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Week 8 – Speculating on Future Fictional Narratives

This week’s focus was Writing Speculative Fiction by the two brilliant lecturers: Jane McKie and Jane Alexander. The first day of the intensive focussed on differentiating speculative fiction from science fiction as a genre, examining the ‘freewriting’ writing style, and having the opportunity to listen to the ingenious author and research physicist, Helen Sedgwick.

The first step (establishing a difference between the two aforementioned genres) could be broken-down into:

  • SF ‘depicts the future whether in a realistic or stylised manner’
  • ‘A good work of science fiction makes one – and only one assumption – about its narrative world that violates our knowledge about our own world and then extrapolates the whole narrative from the difference.’
  • ‘The business of the (SF) writer is to set up equipment in a laboratory of the mind such that the ‘what if’ in question is at once isolated and provided with the nutrients it needs…the essence of SF is the experiment’ (Gwyneth Jones. Deconstructing the Starships: Science, Fiction and Reality. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009.) 

In regards to freewriting, some of its key components identified were:

  • Keep your hand moving
  • Don’t cross out [or correct, or delete]
  • Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar
  • Lose control
  • Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
  • Go for the jugular.

Outwit your inner critic.

(Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones. Boston, MA: Shambala, 1996).

Towards the end of the day, Helen Sedgwick shared several pears of literary wisdom, which I have organised as:

  1. People are complicated. Even the most despicable villain cannot be wholly evil. There is always complexity present in humankind. Good and bad as polar opposites and no overlap isn’t complex – poor storytelling. Even people who do bad things have to have more to them than pure badness. Furthermore, we should take care not to preach our own views throughout it. Even if I agree with their political points, I stop believing in the story. It’s okay to start from that – that anger or sense of injustice – but we have to move beyond that in order to write a convincing story rather than preach one.
  2. The simplest answer to any question doesn’t mean it is the right one. Nor is it the most truthful in terms of human emotion and behaviour. There is no such thing as an absolute fact (literary or scientifically). There is, however, a lack of imagination.
  3. The inability NOT to write as a writer – it is our natural response to something which we needs a voice. “[it was forced out despite my conscious resistance…I never wrote a story with less pleasure]” – Ursula K Le Guin (speaking about The Word for World is Forest) when explaining the drive behind writing a novel that openly criticised the Vietnam War.
  4. Avoid any form of polarisation. Avoid simplicity in terms of character, plot, and politics. Strive for that complexity even if it makes you uncomfortable.
  5. Science and fiction have huge amounts in common. The phrase ‘scientific fact’ is such a heavy weight of a phrase used to bash people over the head. Science is the very opposite of something immovable – it is constantly changing. It is about always questioning – even the things we think as fact – and digging deeper. We never have the whole picture. Scientific fact is not the end of a story. Ever. It is one part of the story, not the whole thing. We should never think ‘I have the answer and thus I can be rigid.’

On the second day of the intensive, we looked at the following: perspective (POV), tense & time, the shape of story, and exposition.

Two examples of the writing exercises we carried out are:

Trying out points of view

  • Write a paragraph from the point of view of your story protagonist, using first person.
  • Now rewrite it using third person limited.
  • If you like, rewrite again using an ‘extreme narration’ POV, e.g. second person (‘you enter the room’) or first person plural (‘we entered the room’).
  • Which feels ‘right’ to you?
  • Now make some notes on each version – what does each POV allow you to do? What possibilities are offered by each?
  1. First-person: It’s just us four in here, really. There are others too, we’d been warned beforehand, but they aren’t real. Not really. Not in the same sense we are; made of flesh and blood and with families to remember us by and memories to remember them by.
  2. Third-person limited: René glanced around the table at the three people there. He’d seen others outside before they’d entered the cabin, but hadn’t recognised their faces. That made sense, of course. After all, they’d been briefed beforehand on the fact they were the only true people present. And that they’d have to survive, at all costs.
  3. Second-person: You’re at a table with three people you’ve met before. You’ve seen others, it’s true, outside, before you’d chosen to seek refuge in here. But deep down within yourself, you know the people outside aren’t like the four of you. They have no memory, no love, no home. They’re simply here to ensure you, with your memory and love and home, remain here – with them.


Expand this ‘told’ emotion into two or three sentences:

She could turn back. But she feels angry.

  • The double doors to the hallway hadn’t quite closed behind her, still wedged apart and showing a sliver of the street, when Anita takes the first step upwards. Up and up, she continues, the breeze from the street lifting her hair around a flushed face and furrowed brows. Up, onwards, she goes till she gets to the door and puts her foot right through it.

All in all, the two intensive days sped by and left me with tons of creative energy – itching to write! The class dynamic was especially lovely as there weren’t many of us and it was easy to share. There was also a relaxed atmosphere which encouraged communication between classmates, and between student and lecturer alike. The assignment – to write a 2,000 word SF piece – is one I can’t wait to begin! 🙂

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