Thursday, November 20, 2008

Writing: the challenge of Science Fiction

It's not often I get a reader's question that leaves me blank for five minutes, but this one did. It's a beauty, because it's so fundamental, and fundamental questions tend to be so broad in scope, they touch ... well, everything.

So, here was the question: "How do I write science fiction?"

The kneejerk reaction is to say, "Same bloody way as you write anything else, what's your problem?!" But in fact, this is too swift (and too brusque!) an answer, which doesn't do justice to a question that is, in fact, brilliant in its sheer simplicity.

And since I couldn't get the question out of my mind for the next two hours, I thought it might be an interesting topic for a post -- quite a few writers are reading this blog; some are looking for publishers, others are fully intending to use POD services, but they all have one thing in common: they write.

So, how do you write science fiction?

The truth is, anyone can write anything. It's writing something well that's the challenge, and how well we do something is what sorts the wheat from the chaff. Seriously, anyone can take a crack at writing absolutely anything, but one can't guarantee the results.

Let's say you're a massive fan of G-Force and Mecha Godzilla, it's what you like, what you read, what you watch, and where your brain is ... and somebody bets you $25 you can't write a women's historical romance. Take the bet with impunity, because -- of course you can write one ... and the person didn't bet you $25 that you couldn't write a good one.

Creative writing starts with three things: 1) the burning desire to write; 2) the energy and discipline to sit down and bash out the words, all of them, right to The End; 3) a real, genuine story that's worth reading, as well as writing.

After these three jewels, the words are on paper (or on the hard drive), the story is told ... everything else is about quality: integrity, readability, characterisation, editing, coherence, denouement, style.

Let's reverse the bet, and have someone who lives and breathes women's historical romance, and somebody bets them $25 that s/he can't write a Japanese Monsterama story.

Of course s/he can. Take the money!!

Now, if the bet had been, "I'll bet you $250 that you can't write a GOOD Japanese Monsterama story" ... well, be a bit more cagey. See if you can dragoon somebody's 12-year-old kid to explain to you what the bloody hell this genre is all about. Maybe the kid will propel you in the general direction of the video store, and you can rent some. Grit your teeth and actually watch them, right through to the end credits. Something by Toho Studios would be absolutely perfect for this purpose.

In other words ... you're doing some research, because you want that $250, and it's enough money to warrant spending a few hours on getting it juuuuust right. If you're a natural born writer, the basic skills are mostly transferable: the ability to write one thing converts into the ability to write the body copy for something else --

With one proviso. Style. The hardboiled language in which a lot of SF and detective fiction is written does not lend itself well to historical romances (!), and the often florid and, shall we say, botanical (I don't want to say 'flowery,' because someone will probably thump me) language in which a lot of historicals and/or romances are constructed doesn't lend itself well to nuts and bolts SF and hardboiled detective fiction!

So you, the writer, will be using your judgment, and you'll be re-tune your "ear" to hear the difference. You've learned your skills writing 'whatever,' and a helluva lot of it; and you're coming to the challenge of writing SF with both eyes -- and ears -- open.

It all starts with the desire to write SF, having a fantastic story that you have to tell or die, plus the discipline to get all the words down on paper.

Now, if you have this burning desire to write SF, you might have actually read some -- but then again, maybe not.

If you've read Greg Bear and Charles Sheffield, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, you're on the home stretch. Follow their lead. Do what they do: write very well, with very good grammar; keep the story on course, don't let it wander; reveal the story's pivot points at exactly the right moment -- ie., don't 'telegraph' your punches, but don't don't wait so long to throw them that the reader is bored or confused. (Bore or confuse a reader, and s/he will stop reading. End of statement.)

However, if your total exposure to SF has been Star Wars trilogy (c. 1980), Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, classic Battlestar Galactica (1980), classic Star Trek (1969), classic Doctor Who (1970s), Planet of the Apes (TV series) Logan's Run (series), Knight Rider, and so forth ... you could have a problem.

These projects are certainly SF, but their genre is very different: TV science fiction of the 1960s to 1980s vintage is a Hollywood product, designed and crafted to amuse an American audience which was naive even for its day. The plotlines are very frequently soap opera dressed in SF costumes, or World War II, Korea and Vietnam stories rearmed with rayguns and energy weapons. The characterizations are "US TV standard" for their era ... meaning, you can watch SWAT, Starsky & Hutch, and any SF show made for US TV in the era, and the characters are pretty much of a sameness. They tend to have an artificial look about them to today's eyes, because they're the product not of their era on the street, but the product of their era on TV. (Hollyweird executives designed what television would look and sound like, to make the end product squeaky clean, wholesome and acceptable in Middle American living rooms at 7:00pm. It didn't make for "real" characters.)

If this is your concept of SF -- you'll certainly write an SF story ... but will it be a good one? The person betting you $250 might have a bone to pick with the kind of story, the way it's developed, and the "artificiality" of the characterization. In other words, if you want to win the bet -- look further afield.

In fact, if classic TV SF has been your exposure to SF, yet now you're sure you have a red-hot story and you're desperate to write it -- STOP. Do some research. Read some books, find out what the real thing is like. Can I give you some recommendations? Sure. Greg Bear: Eon, Eternity and Moving Mars. Charles Sheffield, Godspeed and Cold as Ice. Arthur C. Clarke -- almost anything. Robert Heinlein: Friday, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset. This'll get you off to a flying start. There's about a thousand more, you'll find them as you start to look around and do a little research.

Now, I assume the technicalities of the language are in good order before you get this far. Right? In other words, your English is nothing less that superb -- grammar, spelling, punctuation, vocabulary, all those fiddling little details that make or break a writer? If they're under control, take the story by the scruff of its neck and get it written. If they're out of control --

Still write the story, but use it as a learning experience. Learn to punctuate and format text as you go. Buy some books on grammar. Seriously! Indulge yourself in The Elements of Style (Strunk & White). You don't even have to buy that slim volume, though it's still in print if you want to. You can also access it online: ... and for background info on the work itself, hit Wiki:

In other words -- write your story while you learn to write ... then rewrite your story, using everything you've learned about characterization, denouement -- even grammar and punctuation!

The technicalities are especially important if you want to take a crack at finding a publisher, or POD publishing. You won't impress a publisher with iffy English writing skills ... and if you go POD, you won't have an editor working with you (some might say, breathing down your neck) to make sure all the eyes are dotted and the tees are crossed. When you're flying solo, you have to be very good, and very confident of your skills.

I hope this has covered the whole question! And now --

It's actually my day off, and I'm headed for the coast to do some rock hopping. Will take pictures and if anything looks especially fine, I'll put up a few images tomorrow.

Ciao for now,

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