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!).


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-fictionScience 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.


  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, 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.

Why You Should Write Bad Novels

Guest post by Kathryn Comstock

Since joining The One Year Adventure Novel at age 13, Kathryn Comstock has completed not one, but five novels. Here Kathryn shares what writing each of these novels taught her.

Learning-by-Doing-Why-You-Shouold-Write-Bad-Novels-500px “Learn by doing” is one of the first phrases new 4-Hers learn. I have found this true in completing my 4-H projects, but also in life and writing.

I recently finished my fifth novel, #754. So far, this one is the best developed. The public will likely never see the novels that came before #754, however, I learned many valuable lessons from those novels that show in my writing today.


1. Learn From Those Who Have Gone Before

At the time I wrote my first two novels, Freedom’s Bonds and Seeker of the Stars, I was enamored with two fantasy books by a homeschool author. Ideas and themes from her novels showed up in my work, even down to character traits. My main characters are almost exact copies of hers.

The most important lesson I learned from my first novels is that it’s okay to base work off someone else when first learning. Seeing what more experienced authors have done and trying it can be a really good way to experiment with different genres. My first two novels can never be published because of the similarities between them and the books of this author, but they were a good springboard into the world of writing.

2. NaNoWriMo Can Be Detrimental to Your Novel’s Health

My third novel is a children’s book called Moonbeam. It’s about a horse named Moonbeam, and is an allegorical retelling of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. I wrote this novel in November of 2011 during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). 2011 was my first time tackling such a massive endeavor as writing a novel in one month, so I really had no idea what I was getting into.

Moonbeam had a lot of potential. Since I was pretty young at the time, I couldn’t do it justice in just one month. The main reason it didn’t work out, though, is that I didn’t invest as much time in the planning stage as I should have. During the month of October, I only planned off and on, thinking I could finish planning when I began writing.

I learned that one cannot do enough planning and outlining before NaNoWriMo. Some novels can be written without a detailed outline, but usually those novels are written over a longer time span than 31 days. Taking the extra time to plan will make November NaNoWriMo much easier.

3. Research and Stick to Your Plan

I took a Civil War class in the fall of 2012. This, along with receiving the Other Worlds curriculum for my birthday, prompted me to write a sci-fi/historical fiction. One Thirty-Six, my fourth novel, centered on a young man named Elijah. One of his ancestors fought in the Civil War at the First Battle of Bull Run, a battle Elijah and his family reenact every year. This novel brings together the best of two literary worlds: Civil War conspiracies and time travel.

My new obsession with the Civil War had me reading multiple books, ranging anywhere from textbooks to historical fiction to conspiracy theorist-esque novels. The outline for One Thirty-Six changed so many times I began to lose track of what the characters were supposed to be doing and what my story goal was.


  1. Research excessively. I still have the notebook I filled with interesting tid-bits I’d learned while reading. Be sure the notebook can be expanded, because it will get large very quickly! Research is just as important as outlining, especially in historical fiction. The novel may be a great story, but if the genre is marked as historical fiction and there are inaccuracies, it will really turn readers off.
  2. Stick with the outline. As I mentioned before, I changed One Thirty-Six countless times. This made it hard for me and friends I had critiquing the novel to keep track of what transpired. Each time I learned about a new Civil War event or conspiracy, I added said event to the book. Though this was my first novel to reach over 50,000 words, it should have been much shorter. I added way too many changes. Of all my novels, this is the one I learned the most from.

4. Characters Need Knots

A character knot is some issue a character needs to resolve. #754, my most recent rough draft, involves a huge knot. It’s so large, in fact, that my main character, Eirwyn, won’t completely resolve it until the second book.

Eirwyn struggles with bitterness. She’s been imprisoned her entire life for a disagreement that happened two hundred years ago between the ruling family and her ancestor. Through the novel, Eirwyn learns that she needs to surrender her bitterness to God and forgive instead of staying angry. A tragedy befalls Eirwyn near the end of #754, causing her to relapse back into bitterness once more.

