Getting Started Writing Science Fiction

Today, we move back to dis­cussing writ­ing, specif­i­cally, the begin­ning of a writ­ing career. Considering I’m barely out of that phase, it’s really the only phase I feel con­fi­dent in dis­cussing. So:

Read Bilal wrote last week:

I have been read­ing sci­ence fic­tion and fan­tasy for a long time. Given that I am a sci­ence grad stu­dent I also have some sci­en­tific back­ground. I come up with ideas to write a sci-​​fi story or novel. Then I think on them and develop a gen­eral direc­tion how­ever, time lim­i­ta­tions, English being my sec­ond lan­guage and gen­er­ally poor writ­ing skills (I don’t think peo­ple like sto­ries that sound like aca­d­e­mic papers) pre­vent me from doing any­thing with them. Are there any options out there to col­lab­o­rate or a way to start writ­ing? Thanks.

Whenever any­one brings up this sub­ject, I am reminded of an inci­dent from my child­hood when I was first show­ing inter­est in sci­ence fic­tion. In about 8th Grade or so, the three junior highs held a joint writ­ing con­fer­ence for kids like myself. They put us into sem­i­nars with authors based on the gen­res that we were inter­ested in. I got to meet some great writ­ers and get some feed­back. And I met James Gunn, and I’ll never for­get it.

James Gunn was not like the other writ­ers. He came in swing­ing for the fences. “Most of you here will never pub­lish a sin­gle thing,” was pretty much the first thing he said to us. He pro­ceeded to explain, in detail, why it was dif­fi­cult or impos­si­ble to sell sto­ries at our age. Why, if we could, we should give up writ­ing all together and find some­thing bet­ter to do. He went on in this fash­ion for an hour, and I have a mem­ory, per­haps false, of some of the kids cry­ing. Me, I was excited. Because I could see exactly what he was doing. He was test­ing us to see how seri­ous we were.

At the end of the class, he gave us his mail­ing address and said if we were still inter­ested, he would cri­tique a story for us. I took Mr. Gunn up on that. I expected at the time to receive a Mamatas-​​style sav­aging of the story. Instead, I got back a very kind and thought­ful set of line com­ments for what was prob­a­bly a truly awful, awful bit of juvenelia.

So when peo­ple ask me about writ­ing, I think of James Gunn, and I think that per­haps I should do every­thing I can in my power to dis­suade you from tak­ing up writ­ing, espe­cially writ­ing sci­ence fic­tion short fic­tion. Reasons why you shouldn’t:

  1. The pay is crap. The pro rate is 5 cents a word, but can some­times go higher. What was the pro rate in the 1950s? 3–5 cents a word. You will not get rich, or even pay the bills, writ­ing SF short fiction.
  2. It’s hard, and it takes a long time to get good at. I’m a rel­a­tively fast learner, and it still took me 5 years of writ­ing every week before I started to con­sis­tently write well enough to sell the work. And it’s hard work, so it’s easy to fall out of habit. It’s not like rid­ing a bicy­cle. You can for­get, or at least get a lit­tle rusty.
  3. It will iso­late you from every­one you know. Because it won’t be your job, but a side gig, you’ll be doing it in your spare time. Spare time means you sac­ri­fice things, like time with your fam­ily, or time with your friends. You might give up TV like Jay Lake.
  4. You’ll read a lot less than you used to. That time can be spent writ­ing! Ironically, one good way to get bet­ter at writ­ing is to read a lot.
  5. Rejection sucks. You’ll get rejec­tions. A lot of them. I think I heard once that Michael Swanwick has never been rejected, but the rest of us have hun­dreds of them. Sometimes, they’re kind, and some­times they’re nasty and make you want to never write again. See, even the edi­tors will test you.
  6. Nobody reads sci­ence fic­tion any­way. Like, what, 4% of books sold are SF? And short fic­tion, the biggest mar­ket has 25,000 sub­scribers last I checked, and prob­a­bly fewer now. They’ve been shrink­ing con­sis­tently for years. It’s a niche pur­suit at best.

Still with me? The prospect of dying alone, pen­ni­less, in the gut­ters doesn’t frighten you? Well, then you have the infec­tion, and the only thing I can do is try to give you some advice to help you progress through the stages of your illness.

First of all, don’t worry about the lan­guage issue. If you can learn to tell a story, it doesn’t mat­ter what lan­guage you write it in, and edi­tors will look past some some­what clumsy writ­ing for a great story. You could write in your native lan­guage, and find some­one who knows English bet­ter to translate.

