Yes, You Really CAN Write Science Fiction

Guest post by Meriah Bradley

In November, Meriah Bradley discussed “Writing Science Fiction When You’re Not into Science.” Today, she shares 6 more steps we can take to overcome intimidation.

yes-you-can-write-sci-fi Step 5: Connect with other science fiction writers

If you haven’t already, join a community of (or containing) other science fiction writers. Community is a good thing for any writer. In science fiction (SF) it’s awesome for helping each other generate unique ideas, manage technobabble, and avoid obvious scientific blunders.

I approach other SF writers for feedback on my ideas after I have some concepts and outlines in progress. Follow these steps in the order that works best for you—don’t let my system limit you.

Step 6: Don’t assume you know

Babylon 5, Star Wars, Doctor Who, etc., get lots of things wrong. There’s no sound in space. Laser guns will never be that small. Lightsabers wouldn’t work (at least as lasers). Warp speed can’t get you back home before supper—you would still be young but everyone at home would be old by the time you returned.

If you’re going with soft SF these things can be okay, but don’t assume SF writers before you just “got it right.” (During the first draft stage don’t worry too much, though; problems like these are fixable).

Step 7: It’s okay to have a logic gap

There’s always that moment when you discover the gap between where things are and where you want them to be for your book. Unless you’re writing very hard SF this is the part where the “fiction” comes in.

The smaller the logic gap is the harder your science will seem. Try to figure out the current barriers to your technology and be creative in bridging to unreality. The main thing to keep in mind is to make sure you stick with your system. Your story’s internal logic is even more important than research. If it’s not true to life, it should at least stay true to your story.

Step 8: Make friends with experts (but take their feedback with a grain of salt)

You know more of them than you think. Ask your friends if they have anyone in the family with “such and such a degree” and ask if you can have their contact information. If all else fails there are several “ask an astronaut” forums, etc., on NASA’s main site and online Q&A sessions with doctors and scientists (seek and ye will find, the Internet is a wondrous place).

When you ask questions, keep them simple and specific. These people are busy with stressful careers. Do not ask them to brainstorm with you and don’t expect them to be creative with you. Some scientists can’t enjoy SF—just as some lawyers can’t enjoy a law show—while others grew up on Star Trek. Figure out which type you have stumbled upon.

A note of encouragement: Some physicists, engineers, etc., will love the fact that you are trying for any level of accuracy and will jump at the chance to help you create a story they too can enjoy.

Now, lucky for me, I’m related to some people with handy degrees. So I didn’t have to go find them to get feedback. I also knew their limitations. In receiving feedback from any expert, remember who knows your story best. You. You know what your story needs; they know what the science of your story needs to actually work.

This is the tension of writing science fiction.

Do I change the story to fit the science or change the science to fit the story? Be confident in your understanding of what the story needs, or how solid you want the science to be. If the science makes writing your story not fun, stop worrying about it!

Step 9: Just design/write

If you’re crafty or into design, a great help to a story’s internal logic is the simple question “does it look like it will work?” When you design your own robot, speeder, disrupter rifle, etc., try drawing it or making a model. This will greatly help with many basic design flaws you might miss if it only existed in your head.

Feel free to fill a notebook with sketches or your room with cardboard models of anything essential to the story. Have some fun here, but try not to go overboard. (Remember your primary focus! And no, it wasn’t building a life-sized star fighter). Then just write. Editing will be your best friend, so make sure your “premise concepts” work and do the rest later.

You’ve done a lot of prep work. Have fun. I design while I outline, and then I write.

Step 10: Editing and feedback

Track down those experts again, if you can. Those things you only researched lightly could be inaccurate and fixable, and no one can see it better than they can (although, remember, grain of salt). Again, keep in mind they’re busy, so count yourself lucky if they actually read the excerpt or chapter you send.

Pick the section that explains one or more of your premise concepts or contains the facts you are least sure about. If your core ideas are researched then there will only be little things to fix.

Secondly, connect with those fellow science fiction writers. They too have learned things from their research and their own experts. They may notice the same mistakes in your writing they had in their own earlier projects or drafts.

If you can, do both of these things. It’s really helpful!