Knots make characters more interesting to read about. The hero needs to have some problem she is working through, be it bitterness, depression, fear, or an injury. Whatever the case may be, show how major this problem is to the reader and how the character can’t possibly stay tangled up in that knot much longer without suffocating. Take the reader on a journey with the hero to fix their problems.

The best way to get better at writing is to practice. I don’t consider my first four novels a flop. Actually, they are a great success in my mind because I learned from them. So, don’t be afraid to write a novel that might be considered bad. Use it as a learning opportunity and see what lesson the novel has in store.

What have you learned from your first novel(s)?

Kathryn Comstock bio photo About Katie

From the age of seven, Kathryn has been crafting short stories, poems, and novels. She used to scribble these on the back of her math homework, much to her mom’s dismay. Kathryn became serious about writing the year she turned thirteen, when she received the One Year Adventure Novel curriculum. Since then, she has written five novels.

In addition to writing, Kathryn enjoys spending time with her horses and other critters. She would write and ride horseback at the same time if possible. Kathryn also plays piano and teaches piano lessons.

Check out Kathryn’s blog here:

* Please note that links on The One Year Adventure Novel Blog to other websites and blogs do not constitute an official endorsement. We are not intimately familiar with all the writing and opinions contained in outside links.

Conveying Hope in Your Novel without Sounding Trite

This guest post by Kyle de Waal is part 2 of “The Cross and the Typewriter.” For part 1, Facing the Christian Fiction Stigma, read here »

Conveying-Hope-in-Your-Novel-Without-Sounding-Trite-500px Two Sided-Coin
In my last post, I argued that Christian fiction is not fiction confined by generic constructs, but fiction written from the soul of the Christian. In particular, I focused on ideals like hope, which the Christian intrinsically connects to the hope we have because of the sacrifice of Christ.

However, these ideals do not exist within a vacuum, and taken as a part of the greater kaleidoscope of life, their very existence implies more about the rest of the worldWhy hope? What is the world like if we must hope for things rather than simply have them? Why freedom? What is this freedom from?

In the Christian worldview, it is clear that evil will not win in the end, and good is not somehow dependent on evil. Evil will be vanquished and good will live on. However, we also know that if we look around at the world around us, evil is still present. Jesus’ victory has been won, but we still see the fallout that sin has in the world.

The Reality of Pain
We still live in a world where pain and suffering seem to be all but omnipresent. Scrolling through any news website provides more than enough fodder for the argument that humans are capable of committing any evil to each other.

Where do we find hope in that? Wouldn’t any message of hope seem trite against the backdrop of actual human experience?

This is a question that I’ve grappled with a great deal since first starting to seriously think about my writing, and I am not in a position to argue that I have it all figured out and I can come down from the mountain and share the good news with all of you.

To face reality we have to face the evil that occupies real life. And when you sink deep enough into the mire, revealing the reality of what happens every day, how do you express that hopefully?

The Modern Disease
I think this is where a lot of serious modern literature ends on a note of nihilism or absurdism. The nihilistic writers do an excellent job diagnosing the diseases of the modern age, but they cannot take it a step farther. And, if a story is unwilling to face reality, as in absurdist literature, it becomes fluff, refusing to treat the tangled knot of life as anything but a joke, because jokes are safe.

Both of these paths are profoundly unsatisfying for me. Can I really only gloat over leaving my audience sad and hopeless or refuse to open my eyes and just make things blow up in flashy, entertaining ways?

The books that stick with me are the books that do look at the world seriously, even if they do so against the backdrop of orcs or spaceships. But tragically often, looking at the world seriously means seeing the problems it has and presenting them for everyone else to see. Nothing more.

I think as Christians we are asked to do that and take it a step further too. We can’t just prop up good and tell the world that it will defeat evil. That won’t ring true. But I don’t think we should just settle for establishing that evil is real either, or stop after saying that the world is broken. Because we know the whole story. We know about that inciting incident with a tree, a garden, and two humans. We know that black moment when a spotless lamb was sacrificed.

