The Ascension of Idea Into Story

by Jerry Oltion


I seldom do writing exercises. I figure if you have to roll dice or draw cards or pick things off a list to figure out what to write about, you’re not writing a story that moves you deeply enough to bother. So I was a bit reluctant to take part in a writing exercise proposed by Nina Kiriki Hoffman at the Wordos writing workshop we both attend. She had come up with an exercise that she planned to use in a class she was teaching, and she wanted to test it out on us.

I figured it wouldn’t kill me to help her field-test her prompts, so I looked over the page of suggested topics, all under the heading “Alien/SF Rites of Passage” . . . and one of them grabbed me by the collar and stuck its metaphorical nose against mine and breathed hot steam into my face. It said, “First time meeting descendant/infant/larva/child version of self.”

I think it took me about half a millisecond to come up with the opening scenario for “The Ascension” [on sale in our November/December issue now]. I wrote like a maniac, using a Bic pen and a spiral notebook, for half an hour or so, and when Nina announced the end of the exercise I remember saying, “Not yet! Five more minutes, please!”

Everyone laughed, but they gave me my five minutes. It wasn’t enough, but I got about a third of the way into it, and when I read it aloud, nobody laughed. Then somebody said, “If you don’t bring the complete story next week, I’m finishing it for you.”

No worries. I finished it at home that night. And despite starting as an exercise, it remains one of the most deeply haunting (at least to me) stories I’ve written. I began a sequel not long after, and while that’s going considerably more slowly, it’s nearing completion and I’m loving it, too.

So I’ve learned to keep my eyes open for inspiration wherever I might find it, even in an exercise. Thanks, Nina!



Jerry Oltion headshotJerry Oltion is the most prolific fiction contributor in the history of Analog/Astounding magazine, with ninety-five stories as of “The Ascension.” He has published another sixty or so in various other magazines and anthologies. He has written several novels, both stand-alone and in shared universes such as Star Trek, Dark Sun, and Isaac Asimov’s Robot City. He’s also a columnist for Sky & Telescope magazine, writing their monthly amateur telescope-making article, and he is now the science columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He is slowly putting his previously published stories up online at Amazon. Visit his website at

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