Part of the reason it is okay to relax during the writing process is because you don’t have to be the only one to catch the mistakes—and that goes for any element of storytelling. It also gives you the freedom to not know everything (phew!).

Summary

In the end, write what you love. Do you love spaceships in close combat fighting flashy, noisy battles? Go for it. The world needs more good Space Opera. Have you discovered that you adore researching and want to apply that knowledge to a story in a way that could actually happen? Then be brave and try out Hard SF. At the end of the day what matters more than anything is how well the story itself is written, how compelling the characters are, and if their story is worth telling.

What do you find helpful for writing science fiction? Add your tips in the comments.

Meriah-Bradley-bio-photo About Meriah

Meriah is a long-time OYANer who’s passionate about bringing Christianity to science fiction. She enjoys astronomy, drawing, chocolate, music and many fandoms.

Currently she teaches English as a Second Language online to students in Korea and is in her senior year studying for a Bachelor’s in English. She lives with her husband in a little apartment not too far from her horse and a small lake, where she and her husband spar with longswords.

How to Write Science Fiction When You’re Not into Science

Guest post by Meriah Bradley

how-to-write-science-fiction Science fiction writer was my third career of choice, right after astronaut and Jedi. I knew I was unlikely to become an astronaut before I knew I couldn’t become a Jedi Apprentice. That’s what happens in a house full of math and science people.

My first few stories were fantasy for the singular reason that I didn’t want to get science fiction “wrong” (at ten years old, I was getting fantasy wrong anyway, but I hadn’t figured that out yet). What if the star I picked turned out—one day—to not to have any habitable planets orbiting it? There was too much risk.

Eventually the drive to write science fiction that aligned with my beliefs grew so strong I tried it. I wrote a crazy, brilliant, over-wordy semi-hard science fiction. And…I came to the depressing conclusion that science fiction writers needed to know everything.

But a first draft, several short pieces, and much research later I discovered otherwise and learned some things I wish I’d known all along.

You don’t have to be a scientist to write science fiction (SF). You just need to be willing to prepare some before you start writing—and it doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Here’s a loose set of steps. Next week, I will share some more.

Step 1: Don’t panic
Seriously. First and foremost remember that you’re writing a story. You can do that. Plenty of science fictions with inaccuracies are loved for their stories. Example: The Matrix is considered a classic among multiple sub-genres of science fiction. Yet the human characters are batteries (literally), and not very good ones at that. And yes, that concept is the basis of the entire story!

A quality story arc is the core of any decent book or movie; accuracy is an aspect of the quality. You should try to make the science portion as accurate as the story requires, but much can be forgiven in a well-told tale. So relax.

Step 2: Choose your sub-genre by comfort level
Bite off what you’re willing to chew. Each sub-genre comes with its own expectations, almost like difficulty levels.

“Hard science fiction” is advanced. The technology in the story is expected to already exist or be hypothesized as possible (generally in the near future). I recommend trying this sub-genre after you’ve written other science fiction stories, because the research aspect will be less intimidating.

The trick to writing hard SF is reading lots of hard SF—and keeping your storyline simple at first.

I thought all science fiction was hard SF at first, and it’s not at all!

Every other SF category falls under “soft science fiction.” In this broad category, story and character come first and science is bent for the sake of the story. How much you bend (or break) scientific concepts defines how soft your soft SF is.

This is a sliding scale and on the end farthest from hard SF is “science fantasy.” This mini genre generally has some conventions of science fiction, like spaceships or robots, but explains them with magic or mystical devices (like sun stones that power battle mechs or science that “just looks like” magic and is never explained). This is generally easy to write and gets you comfortable with the “props” of SF.

In the middle is philosophical or psychological science fiction, where the story focuses more on the social sciences in a future world instead of technology (some Dystopians fall into this category). In this range authors just use technobabble (believable, scientific-sounding hogwash) to explain why warp drive actually works, etc.

Just google science fiction sub-genres. There’s something for everyone.
This is an over-simplification of a complicated, debatable topic but it should give you an idea of your reader’s expectations. Find a place of comfort on the hard/soft scale and you’re well on your way.