Starting out, I do not rec­om­mend you try to col­lab­o­rate (except maybe with a trans­la­tor). You need to mas­ter plot­ting, char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, theme, world build­ing, and a dozen other skills, and you’re not going to do that if you’re shar­ing your writ­ing duties with some­one else, in my opin­ion. These are things you will learn on your own.

Being a sci­ence grad­u­ate stu­dent is an advan­tage. Editors are hun­gry for hard sci­ence fic­tion sto­ries. If you can write them, you are prac­ti­cally guar­an­teed a career. But remem­ber, they have to be good sto­ries first. If you write a bad story with cool sci­ence, it doesn’t do you any good. It’s going to be rejected.

As far as start­ing? Open a word pro­cess­ing pro­gram and type words together to form sen­tences, and sen­tences to form para­graphs. You will prob­a­bly be ter­ri­ble at first. 99% of writ­ers are. But the truth of it is, you get bet­ter through the act of writ­ing. Jay Lake likes to say that writ­ing is a mus­cle and it needs to be exer­cised. I agree with this notion. The begin­ning of any writ­ing career is going to be about sta­mina train­ing and build­ing up some bulk. You’re not going to be com­pet­ing in the Olympics for a very long time (to strain the metaphor).

Ideas. You’ll hear this from every­body, so I might as well break the news to you. Ideas for sto­ries are a dime a dozen. Ideas can help put a story over the top, but they are not a good foun­da­tion for a story. The foun­da­tion for a story is, well, story. The com­pelling events of a prob­lem and the peo­ple that attempt to solve it. That prob­lem could be built around a great idea, but with­out the peo­ple and their attempts and fail­ures to deal with it, it’s just an essay or a sci­ence fact article.

I thought when I was start­ing out that I was hot shit when it came to ideas. I thought I had the best ideas of any new writ­ers I knew, and that it was all I needed. I wish I could go back and start over again, real­iz­ing that the ideas should have taken a back seat to learn­ing storycraft.

Read and absorb every­thing. Because once you become a writer, your brain becomes a black hole with a vora­cious appeti­tite for ideas and infor­ma­tion. When I go to the doctor’s office, I don’t read SF mag­a­zines. I pick up the mag­a­zine deal­ing with a topic I know the least about, say, Woodworking Monthly, because I never know if I’m going to want to write a story about a wood­worker. A guy who builds cab­i­nets for a liv­ing doesn’t at first seem a likely can­di­date for a pro­tag­o­nist, but you’ll learn how to do it. You’re going to use every bit of knowl­edge you ever obtain. Your entire life becomes one giant research effort.

After all of that and you’re still inter­ested in writ­ing? Okay then. Go, you have my bless­ing, what­ever that’s worth. Do it. Put your butt in a chair and start typ­ing, or writ­ing with a pen, or what­ever method you pre­fer. Do it, and do it con­sis­tently for sev­eral years. Read every­thing you can–not just SF, but the classics.

I look for­ward to read­ing your first pub­lished story. Drop me a line when it comes out!

So how about you all? Do you have any inter­est­ing sto­ries to share about when you were just start­ing out with writ­ing, or what­ever career you pur­sue? Any tips to add to mine here?

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15 Responses

  1. Blue Tyson says:

    Forgot 7. Most of you try­ing suck harder than vac­uum clean­ers, and always will.


  2. Jeremiah Tolbert says:

    I’m afraid suck­ing at some­thing has never stopped any­one. And I don’t share your pes­simism that they always will. Sometimes peo­ple sur­prise you. I have to believe that our the slush will drive me mad.

  3. The James Gunn story reminds me of a hilar­i­ous essay by David James Duncan called “My Advice on Writing Advice,” which includes this won­der­ful bit:

    My very best, most finan­cially use­ful writ­ing advice to those who show extra spirit, the way you’re doing, is this: If you want a sane work life, eco­nomic via­bil­ity, happy fam­ily, home, flat abs, nice ass, reli­able car, health insur­ance, and teeth, DON’T TRY TO WRITE BOOKS AT ALL! STOP NOW!”

    That often ends the con­ver­sa­tion, or at least moves it on to hap­pier top­ics, such as viruses or STDs.”

    The entire essay is well worth the read :)

  4. Jeremiah Tolbert says:

    Dan, that sounds like a great inter­view. I will have to check it out.

  5. Jeremiah Tolbert says:

    er, arti­cle. I should not blog while lis­ten­ing to the Daily Show.

  6. Bilal says:

    Thanks a lot! Everything you say to dis­cour­age sounds good and true. Rejections are dime a dozen in sci­ence. Working for many hours for a low pay. Welcome to grad school :D I guess my worst weak­ness is and will be time. I never thought of leav­ing sci­ence so this will be a sec­ondary (some­times maybe ter­tiary) thing.