If we stop telling the story with an innocent man nailed to a cross, our words might be believed, because it is not hard to believe that we live in a world where evil would destroy someone who did no wrong. It’s easy to believe that justice could be perverted.

Tell the Whole Story
As Christians, we’re aware of what we were saved from, but what good do we accomplish if we cut the story short before we get to the saving?

Looking evil in the face and acknowledging it is scary and hard, and sometimes it does feel like evil will strangle out any good there is. But we know there’s more to the story than that.

We can see all of the chaos and all of the tragedy escape from Pandora’s box to assault the world. But we also know that after all that’s been done, hope remains.

How does this translate to our writing? As with anything else, it will vary from story to story. You don’t need to end every novel with Aslan on the stone table to send the message that Christ has beaten death. Approaching this topic will require thought and will probably require a lot of effort. However, I can offer two broad generalities.

The first thing that I find helpful to remember is that we are not the first writers ever to try this, and there is a whole bank of stories to help us hone our own. JRR Tolkien, for instance, reminds us of the beauty of the natural world and the pleasure of tranquillity. Lewis’ chilling The Screwtape Letters offers a look at demons, but also shows the hope Christians have to overcome.

If you really think about the stories that have touched you, you may find examples to help you deal with this complicated tangle.

Secondly, remember that suffering is no more real than pleasure and evil is not more realistic than good. It is not unrealistic to end your story on a happy note, because plenty of stories in real life do end that way. Sometimes this is on a grand scale, like the wonderful ending to the Cold War, when humanity wasn’t eradicated even though it totally could have been. Sometimes this will just be a small thing, like the fact that there are people who get married and actually live happily together.

Hope and beauty are everywhere, mingled with the discouragement and foulness. Because we know hope we don’t need to settle for discouragement. If we really believe the whole story of the cross and accept that it didn’t end with a victory for evil, why should we hold back from telling it that way in our art?

What books are an example to YOU of conveying hope without sounding trite?

Kyle de Waal, writer

About Kyle

Kyle de Waal is a long-time OYANer and veteran contest submitter. When his college and work schedules allow, he contrives mysteries and tries to pin them down and transform them into novels. If new ideas aren’t vying for his attention, his lengthy superhero novel is always waiting to soak up his time like a sponge. Kyle is working towards a major in English, but he dreams of adding a minor in Greek and Roman Studies, his second academic passion.

Those of you who are on the OYAN student forum, can find his contest-winning novel, Project Theta, in the 2011 contest showcase.

Facing the Christian Fiction Stigma

This guest post by Kyle de Waal is part one in a two-part series, “The Cross and the Typewriter.” Read part two »

Facing_the_Christian_Fiction_Stigma_500px Definitions are Hard

Every word has a definition, but when you get into ethereal concepts they get fuzzier. “Square” is simple enough to define, but other words seem to only cause debate. Take the term “sci-fi” for instance. We all have an idea of what science fiction is, but when we try to pin that down things get messy.

In fact, it gets so messy that one widely-referenced definition, an abbreviated version of Damon Knight’s thoughts on sci-fi, is simply, “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.”*

And yet we know that some stories are science fiction and some are not. It’s the frustrating middle things that cause all sorts of bickering, like when people argue if Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes back is really a sci-fi since so much of the conflict centers around magic.

“Sci-Fi” Isn’t Alone

This basically happens with any genre, and the longer the genre exists the more we tend to simply accept our idea of the genre and assume we know what the contents of the genre are without finding solid labels.

So when we get to a genre like Christian fiction, a lot of us might find ourselves sneering, because we have an idea of what Christian fiction is, and that image is not positive. We picture flat characters, predictable plots, and ham-fisted themes that leave us groaning. We can’t seem to escape bonnets and buggies.

However, is that really what Christian fiction is all about? This is where we tend to add our little “well, except” clauses. Christian fiction is bonnets and buggies, well, except…

Throw CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, or a half-dozen other writers into that space.

Then what is Christian fiction?

A [Badly] Working Definition

I’ve seen recently a push for the eradication of the term “Christian novel” altogether, partially stemming from this sort of confusion. We see this box, and we accept this box, and then the odd item doesn’t quite fit in the box, and now what are we going to do with the box?

