrenheit, The Cold Equations. BEST: Sea Change.

22 Sept.

First trial beginning due

1. Description/Narration

2. Scenes

3. Workshop exercise

Read for next week: FAME: Scanners Live in Vain, The Little Black Bag, That Only a Mother, Flowers for Algernon. BEST: Lighting Out

29 Sept.

Second trial beginning due

1. Plot and structure; suspense

2. Writer's block

Read for next week: Hard SF: The Hammer of God, Think Like a Dinosaur. BEST: Of Late I Dreamt of Venus. F&SF: TBA

6 Oct.

Third trial beginning due

1. Point of view

Read for two weeks from now: Hard SF: A Walk in the Sun, Reasons to Be Cheerful, Understand. BEST: Last Contact. F&SF: TBA

Please schedule a formal conference time with me sometime during 6-8 October, to talk about your story. I'll pass a time sheet around. Of course we can talk before that, as well, or anytime you make an appointment.

13 Oct.

No class meeting; Monday schedule in place

20 Oct

First draft of story due

1. Dialogue

2. Writing and experience

3. Workshop

Read for next week: BEST: The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, The Prophet of Flores, The Mists of Time. F&SF: TBA.

27 Oct.

1. Build-a-planet exercise (Science in science fiction)

2. Workshop

Read for next week: Hard SF: A Career in Sexual Chemistry, BEST: Craters, Dark Heaven.

3 Nov.

1. Sex & Violence!

2. Workshop

The rest of the semester should be given over to workshopping, with occasional discussions of this or that.

24 Nov.

No class meeting

Professor doesn't want to face an empty classroom.

8 Dec.

Last class meeting unless workshop schedule allows us to finish a week early.

No final exam

Go off and sip that firehose.

The Trial Beginnings

Everybody has to do the first Trial Beginning, due 22 Sept. Of the six other suggestions, write any two (due 29 Sept and 6 October).

Your story must be taken from one of these Trial Beginnings.

No credit for old stuff recycled into this class.

Trial Beginning #1

Each student will be given a randomly chosen topic taken from a list of a couple of dozen sf themes. Choose one of the beginning strategies we discussed and write the first 2-4 pp. of a story.

(This is a "Where do you get your crazy ideas?" demonstration. Ideas are everywhere; can come from anything.)

Just write a first draft. Bring two copies of it into class Tuesday.

Extra Credit: For this one assignment, you may try "flash fiction" - a complete story less than five pages long. If it works, you earn double credit.

"Description" Trial Beginning

Pick an existing location in Cambridge or Boston or your home town - park, bar, classroom, church, whatever - and start a science fiction story there. Describe the place unobtrusively but in some detail, by having your characters rub up against it.

Here's the science fiction part: everything about this place is just like the here and now, except for one aspect. You aren't allowed to say explicitly what that aspect is, but by the end of the scene, it will be clear to the reader.

"Aliens" Trial Beginning

Here is a list of things that (it could be argued) make humans different from other creatures on Earth:

  • Creation/appreciation of art
  • Scientific curiosity
  • Appointments
  • Partnership with machines
  • Ability to sin
  • Modesty
  • Communication of abstractions
  • Knowledge and fear of death
  • Sarcasm
  • Anxiety over scent

- and so forth. Take one such characteristic and, in a scene from a story, introduce an alien creature who lacks it.

Do this knowing that, in the context of a complete story, the function of this deficiency would be "refractive"- having the creature lack, say, the ability to lie must make some statement, preferably oblique and original, about lying and human, not alien, nature.

For maximum credit, write the scene two ways: once from the alien's point of view, and once from a conventional POV. Which do you think works better?

Characterization" Trial Beginning

There are two basic science fiction situations: a normal person in a bizarre setting and a bizarre person (or "creature") in a normal setting. I want two story openings, each a couple of pages long, that characterize both kinds of people:

  • 1. Take a science-fictional idea like the "random" topics. Put a normal person into a world where that phenomenon exists.
  • 2. Pick a setting from your own experience. Move someone through it who is weird in a science-fictional way: alien, mutant, whatever.

