This is me after submitting 90 stories to science fiction magazines and book publishers and being rejected every single time:
I started keeping track of my fiction submissions in 2012. Since then, I have made 90 submissions. Six of them are still pending, and one or two of them were made in error, to publications that no longer exist. But the majority of them are rejections. Flat, final rejections.
Wanna know why?
Because I’m a sucky writer.
Okay, I take that back. I’m not a sucky writer. I can write pretty damn well.
I’m just lousy at coming up with good story ideas.
No, wait. That’s not true either. I come up with killer story ideas every day of the week. I could think of awesome sci-fi story ideas in a storm at sea with one hand tied behind my back.
I’m just not good at fleshing out an idea before I start writing it. As I pointed out in an earlier post, I go off half-cocked. The resulting story is weak, underdeveloped, and is inevitably rejected.
For the longest time I thought I was a bad writer. For years, I thought that I was the most pretentious, talentless poser ever to pick up a pen. It made me want to quit writing over and over again.
Then I gave that up and decided that it wasn’t that I was a bad writer, it’s just that I wrote in an unpopular genre of science fiction. I was an escapist, not a futurist.
Then I decided that that wasn’t the problem, either, and fell to puzzling once again. I have since come to the conclusion that the reason I’ve never managed to sell a single sci-fi story to a major magazine is that my stories are incomplete. I have a great concept, an interesting cast of characters, a vibrant setting, the works. I just don’t have conflict.
As I mentioned in my recent post about writing inspiration, a story idea is usually born from an untidy collision of two perfectly normal, mundane, everyday ideas. I first read that in Stephen King’s book On Writing, in which he mentions that the idea for his debut novel Carrie was born of two unrelated topics (menstruation and telepathy) smashing together at random in his imagination.
That’s usually how I come up with story ideas, too. I’ll bolt upright in bed, thinking “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…” Then I’ll just start scribbling. No planning, no brainstorming, no careful consideration of any kind. I just head off to the races, slap down a few thousand words, and call it good. The resulting story has a great premise and may even ask some thought-provoking questions, but answers none of them.
Having a great premise isn’t enough. You have to start with a problem. Every character has to want something, and there has to be something stopping them from getting it. Conflict drives action. Conflict creates suspense. Conflict is what gets the reader invested in a story and makes them care about the characters. Reading a dull old story about about Joe Schmoe going to the kitchen sink to fetch himself a glass of water is boring as hell. But if Joe is a 90-year-old man who lives by himself, and one day he trips and falls and can’t get up, and he must somehow crawl to the sink and get himself water or die of thirst before he can be found and rescued…
…well, now we have conflict, and the setup for a great story.
I’ve been looking back over some of the stories I wrote over the past six years, and a lot of them have great writing, florid description, and even a poetic turn of phrase or two. But the stakes aren’t high enough. The conflict just isn’t there. The characters don’t have problems. They move over here, do something, move over there, do something, something else happens, and then BOOM. That’s it. Nothing really interesting happens. My story may have the highest concept imaginable, and discuss some pretty profound ideas, but without a story, without conflict, without tension, without suspense, the prose is dull and plodding. The characters’ motivations are unclear and unexplored. There’s no incentive for anyone to keep reading.
I’ve thought it over and I’ve come up with the following axiom:
Writing a good science fiction story is the same as writing a good blog post. You need to answer a question—preferably a relevant, topical, timely one that real people are asking right now. Could be who, could be what, could be where, when, why, or how, but you need to answer it compellingly and succinctly. Start with a problem, then solve it. Start with a question, then answer it.
“That’s all very well and good, Mr. Post,” I hear you say. “But how am I supposed to know what questions people are asking?”
TV shows and recent news stories should give you some pretty good ideas. But if that’s too passive for you, it’s time to turn to that miracle of the late 20th century, the driving force of the 21st: the Internet. Using that marvelous Internet thingy, you can actively search for questions people are asking right now about various topics.
I do marketing writing for a living. One of the sites I discovered in the course of my work was answerthepublic.com. It’s a site for content marketers and business bloggers who are looking for content ideas. Content marketers know that the key to writing engaging, interesting content which garners likes, views, and shares lies in answering commonly asked questions (and doing so in a fun and engaging manner).
Why should we science fiction writers think we’re any different?
On answerthepublic.com, you punch in a search keyword, and the Seeker (a bearded old man in glasses and a magnificent sweater) will crawl all over Google and other web search engines, fetching you back the questions people are asking about those search terms: who, what, how, why, where, when. (And even some weird ones, like if and without and can.)
While writing this blog post, I went to the site and punched in a few random terms. The first was “cast iron.” Those two little words returned a whopping 161 frequently searched questions, neatly sorted by the verb or preposition preceding them (are, will, can, which, who, etc.). For example:
- Are cast iron pans expensive
- Can cast iron be welded
- Why cast iron for steak
- How cast iron is made
- Will cast iron break
Now just imagine: if you owned a cast iron skillet company, you could hire a content marketer and put him or her to work on answering these questions in a fun, witty, and informative way on a blog or social media, and you’d make a killing in free advertising.
Ain’t that Internet thingy just grand?
