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How To Become A Master of Writing Science Fiction

Artwork of a dystopic science fiction city - How To Become A Master of Writing Science Fiction

Writing science fiction is hard work.

Okay, writing any kind of fiction is hard work. Concocting characters and conflicts within the confines of the imagination sure can be a fun pastime, but when it comes to actually putting those things into words, the fun tends to make a quick exit. Maybe it’s because words constrict; they give our ideas a sort of finality that seems to undermine the freedom of being creative. Or, maybe it’s because we’re afraid that once we write something down, someone will read it. Worse yet, they’ll criticize it – hold it up to the light and tell us that the lack of originality is painfully obvious – and we’ll find out that we’re not writers at all, just counterfeiters.

On the other hand, maybe you don’t relate to those things – maybe it’s just me. Maybe what holds you back from writing is a lack of time or clarity about the process (in both cases, I highly recommend checking out Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver). Whatever the challenge, there are a lot of us who feel a strong calling to engage in creative pursuits such as writing science fiction, but have trouble pulling the trigger. In order to get some much-needed inspiration, I decided to track down some writing advice from my favorite science fiction authors.

First, let’s get that writing advice that every writer truly hates out of the way.

You know the advice I’m talking about. It’s the simplest thing, really, but somehow the hardest. It goes something like this:

Write. Every. Day.

When asked how he became such a good writer (whatever “good writer” means), Michael Crichton just said, “Plenty of writing. I began writing really diligently when I was in high school, and I kept at it.” In case that wasn’t clear enough, his advice to aspiring writers was “Write as much as you can, and keep writing“.

Whaaat? You mean…you become good at writing…just by writing? There must be something to it, because “just writing” was also the key to the unparalleled success of Isaac Asimov, who purportedly wrote every single day, whether he felt like it or not, for up to 12 hours – a habit that made it possible for him to write entire books in the span of a few days. Naturally, many of us just can’t put that much time into writing. For some of us, writing for twelve minutes every day would be a major accomplishment. Theoretically speaking, though, twelve minutes a day would, in fact, make it possible for us to write quite a few novels (or screenplays, or textbooks) in our lifetime.

Now, if there’s any doubt as to the pedigree of those two de facto writing advisors, consider these credentials: Michael Crichton penned Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain (among a plethora of other novels), has sold over 200 million books worldwide, and is the only writer ever to have works simultaneously charted at number one in television, film, and book sales (those works were E.R., Jurassic Park, and Disclosure, respectively). His genius is seemingly uncontainable by even the grave, as the Westworld television drama premiered – to an anticipatory audience – eight years after his death.

No slouch in his own right, Isaac Asimov wrote and edited more than 500 books, or a book every two weeks for 25 years. Uh…that’s a lot. If it helps, he’s the guy behind The Foundation Series and the word “robotics”. Also, he published books in 9 of the 10 categories of the Dewey Decimal System. In my opinion, that’s a person worthy of taking advice on writing science fiction from.

The hugely influential sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein (that dude who wrote some weird book called Starship Troopers) also seemed to be in agreement with the “just write” philosophy. He had five rules for writing, the first being “You must write,” and the second “You must finish what you write”. All in all, seems like it couldn’t be simpler. For the mathematical types, it could even be broken down into the following equation:

Ideas + fingers + keyboard = writing.

If you’re like me, then you’re thinking, “Yes, yes, of course you have to actually write – duh! But what do you write about? That’s the real question, isn’t it?”

So, when writing science fiction, what do you write about?

Here’s what Michael Crichton said about the ideas for his books:

They just seem to come from nowhere…there isn’t just one idea in a story, there are lots of ideas. And second, an idea by itself isn’t worth much until you do the work necessary to get it down on paper. And in the course of doing the writing, the idea often changes. It’s similar to the difference between having an idea for a building, and actually constructing the building. The building often turns out differently from the original plan or intention.

In other words, just write stuff down, not worrying about whether it not it conforms to some overarching theme you’ve thought up. Arggh, there are those annoying words again – “just write”. Maybe William Gibson, author of Neuromancer, cyberpunk pioneer, and guy whose ideas inspired The Matrix will help flesh out this topic a bit…

Gibson says “I never start with ideas and intentions at all…

Geez, big help, Gibson. At least he tells us a little more about his process:

If I sit there long enough and become sufficiently frustrated at the page being blank, little windows open up… little glimpses of mood and territory…very slowly, bits and pieces emerge, and I find myself in the company of a character. But I don’t know what the character is doing.

Science fiction demands particular care from prospective authors. In science fiction writing, character building done correctly can give the story wings, or, if done clumsily or incompletely, drag down a story with a great universe and premises. In this article, I’ll take a closer look at how to construct characters in science fiction stories where the premises are drastically different from the reality we’re used to. First, I’ll discuss how to frame a character in the context of the universe that you have created [Click here to read more…]

If you feel like a guy as successful as Gibson ought to be able to offer better advice, I know where you’re coming from. At the same time, these are, to a certain extent, terrific words of wisdom. If you don’t know what, or where, or who to write about, don’t worry – you’re in the company of greats. Just put yourself in a chair in front of a keyboard or typewriter or pen and paper, and start making your ideas real in the form of words.

If they don’t make sense, so what? Gibson goes on to say, “I’ve trained myself to do something that’s non-rational, or pre-rational.” In other words, write now, make sense later. Yeah, it sounds like a sketchy plan, but clearly, it works for some of the best writers in the sci-fi genre.

Wrapping Up

In my search for inspiration I happened across many other pieces of advice on writing science fiction and other tidbits of motivation, but these ideas seemed to sum it up: write, write a lot, and don’t worry too much about what it is you’re writing. One hundred monkeys at one hundred typewriters should, after all, be able to write the next installment of the Dark Tower series.

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3 Responses

  1. I may not be the most qualified to give advice. I’ve written several books but only one was Science Fiction. In fact, it’s the only one that is fiction. It is entitled “After the Blackout”.

    My motivation for writing it was to find out if I could create believable characters. But the first step was to ask “What if…” That established the plot. Then, before I wrote anything, I created characters in my head. By that, I mean I gave considerable thought to how each character thought and why they were like they were.

    Once the characters “existed” I started writing a scenario and sort of dropped them into the action. Since the characters were already formed, I couldn’t tell them what to do. They reacted to each situation I presented in “characteristic” fashion. And, in doing so, they created new situations. Thus, the “plot thickened”.

    The characters wrote the book. I just wrote down what they did. Sometimes they surprised me! Some of my early concepts turned out to be, well, WRONG.

    You can learn a lot from books, even if you write them yourself. LOL

  2. Ryan

    Thanks for reading, Paul. It’s great that you wrote a book, and I’m glad you shared a little bit about your process. What you say about characters creating the story is an idea I’ve heard of many times while reading about writing, so it sounds like you’ve intuitively gotten on the right track. Also, in an upcoming article for the site, I contend that all fiction starts with those two words you mentioned: “what if” – seems like we’re on a shared wavelength 🙂

  3. My problem has never been coming up with ideas and plots, it’s been holding all the others DOWN so I could get one written out into a complete story. I wound up self-publishing two short story collections on Amazon because people around kept demanding I do. I was astonished to be writing short stories because I always thought in terms of long novels. But that’s what came out first. I have long lists of novels, series, and short story collections ranging from Christian fiction (my first three) to science fiction, fantasy, romance, and who knows what else. I tend to do the whole story in my head and then fly through typing it up as if watching a movie. Keeping the outside distractions from stopping the typing, that’s my main hold-up to writing.

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