DISCLAIMER: This isn’t a post about how to write awesome science fiction. If you want to read about that, I invite you to peruse this excellent io9 article by Max Barry. This post is a simple Q&A meant to address frequently asked questions about writing science fiction. Some of these are questions I myself have asked in the past, but for which I never received satisfactory answers. Please note that this post is opinion only, and is intended to inform and entertain. (I drank half a bottle of red wine before I sat down to write it, so it should be very entertaining indeed.)
So! Let’s begin.
Q: I want to start writing science fiction but don’t know anything about that world. What do I do?
A: Research, my friend. Follow blogs, like the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) blog, or Robert Sawyer’s excellent blog. Read The World of Science Fiction, 1926-1976: The History of a Subculture by Lester del Rey (an amazing science fiction writer in his own right; his short story “Nerves” shall forever be one of my favorites). Familiarize yourself with the subgenres of science fiction (which I shall discuss in a later post): space Westerns, cyberpunk, space operas, science fantasy, post-apocalyptic, biopunk, etc. Head over to Writer’s Digest’s website and check out their sci-fi and fantasy articles. And for Pete’s sake, read. Read, read, read. Go to Wikipedia and look up a list of stories that won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and read ’em all. You’ll never write great science fiction unless you’ve read thousands of words of it.
Q: Do my stories need to have a deeper message?
A: Heck no! As I mentioned in an earlier post, sci-fi stories generally fall into two broad categories: futurism and escapism. Futurism is the heavy, message-laden fiction that lectures us about humanity’s collective destiny and the consequences of its folly. Escapist science fiction is just good fun, little green men and giant robots and ray-guns and beautiful female aliens and all that stuff. Write whatever you want. As long as it’s got believable, relatable characters and a solid story, your science fiction can take whatever shape it wants.
Q: Where do I publish?
A: There are, of course, the big and famous sci-fi magazines: Tor.com, Analog Science Fiction & Fact, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Apex, Interzone, Escape Pod, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. But there are a slew of smaller mags that you can submit to as well, and which may well serve as your springboard to the big boys: Space Squid and Daily Science Fiction, to name two off the top of my head. Keep in mind that each magazine is different, caters to a specific audience, and has wildly disparate requirements regarding content and word count. Also, not every magazine is open to submissions year-round: some may be closed regularly for review periods.
Q: I’m not a scientist. Can I still write sci-fi?
A: Can you write fantasy even if you’re not a wizard? Of course you can. There are dozens of science fiction writers don’t work in scientific fields but who still write bang-up science fiction. The best contemporary example I can think of is Andy Weir, author of the 2011 novel The Martian. Weir has worked as a computer programmer for much of his life. While writing The Martian, he did some extensive research on the mechanics and history of spaceflight, botany, and Martian weather and terrain. The next thing you know, BOOM. Award-winning novel adapted into a Matt Damon movie.
Some other famous non-scientist sci-fi writers include Robert A. Heinlein, who served in the US Navy and then dabbled in silver mining and real estate; A.E. van Vogt, who worked for the Canadian Department of National Defence before he quit to pursue writing full-time; Ursula K. Le Guin, who worked as a secretary and taught French before her writing career took off; and Spider Robinson, who started writing just to get out of his night job guarding sewers (ee-yuck!!).
Q: I’ve written a dozen science fiction short stories and submitted them to big New York magazines like Asimov’s and Analog, but they keep getting rejected. Am I a sucky writer?
A: Not necessarily. In my experience, science fiction submissions to big sci-fi magazines are often reviewed by just one person—for example, Lesley Conner at Apex, Sheila Williams at Asimov’s, C.C. Finlay at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Trevor Quachri at Analog. If your story was rejected, it could be because the executive editor or one of the managing editors thought your story simply didn’t fit the magazine’s current needs. I’ve gotten almost 100 rejection slips since I started keeping track of my submissions in 2012, and they all say some variation of the same thing: “Thanks for submitting your story to [insert name of magazine here], but I’m afraid it’s just not what we’re looking for,” or “Thank you for your submission, but it just doesn’t suit our needs at this time.”
Just remember: don’t take rejection personally. You’re competing with about ten million other sci-fi writers, some of whom have much bigger chops than you do. Editors can only accept so many stories every year, and just because yours wasn’t selected doesn’t mean that (a) the editor has a vendetta against you or (b) your story sucks. Keep writing, keep submitting, get some input from a literary-minded person on a story that was rejected, make edits, and submit it somewhere else. If you submit a solid story to the right editor at the right time, you’ll be accepted.
Q: I’ve brainstormed a bunch of science fiction stories, but they’ve all been done before by better writers. How do I come up with an original idea?
A: As Max Barry points out in the article I linked to at the beginning of this post, you can’t. There aren’t any original ideas in sci-fi anymore. As Spider Robinson pointed out in his 1982 story Melancholy Elephants, there hasn’t been an original idea in science fiction for 50 years. The trick is to come up with an original angle on an old idea, and to tell an engaging story with interesting characters. Too many people, when they start out writing science fiction, focus too much on the exotic setting, characters, and technology. They forget that story comes first, and the setting serves the story, not the other way around.
There’s a wonderful quote by famed sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon which goes, “A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content.” Now, the argument could be made that you can write a perfectly engaging story about aliens solving alien problems, as long as those problems aren’t so far removed from the realm of human experience as to be completely irrelevant to a human audience. But as long as you remember Sturgeon’s axiom, and tell an original story about interesting characters in an extraordinary setting solving a human problem in a human way, then you’ve got the basis for a science fiction story that captures people’s attention, no matter how rehashed or trite the setting or themes may be.
Q: Where do I find other sci-fi writers to critique my work?
A: Hey, when you figure that out, you tell me. I’ll let you know if I run into any at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference in February.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and write! As a genre, science fiction will never die. For as long as humanity has tilted its collective head back and gazed at the stars, humans will always wonder about the future, about the march of technology, about contact with alien races, about humanity’s destiny as a species, and about our eventual mortality. These are topics which have been explored many times by previous sci-fi writers, but which still present fertile ground for speculation by generation after generation of new writers fresh on the scene. There’s plenty of room for you and your writing, trust me. So hop to it! Get writing! Usher fresh audiences through the realms of imagination. You can do it. You just have to plant your butt in that chair, inflate your ego, and start dreaming big.