After all, the box of the Amish romance that has become so synonymous with Christian fiction doesn’t exactly make room for a novel about two demons corresponding about their attempts to corrupt a young man’s soul in the midst of World War II, but there The Screwtape Letters sit anyways, talking about Christian concepts like faith, the afterlife, and responding to suffering.

It makes the box a little infuriating, so the temptation arises to just do away with it. Should we really call The Screwtape Letters “Christian fiction” if it’s interesting, well written, and engaging? After all, what happens then to our idea about those flat characters, predictable plots, and ham-fisted themes?

Try Number Two

So if that’s not what Christian fiction is really about, what is it?

My theory is this: it’s art made from a soul that desires Christ.

When I was just beginning to write, one of the best pieces of advice I got was to write about things I care about. If you’ve got a fire burning inside of you, why not let it light up your pages? At first, for me this meant writing about murder, because murder is interesting.

But as I progressed, I found myself turning my feelings and ideas into themes. After all, if I cared about something it was so much easier to write something that felt real. I wasn’t talking about vague, ethereal ideas anymore, but what I really cared about, and that made writing so much more fun.

This shouldn’t surprise me. After all, in Luke 6:25, Jesus said this as “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

So maybe Christian fiction has less to do with bonnets and buggies and more to do with the heart behind the endeavour. After all, if your heart is full of the love of Jesus, the Bible says that’s going to flow into your words.


This version of Christian fiction is much easier to accept. However, when the association with Christian fiction is so negative, it’s hard to approach it without feeling silly. After all, Christian fiction has a stigma, so who would want to be associated with it? 

There are, I think, two truths that make dealing with the stigma easier.

First off, while there is a lot of bad Christian fiction out there, there is a lot of bad fiction out there in general. Yes, it’s totally possible to be preachy and ham-fisted about faith and hope, but it’s also totally possible to be preachy and ham-fisted about anything.

Cynicism and pessimism aren’t somehow immune to preachy-ness.

Secondly, Christian themes and ideas don’t have to be added to your art, as if you’re just following some recipe to make it up to Church standard. This is, I think, what Joshua S. Porter is alluding to when he writes:

Christian artists don’t have to offer a Jesus substitute to the secular acts; they can simply create art from the overflow of their love for Jesus, and he will do the rest… Art belongs to Jesus, not the world. There is no need to commandeer it.”**


Read part two, “Conveying Hope in Your Novel without Sounding Trite” »

* This quote is a common abbreviation of the original statement made by Damon Knight, included in his essays in In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction.
** The Joke that we Play on the World, Joshua S Porter.

Kyle de Waal, writer

About Kyle

Kyle de Waal is a long-time OYANer and veteran contest submitter. When his college and work schedules allow, he contrives mysteries and tries to pin them down and transform them into novels. If new ideas aren’t vying for his attention, his lengthy superhero novel is always waiting to soak up his time like a sponge. Kyle is working towards a major in English, but he dreams of adding a minor in Greek and Roman Studies, his second academic passion.

Those of you who are on the OYAN student forum, can find his contest-winning novel, Project Theta, in the 2011 contest showcase.

How Limitations Can Push You as a Writer

Guest post by J. Grace Pennington

J. Grace Pennington took The One Year Adventure Novel course and went on to write several novels. Her work has won contests, and she has self-published several books on Amazon, in particular Firmament, a science fiction series. Below, she shares her perspective on creative limitations.

When Life Gives You Broken Sharks - J. Grace Pennington When Life Gives You Broken Sharks

Once upon a time, there was a young man named Steven. Steven was an ambitious filmmaker with one film under his belt—a story about trucks. Being young and brave (and by his later admission, perhaps a little stupid) he thought that a hot new screenplay based on a bestselling shark-attack novel would be a good candidate for his second film. With only a few weeks to shoot, he and his crew headed out to a small island to deal with actors, boats, expensive equipment, and an animatronic shark. What could possibly go wrong?