Step 3: Pick a few things to really research
Don’t feel like you must research everything. What concepts are central to your story? Whether hard or soft, science fiction is an idea genre. What if humanity used chemical injection to inhibit emotion? What if someone cloned you at birth? How alike would you and your clone be? These are your “premise concepts.” Research these most; give yourself a break on the rest (at least for the first draft). Like the emotion idea? Learn about neurotransmitters. If you went with the clone thing you’d want to research genetics, maybe relating to twins.

How does the food replicator work? Don’t worry about it, especially if your character doesn’t. If it’s something she takes for granted it won’t feel like a plot hole. But if “whatever it is” is going to change her life, she’ll want to know how it works.

In short: research your strong areas—you will emphasize them naturally. Then research some weak areas to strengthen the story overall. Repeat step one if you need to, and find ways to make it fun.

Step 4: Find fun ways to learn
Think of research as discovering the history of your world. It doesn’t need to—and shouldn’t—be boring! Your research defines the setting. It’s helping you discover things your characters had to learn in school or during their first military tour off planet. Their history is defined by energy sources you choose. Let the research help you brainstorm.

Don’t go the boring route; try the fun stuff. Get some Idiot’s Guides or Dummies Guides from the library, look up things on iTunes U or try some education apps on an iPad or tablet and do try educational YouTube channels like Crash Course.


We will be hearing more on science fiction from Meriah next week!

In the meantime, tell us in the comments what your experience has been writing science fiction.

Meriah-Bradley-bio-photo About Meriah

Meriah is a long-time OYANer who’s passionate about bringing Christianity to science fiction. She enjoys astronomy, drawing, chocolate, music and many fandoms.

Currently she teaches English as a Second Language online to students in Korea and is in her senior year studying for a Bachelor’s in English. She lives with her husband in a little apartment not too far from her horse and a small lake, where she and her husband spar with longswords.

Is Planning a Series a Good Idea As a First-Time Novelist?

should-you-plan-a-series Daniel Schwabauer:

I’m often asked whether or not a young author’s first book can or should be part of a longer series. The question still surprises me; I’m amazed at the number of teens who aren’t afraid of long-term writing projects.

Certainly there are some good reasons for wanting to write a series.

The continuing popularity of well-told series stories like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and The Lord of the Rings makes large story arcs appealing.

And the world is a richer place because of the great series novels about Narnia and the world of Sherlock Holmes and (if I may be so bold) Discworld. It is also a richer place because of some mediocre series like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars books or the 19th-century adventure tales of H. Rider Haggard. I think it may even be a richer place because of the abysmal-but-charming historical works of G.A. Henty, which are essentially a series unto themselves.

We write what we love, and first novels are often loving imitations of one’s favorite books, or at least the best parts of those books. So it’s no surprise that as writers we feel compelled to write a series as epic as the ones that have enthralled us.

It also takes work to envision a story world and believable characters. Why start from scratch on a new fictional world when you already have a fully formed one waiting to be explored further? The idea of getting three books out of one story world can be tempting.

It is often said that new writers should leave series to the experienced novelists who know what they are doing. But it simply isn’t true that the best or most enjoyable series have been written by established novelists who paid their dues writing stand-alone novels. J.K. Rowling essentially began with Harry Potter. Burroughs began with John Carter. It is possible to write a first novel as the beginning of a series and watch it grow into a literary and commercial success. Christopher Paolini’s Eregon succeeded, at least commercially, beyond expectations.

The question, then, is whether a new writer is smart to consider making their first novel the beginning of a longer series. Here are three good reasons to do so:

  1. It allows you to indulge an enthusiastic public. Your first fan base may be small, but having any fans is an encouragement to keep writing and improving your craft. If your readers like your world and your characters and they want to read more about them, why not give them what they want? As long as you have a story to tell, everyone wins.
  2. It allows you to explore your world and your characters in more depth. Often the most interesting aspects of a fictional character are those that come under the most intense pressure. However, in my experience as a writing teacher, few first novels succeed at applying enough pressure on the characters to wring from them any truly human responses. It may take two or three novels to discover who your characters are, to learn how to discover who your characters are. Because this process of discovery is vital, writing a series may be helpful in your development as an observer of human nature.
  3. Some story arcs take a long time to develop. Which means you need page space in which to develop it. If your story idea simply demands a lot of words, a series is about the only credible way of fulfilling it.