"Science" Trial Beginning

Pick an article from a recent science journal or popular science magazine and use it as the springboard for a story set a half-century or more in the future. Along with the opening scene, turn in a photocopy of the article and a couple of paragraphs about your extrapolation.

"Experience" Trial Beginning

Use something that happened to you - an incident, a disaster, an observation, a person you know - and translate it into the future, using it as the basis of a story about a similar thing happening at least fifty years from now. Write an opening scene and hand it in along with a couple of paragraphs describing the incident or person out of your own experience. (Footnote: be careful, writing about real people. Change names and physical appearance. Your good buddy might not be such a buddy when the movie based on your story comes out, and there he is having unprotected sex with a chicken.)

"Opposites" Trial Beginning

People with opposite personalities are as often extremely attracted to one another as they are opposed. I want an opening scene in a science fiction setting where two opposite types meet. This is how you generate their personalities:

At you'll find a version of "Keirsey Temperament Sorter," a survey with a few dozen questions like "If you came upon a person eating a live animal, would you (A) call the police or (B) ask for some?" It takes three or four minutes to click through the questions. Then the program gives you your "temperament description," a pair of qualities like Idealist/Healer or Guardian/Superior. One click and you get a couple of paragraphs describing who you are.

Do the Sorter for yourself, and print out the description. Then go through it again, giving the opposite answer to each question, and print out the description of the "anti-you."

Put them in a science-fictional situation together. Think about it: best not to do the obvious, making yourself the hero and your anti-self the villain. (Let me have a copy of the temperament descriptions as well as the story beginning - you don't have to tell me which one is you .... )

Late Work

Workshop critiques and Trial Beginnings may not be turned in late. Period.

Allowances may be made for the story drafts if and only if you come to me at least a week ahead of deadline - and at least two weeks before workshop date - and try to explain what's wrong. Then you may be rescheduled if and only if you can find a volunteer to take your workshop date.

Manuscript presentation

Trial Beginnings and stories handed in to me must be printed out double-spaced on white paper. Space-and-a-half is okay if it's comfortable to read. Stories copied for workshopping may be printed out single-spaced to cut down on your copying costs.

(Students may arrange to send one another email copies. The teacher still gets paper copies - all stories and all critiques. E-MAILED CRITIQUES DO NOT EXIST AND WILL NOT COUNT TOWARD YOUR GRADE.)

Inked-in corrections are fine so long as they are legible and unambiguous.

You won't be formally graded on the physical appearance of your manuscript (with one exception: if it isn't typed or printed out, I won't read it) or on your mastery of grammar and spelling. But don't kid yourself. I am almost human, and the less trouble I have reading your manuscript, the better I will feel toward your story.

I don't remember ever giving an A to a story that had terrible grammar. You could make history. Don't count on it.

(To this end, you will receive a bitchy handout called "Grammar: High Crimes and Misdemeanors." A kind of survival guide.)

If you have persistent problems with grammar or basic composition skills, I'll ask that you seek help from the Writing Center, located at 12-132 (a pink slip means I'm requiring, not "asking"). It's hard to scrape up a couple of extra hours per week, I know, but many people have found that time spent at the Center was as valuable as any course work, even in their majors. The people who work there are professional analysts and tutors, and can save you a lot of rewriting time.

What kind of stories?

I really hate Course Six stories. Anything with a computer as a character or some character BillGibsonized to screw around inside the net will probably bore the hell out of me. Likewise stories about telepathy or similar amazing powers. Boring, boring, bo-o-o-oring. I won't forbid them, but you're flirting with a low grade if the teacher keeps falling asleep over your manuscript, waking up at the noise of his forehead whacking the desk.

