On Mary Robinette Kowal’s Short Story Idea Generation Class


So it’s Monday, I’ve spent the weekend rushing to get the last edits done on A Star Filled Sea and emailed off to my editor, somewhat delayed by my keyboard upping and dying on me again. Monday afternoon swings around and I’m actually thinking about a nap, then the image above pops up in my newsfeed.

Mary Robinette Kowal, one of my favourite authors and my even more favourite audiobook narrators, needed people to guinea pig a new class.

That night.

Hello there!

Doing one of Mary’s classes has been on my author bingo scorecard for a while but the classes either sell out too quickly or are out of my price range. This one was a sliding scale and a chance to a) learn and b) help her test out if the class worked. Oh and it’s not like I was doing anything else.

As I keep saying, I’m not a great short form writer and I was especially eager to see the class was about how you generate ideas for stories and then turn them from a budding idea into a proper planned outline. I’ve done short story classes before but they’ve always been general and haven’t ever really touched the nitty gritty of how a story is created.

So, short version, sold.

I admit I didn’t expect to get a ticket. They were gone within half and hour (I was 7 out of 8). The class was conducted over G+ and I learned a couple of new things, such as using Google Drive and how to put my name and gender pronouns (something Mary regards as justifiably important and it was refreshing to be asked, rather than assume everyone is cis; plus I got to have ‘Crazy Cat Lady’ as my tagline, appropriate as D insisted on coming to watch the class).

The class was based off of Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient, something which rang bells (I have a first edition copy of his Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy on my bookshelf). That’s basically a way to classify stories as milieu (place stories), idea, character or event. You can also mix and match or add in a sub-plot thread but the important part is deciding what kind of story you’re going to write.

Half my problem is I’m a pantser when it comes to short stories, I never, ever plan them. They just spill out of my brain and onto the paper, which is half the problem. I have an idea, race through the text and then flounder or rush the ending. I think pre-planning a story from initial idea through to individual scenes might be especially beneficial as it will actually allow me to have a structure my stories usually lack.

Though initially advertised as a one day course, it actually ended up and needed to be two. We spent about five hours in class with homework and it was time well spent (even if it forced me to choose: writing or Zumba ? Guess which won?) I love how Mary uses her back ground in puppetry to explain things as the theatrical analogies worked especially well (I have a little theatre experience, which was enough to follow and much of it is common sense stuff).

I did have problems comprehending a couple of things, mainly due to my Asperger’s. I’m not great at thinking out of the box of my own brain or seeing things from certain angles. That said, Mary did make a point to come back to things and try different ways to explain as they came to her which made the second day’s class tremendously worthwhile.

I especially liked how she taught us to nest stories and the process of breaking a vague idea into scenes, then looking for the gaps and methodically filling them to create a story which would hold water, so tight were it’s seams.

Again, classes like this are an awesome networking opportunity and it was nice to see every other member seemed to have one or more cats (I believe this to be a requirement of the ‘So you want to be an author?’ contract). Mary herself is lovely and ever so patient; both of which are excellent qualities in a good teacher (especially if there’s an open Q and A at the end).

I had an idea I’ve been mulling over for a couple of days, inspired by an off-hand quote. That story, I think, needs to sit for a bit while the idea matures. However I also have this Lovecraftian story that I’m going to submit to my crit group, Draft Zero, next week and so my plan is to take what Mary taught me and rework what I have of “Washed Up Upon the Shore” and try to write it using MICE.

The one thing the class taught me is that it’s not just the effort you put into a story, it’s the process. Though sometimes tedious, Mary’s method can be applied to any form of writing, and it will serve you well if you want to construct that isn’t bloated by extra characters or scene and is tightly composed.

This is the first time I feel like I’ve done a class where the secrets of short story writing have actually been revealed in detail. Hell it’s not a new system and MICE is used by lots of writers, it just never occurred to me this was how everyone else does it, or should. Two days well spent, if you ask me, and I know this is going to set me in good stead for my future stories.

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