Yet, in spite of the above, I still advise my students to avoid writing a series as their first novel.

With a few exceptions, most new writers are better off writing a book that will stand completely on its own. No planned sequel. No seven-book story arc. No characters whose lives will span a dozen tomes.

Why?

  1. Readers must be sold on a first book before they will read a second one. And the main thing to selling a reader is fulfilling their expectations. Which means you must resolve the story arc of the first novel in a compelling, unexpected and yet satisfying way. This is very difficult to do if the ending of your first book is meant to thrust the reader into a second book. To put this another way, it is usually important to make sure book one stands completely on its own. Like A Prisoner of Zenda, or A Princess of Mars. Even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone stands on its own—yes, it hints at things to come, at a larger conflict and looming adventures, but the payoff for the main action of the story exists between the covers of book one.
  2. Passion is fleeting. The best series exist because the writer has a lot to say about the characters and their world. At first, you may feel as if your world will fuel your imagination forever, that you will never run out of passion for your story people or their problems. But eventually the well always runs dry, and it usually happens sooner than expected. And if the improbable happens and your series is successful, it can be hard to give up the temptation of committing to one or two more books for the sake of an advance. Have you ever read a series novel that didn’t live up to the promise of the earlier stories in the series? It happens all the time. Probably because, regardless of intentions or previous passion, the writer stopped loving the story. The writer used up every ounce of passion in previous books and began writing based on technique alone.
  3. Most first books don’t sell. For that matter, most fourth books don’t sell. Most likely, your early novels will be practice. I hate saying that, but it’s true. It takes practice to develop a readable, convincing narrative voice. It takes pages. It takes chapters. It takes books. How wise is it to start a seven-book series when you don’t know how many books you will have to write in order to develop a salable skill?
  4. Holding anything back will ruin a book. One of the invisible problems of series writing is the tendency for the writer to not recognize what they are saving or avoiding. This expresses itself in several ways:
  • The writer gives too much background. Sometimes way too much. (“But…….. the reader needs to know this earlier stuff for when the cool stuff will happen later on!”)
  • The writer saves the best lines in order to use them later. (“But…….. those are the high points!”) Yes, stories have high points. But building a novel around five or six great lines is a huge waste of the reader’s time. Give your best on every page. Saving it for later will only ensure that it doesn’t actually work anywhere. I don’t mean that you can’t have a great line planned for a specific point in your story. I do mean that every page should either be your best or it should be removed.
  • The writer resorts to “filler” to expand a weak section of a long story arc rather than changing the story arc to focus on its high points. It’s possible to fall in love with the concept of an epic so much that you lose sight of the simple story. Epics can grow organically out of stories, expanding as the writer gains insight into the story world and its predicaments. But when a writer misconceives a story as a series and begins with an inflated vision—when he or she turns what should be a relatively short, simple novel into a complex, multi-layered epic series—it can be extremely difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Shrinking a bloated epic into a novel-sized container is much harder than doing the reverse.

All of this is not to say that you couldn’t write a sequel to a successful novel, or even plant the seeds of a sequel in a first book. (Anthony Hope did it with A Prisoner of Zenda. The sequel is called Rupert of Hentzau. But he didn’t write the first book with the second one in mind.)

If you’re a new author asking me if you should write a series, my answer is No. When you aren’t sure, when you have to ask, your story idea probably isn’t large enough to sustain multiple novels.

But if you aren’t asking—if you already know you want to write a series because a series is the only way in which you can possibly tell your story—then I’d say to dive in and see what happens.

A story that must be written as a series should be. A story that might be written as a series shouldn’t.

What do you think? If you have tried planning a series with your first novel, what has your experience been?

Daniel_Schwabauer_2012_bw_small

Daniel Schwabauer, MA, is the creator of The One Year Adventure Novel and Cover Story Writing creative writing courses. His professional work includes stage plays, radio scripts, short stories, newspaper columns, comic books and scripting for the PBS animated series Auto-B-Good. His young adult novels, Runt the Brave and Runt the Hunted, have received numerous awards, including the 2005 Ben Franklin Award for Best New Voice in Children’s Literature and the 2008 Eric Hoffer Award. His third book, The Curse of the Seer, is coming out in spring 2015.