    Still this is a good and down to earth way to tell me you just do it or don’t. And I will start by putting the ideas down and choos­ing one to start a plot for it.

  7. Jeremiah Tolbert says:

    It’s best as a sec­ondary pur­suit I believe, so that sounds good. Best of luck to you!

  8. Bill says:

    This is great, really excel­lent advice. It is stuff even writ­ers who have writ­ing for a while need to hear in order to keep going.

    My only thing, to the guy want­ing to write but wor­ried about lan­guage skills, I would say def­i­nitely write in your native lan­guage, or the lan­guage you dream in. I know that sounds corny, but dreams are a strong mea­sure of how well you intuit the lan­guage and con­vey infor­ma­tion. Write as nat­u­rally as pos­si­ble and then trans­late it your­self or get some­one else to do it.

    • Jeremiah Tolbert says:

      Bill, thanks! The lan­guage issue is a sticky one. There was a famous writer who wrote in English as his sec­ond lan­guage and did very well, but… the name escapes me. I col­lect anec­dotes but I don’t always remem­ber to col­lect the attri­bu­tion. Maybe some­one else can come along and offer some counter-​​examples, of peo­ple who wrote in a sec­ond lan­guage and did it well.

      My instinct would be to agree with you though.

  9. Cora says:

    Joseph Conrad is prob­a­bly the most famous exam­ple. He was Polish but wrote in English. In SFF one exam­ple is urban fan­tasy writer Ilona Andrews, who was born in Russia and immi­grated to the US as a teenager. Alma Alexander is a sim­i­lar case. Romance writer Sandra Schwab is German and lives in Germany, but writes and pub­lishes in English. Another romance author, Gennita Low, is Malaysian, lives in the US and writes and pub­lishes in English. Those are just the ones I can think of right now, there prob­a­bly are other examples.

    As for why writ­ers choose to write in a lan­guage that is not their first lan­guage, some of them may be more com­fort­able with their sec­ond lan­guage. In other cases, the deci­sion may be moti­vated by the fact that there is no mar­ket for what­ever the author is writ­ing in his or her native lan­guage. Sometimes, the rea­son is that the lan­guage has com­par­a­tively few speak­ers and/​or few pub­lish­ers, which is also why a lot of so-​​called post­colo­nial lit­er­a­ture by writ­ers from Africa, India, the Caribbean, etc… is writ­ten in the lan­guage of the for­mer col­o­niz­ers rather than the authors’ mother tongue. With genre lit­er­a­ture there is the addi­tional prob­lem that even in many west­ern coun­tries, pub­lish­ers pre­fer to buy the rights to a book that was already suc­cess­ful in the US/​UK rather than take a chance on a local author.

  10. Roy Huggins says:

    I think it’s rea­son­able to say that an expert in English as a non-​​native lan­guage could write in English. Like you (basi­cally) said, writ­ing is a skill you must prac­tice. That skill is bound to the lan­guage so if you prac­tice writ­ing in English, you’ll get bet­ter at writ­ing in English. It’s just going to take longer if English isn’t native to you. Just make sure your proof­read­ers are native speakers.

    Keep in mind that English is the most widely spo­ken lan­guage in the world (despite the fact that Chinese and Spanish both have far, far more /​native/​ speak­ers.) A per­son who writes in English has the broad­est avail­able mar­ket of readers.

    Additionally, I’ve noticed that some­times the mis­takes that expert second-​​language speak­ers make are not much more embar­rass­ing or dif­fi­cult to under­stand than those made by native speakers. ;)

  11. Jam says:

    Well then, I leave the writ­ing to you guys and I’ll just read.

  12. Don B. says:

    Jeremy, this is one of the best “get­ting started as a writer” pieces I’ve read. Your advice is on the mark, espe­cially #2 and #3. I can’t tell you how psy­cho­log­i­cally help­ful it is for me to read stuff like this, as I enter year four of my nev­erend­ing quest to get pub­lished. It’s nice to know my expe­ri­ences are not unique.

  13. Mark says:

    Terrific arti­cle. I would add the fol­low­ing: If you’re so hell­bent on becom­ing a socially awk­ward her­mit with delu­sional expec­ta­tions, it would help to find oth­ers like you, if only to sal­vage what lit­tle san­ity you have left.

  14. Nan Becklean says:

    I almost never read sci­ence fic­tion and thus it never occurred to me I’d write any. It was an acci­dent; I found out my lead­ing lady lived in the future and that was that.