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  What This Class Is and How to Get the Most Out of It

Origins of this Class

This class grew out of a graduate workshop, “Describing in Fiction,” taught by Jean McGarry and Catherine Evans, that I took while in graduate school at Johns Hopkins. In that class, we looked at the work of a number of writers, including Colette, Yasunari Kawabata, and Vladimir Nabokov, to see how they achieved the effects that they did.

Those were literary writers, but I cannot think of anything that I learned in that class -- or in the decades since -- about description that is not applicable to speculative fiction in well. In fact, as we’ll discuss in one section, speculative fiction adds a new dimension to the discussion.

When I began teaching online, a frequent question involved how to deliver information gracefully, a discussion that overlaps significantly with the idea of description, and so I created this class. In this on-demand version, I’ve expanded the material significantly, adding more exercises, more examples/analysis, and lists of resources.

What This Class Should Do For You

By the end of this class, you should feel comfortable using description in a story and know how much to use in order to achieve the effect you want. You will have learned the basic components of effective description and better understand how it is replicated in a reader’s head, as well as how to take advantage of that phenomenon. You should also be able to identify when in your stories you're infodumping -- and also how to fix those spots as well as when to know when you haven't given the reader enough to hang on.

How to Get the Most from this Class

Galloping through the course may not be the most best approach. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's not.

Instead, take it in smaller chunks and give yourself time to think about the material as well as to notice manifestations of it in what you’re currently reading. Keep a notebook of descriptions that you think work particularly well, so you can try to figure out how they’re achieving the effect that they are, and keep looking at them as you learn more about some of the internal factors of description.

I do suggest doing all the exercises, but you may find them particularly effective if you use this class in conjunction with a current project, using aspects of that work as a base for the exercises. If something works well for you, you may want to incorporate it into your writing practice.

I have included "overachiever exercises" for those who want to take the various writing exercises farther. I tend in that obnoxious and somewhat competitive direction, and so if you really want to sharpen this skill, I've included ways to take each exercise a little farther.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions or comment, which you can do throughout the course. Your questions and comments will be visible to me as well as other students taking the class. If you’d prefer to ask a question privately, mail me at catrambo@gmail.com.

Before You Begin

If you intend to do the exercises, then before you start the classes, assemble 5-10 pieces of speculative fiction that you admire for its descriptive qualities. You will be using these for some of the exercises over the course of the class. If you want to just generate a random list of suitable ones, here's a list of twenty possibilities available online:

  1. Chu, John. Hold-Time Violations. (Tor.com)
  2. Foster, Eugie, "When It Ends, He Catches Her" (Daily Science Fiction)
  3. Gloss, Molly. "Lambing Season" (Asimov's)
  4. Hall, Kate. "The Scrimshaw and the Scream" (Fantasy Magazine)
  5. Heuler, Karen. "Egg Island" (Clarkesworld Magazine)
  6. Hopkinson, Nalo. "The Glass Bottle Trick" (Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root)
  7. Kingfish, T. "The Dryad's Shoe" (Fantasy Magazine)
  8. Lee, Yoon Ha. "Variations on An Apple" (Tor.com)
  9. Lingen, Marissa. Points of Origin (Tor.com).
  10. Liu, Ken. "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species" (Lightspeed Magazine)
  11. Malik, Usman T. "The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family" (Qualia Nous)
  12. Pinsker, Sarah. "A Stretch of Highway, Two Lanes Wide." (The Magzine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
  13. Pinkser, Sarah. "And We Were Left Darkling" (Lightspeed Magazine)
  14. Samatar, Sofia. "Selkie Stories Are For Losers" (Strange Horizons)
  15. Sherman, Delia. "Miss Carstairs and the Merman" (The Magzine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
  16. Swanwick, Michael. "Ancient Engines" (Asimov's)
  17. Swirksy, Rachel, "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" (Apex Magazine)
  18. Vernon, Ursula. "Jackalope Wives" (Apex Magazine)
  19. Wong, Alyssa. "The Fisher Queen" (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction)
  20. Wrigley, Sylvia Spruck. "Alive, Alive Oh" (Lightspeed Magazine)