Please don't give me any stories about the following:

  • Mighty-thewed Conanesque heros
  • TV series characters
  • Deals with the devil
  • Golly! They turn out to be Adam & Eve
  • "And then the sun went nova."
  • Golly! It was all a dream
  • Golly! It wasn't a dream after all
  • Werewolves, vampires, etc.
  • Huge ants, beetles, beavers, etc.
  • It was just a video/computer game
  • It wasn't a video/computer game
  • Space-opera shoot-em-ups
  • Tracts (atheist, fundamentalist, communist, anything-ist)
  • In-group MIT flaming

On the other hand, I will smile benevolently upon the following:

  • Clarity
  • Careful writing
  • Well-thought-out science
  • Humor
  • Compelling characterization
  • Anything really new
  • Real suspense
  • Truly experimental writing (not slapdash easy stuff)
  • Good alien aliens
  • No padding
  • Emotional honesty

Workshop Procedure

Third class meeting, I pass the hat: eighteen slips of paper with dates on them. On that date you will workshop your story.

During the break you can trade dates with each other. After the break I record who's when. (Note that writers of the earliest stories workshopped will be able to take advantage of other students' comments for their rewrite. Later ones have to make do with the professor's comments.)

You will always hand out eighteen copies of your story on or before the Tuesday class meeting the week before workshopping.

CI Class - Oral Component

Something new this year: This class is a "CI" (Communication Intensive) class, and so it requires an "oral component," besides normal class participation, for a grade. All you have to do to get this credit is lead the workshop for one student's story. On the third class meeting, we'll discuss what this entails, and assign each person's story to another person for roundtable leadership.

Everybody prepares a written critique (one page, more or less, depending on the length and complexity of the story) and brings two copies to class - one for the writer and one for me.

In a roundtable fashion, your classmates in turn either read their critiques or make oral summaries, especially if reading would take more than a few minutes. I read last.

The author is not allowed to speak during these presentations.

Afterwards, the author may take a reasonable length of time to indulge in self-defense. Then a free-for-all to round out the hour.

You receive between one and five points per critique - zero in extremity - based on logic, clarity, and depth. Insofar as it is humanly possible, you aren't graded on whether I agree with your opinion of the story.

Some people never get this far in the syllabus, or don't actually believe it, and all semester they hand in critiques that are a couple of hastily jotted paragraphs. Zero times seventeen, ouch.

Negative Criticisim

Two points, perhaps obvious, about the preparation of your critiques:

  • Even if you didn't like a person's story, try to find something positive to say about it. Your negative criticism will then be taken more seriously.
  • If your criticisms of other manuscripts are consistently vicious, don't be surprised or hurt if your own work is torn apart with red-hot tongs.

Plagiarism and Collaboration

Plagiarism earns an automatic F for the whole semester and will be reported to the Registrar. Period.

We'll discuss in class the difference between plagiarism and "influence." Basically, if you made it up yourself, it's okay, even if somebody else made up a similar thing, unbeknownst to you.

Collaboration isn't allowed, but that doesn't mean you can't pass the story around for advice. If your grammar is really lousy, you might want to run things by a friend who's a grammar whiz, or consult the Writing Center, before you subject me to them.

Grammar and Style

The old-fashioned screed The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, is recommended for people who have persistent problems with grammar and style. You can read through it in a couple of hours. Skip the stuff you already know and mark the unfamiliar stuff, and use the marked parts as a guide.

Good Things

Two nice things about this course (honest!) are that the textbooks are cheap and the workload tapers off toward the end of the semester.

You do the trial beginning assignments and hand in your first draft on or before 20 October. I'll prepare a detailed critique. Your rewrite is due two weeks after I return the first draft with critique.

There will be no class meeting on 24 November. Note that Drop Day is 18 November. If you want to talk to me about dropping, please do it at least the week before.

Contact Details

Office hours Wed. 2-4. Anytime by appointment. 14N-234 (X7390)

E-mail address: haldeman[at] or, if the MIT system melts down, haldeman[at]

Home phone 352-225-0557. Please don't call before 9 a.m. or after 9 p.m.