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!