Their biggest problem soon became apparent. The carefully-crafted shark refused to work for most of the shoot.

A movie entirely about a shark where you almost never even see the shark itself? That sounds like doom for a young filmmaker’s career.

Of course, anyone familiar with Jaws knows that it wasn’t a failure. The film went on to beat The Godfather as the highest-grossing movie of all time. Nor was Steven Spielberg’s filmography over.

Spielberg had several options in this highly stressful and frustrating situation. He could have tried to use the shark anyway, making a cheesy monster movie that wouldn’t have scared a six-year-old. He could have given up in frustration, wasting millions of dollars and writing his own directorial death-sentence. But he didn’t do either of these things.

Instead of bewailing or even simply accepting his limitations, he embraced them. He used them to force himself to be more creative. He decided to craft the film so that we never see the shark until the very end, creating tantalizing suspense as we see the horror the animal causes without actually laying eyes on it until the climax of the story. He used the fact that the shark didn’t work to make a better and more suspenseful film.

How can we apply this to our own writing? On the surface, our possibilities may seem unlimited. We can sit down at our word processors and type out anything our imagination can come up with.

There are, however, still many possible limitations. We are obviously limited by what we know or can find out about. We are somewhat limited by our own experience (“Write what you know!?”). We may be limited by word count, content, or subject if writing for someone else. But, like Spielberg, we can use these limitations to enhance our creativity and improve our craft.

Great writers have been doing this as long as fiction has been around. Charles Dickens published most of his novels as periodicals in magazines, forcing him to create segments that would hold the interest of a reader who’d read the previous installment last week or last month and might not read the next for equally as long. C. S. Lewis wrote by hand, so that his style is naturally structured in small pieces whose length depended on how long it took his pen to run out of ink before he had to refill it. J. R. R. Tolkien used a typewriter, but when he wanted to change something about his work, he had to completely start again from the beginning, rather than make a quick edit in the middle, as we can with computers.

And these limitations served these men well. Dickens’s plots are some of the most intricately gripping in classic literature. Lewis’s style is poignant and filled with concise, contained nuggets of meaning. Tolkien’s work is polished to a degree that most writers only dream of.

Today though, periodicals have mostly gone out of style. People want the whole story now. And most of us use computers instead of typewriters and quill pens.

Book cover of Radialloy by J. Grace Pennington

Book 1 of Pennington’s science fiction series; available on Amazon

Technology tends to remove limitations, but sometimes it’s a good idea to create your own, to force yourself to think outside the box and work hard and creatively.

As I started to understand this principle a few years back, I began looking for ways to implement it. I took a tip from Tolkien and started retyping my books when I do a major edit, instead of just sticking edits in the middle. This gives me a much better overall picture of the story and the changes. I also started asking friends to give me lists of random elements (for example, a librarian, post-it-notes, a gravel driveway, a jar of jam, crocheted lace) and then forced myself to write a short story that included all of those elements. Sometimes I even assigned myself random elements to write off of.

book cover for "Never" by J. Grace Pennington

A Western/mystery novel by J. Grace; available on Amazon

Our natural inclination is to be glad when everything is easy and we are relatively unlimited. But usually we have to work against this inclination in order to grow, whether in writing, filmmaking, or life itself. Most of us know from experience that God doesn’t usually hand things to us on a silver platter. He gives us a set of specific circumstances with specific limitations and invites us to use those things to learn and grow into a better person. We can treat ourselves the same way by not only embracing the limitations we have, but at times challenging ourselves with new ones.

When we create boundaries for our stories, and allow ourselves full creativity within those, we will actually have more room to explore what’s inside those boundaries than if we had the whole of the universe to choose from.

What limitation do YOU use to your advantage as a creative person? Leave a comment with your own tips!

J. Grace Pennington bio picture About J. Grace

J. Grace Pennington lives in the beautiful Texas Hill Country with her parents, her eight younger siblings, and her horse, Pioneer. When she’s not writing she enjoys reading good books of all genres, playing movie soundtracks on piano, and looking up at the stars. She blogs about writing at