But you’re not the owner of a cast iron skillet company. (If you are, and you stumbled across this blog by accident, I salute you. You are the backbone of the American culinary tradition.) You, my friend, are a writer. Probably a science fiction writer, if you’ve read this far into this blog post. So: what kind of sciencey questions are people asking, and how can you answer them in fiction?
The next search term I sent the Seeker to hunt down was “Large Hadron Collider.” Here are some of the returns I got:
- Can the Large Hadron Collider end the world
- How can the Large Hadron Collider end the world
- What will the Large Hadron Collider reveal
- Can Large Hadron Collider cause black hole [sic]
- Will the Large Hadron Collider killed us all [sic]
- Who invented Large Hadron Collider [sic]
- What does the Large Hadron Collider sound like
- How the Large Hadron Collider will lead to a quantum leap in retail
- Can the Large Hadron Collider be used as a weapon
Are any of these giving you story ideas? I bet they are. I bet you want to click off my blog now and go write a story about a terrorist organization that overruns the Large Hadron Collider and points it at various parts of Europe and North America, spawning small, temporary black holes that can swallow up entire cities…or even transport them to other dimensions. Or a story about how the Large Hadron Collider will lead to a quantum leap in retail, because I gotta be honest…that sounds freakin’ awesome.
Here is your mission:
Think of a question.
A. What if the human race perfects jetpack technology in 2020?
B. What if that meteor never hit Earth 65 million years ago, and human beings evolved alongside dinosaurs?
C. What if a large corporation figures out a way to reverse global warming, but doesn’t want to share it?
Now, if you’re a sucky science fiction writer like me, stop there. Write the story. Don’t put in any conflict or any problems. Just write whatever comes into your head. Then edit it for grammar and flow, and send it to a publisher. Receive a rejection slip in the mail months later. Cry into your glass of whiskey. Consider packing a knapsack full of books and running away to the hinterlands of Thailand and living on a hut on stilts for the rest of your life.
If you’re a good science fiction writer (unlike me), think of a problem that someone might have as a result of the question you’ve asked. Keep asking questions until you arrive a suitable premise for a story.
A. If jetpacks become cheap and popular in 2020, will anyone still travel by car anymore? What’s going to happen to car dealerships and car salesmen? What if there was a used car salesman in 2025, trying to put his kids through college and pay his mortgage, watching his sales dwindle as people with jetpacks race through the skies above his sad, empty dealership?
B. How hard would it be, as a caveman, to coexist with dinosaurs? First of all, a lot of the megafauna that you would normally have skinned, eaten, and worn as fur wouldn’t exist. It would either have been eaten by predatory dinosaurs or (more likely) never evolved in the first place. Humanity would exist in isolated pockets, probably in warm equatorial areas. They’d be unable to live in one place for very long or use fire extensively because they’d attract predatory dinosaurs to their camps. They’d have to be nomadic foragers, and remain nomadic foragers. Vast pockets of the Earth’s surface would remain unexplored and unseen by human beings who’d simply lack the means, the will, or the ability to travel there. What if your protagonist was the chieftain of a small tribe, struggling to hold on to its small patch of jungle, threatened on one side by a pack of intelligent Utahraptor and on the other by a larger, more aggressive cannibal tribe? And the chieftain’s mate was pregnant, and the old people in his tribe were starving, and the only thing he knows to do is put them all into boats and set sail on savage primeval seas, looking for one of the lost legends of the tribe, the mythical island of Dar’nur, a fruitful paradise?
C. If a company discovers the solution to global warming, what happens next? Do they make the information public, or try to profit from it? Imagine a junior marketing assistant at a giant multinational corporation, who overhears scientists in the R&D labs talking about the revolutionary discovery they’ve made: simply seeding the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide can rapidly cool the planet. They then laugh about how they’re going to patent the technique and sell the rights to the highest bidder. This is the best job your protagonist has ever had, and his/her elderly mother has Alzheimer’s and depends on his/her salary and health insurance benefits. He/she is now faced with an agonizing choice: steal the research and go public with it and get sacked from the best job he/she’s ever had, or say and do nothing and let the world burn.
There you go. You’ve asked a question a lot of people are curious about, and you’ve answered it in an interesting, fun way in your science fiction story. If you’re even a halfway decent writer, and you go the distance and create believable characters with real motivations, and add in that all-important attribute of conflict, you can create a salable story.
Now, I’m not suggesting you should write science fiction stories about the stuff you read in Scientific American a few months ago. In fact, the submission guidelines of several major sci-fi magazines will caution you not to do exactly that. The crux of my argument is this: people always have questions about scientific discoveries and the implications of technological advancement. For example, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are terrified that our machines and computers are going to become self-aware and kill us all. When two of the brainiest people on Planet Earth forecast doom and gloom, it makes everybody nervous. That doesn’t mean you should write a story about killer robots, though. That topic has been done to death in science fiction. Don’t write yet another story about a supercomputer gaining sentience, hijacking every machine on Earth, and enslaving the human race. Find the questions that people are asking, but that nobody’s answered. The big questions. The questions that make you think, make you wonder, make you dream.
That’s what science fiction’s all about.