Why Sci-Fi Writers Fail

Posted by | Filed under Science Fiction | Sep 30, 2015 | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Each magazine or publishing house has its own character, so reading and studying their published magazines and books beforehand is essential to having a story or book accepted–or even read–by an editor.

hssFor example, a light-hearted whimsical romp won’t likely fit in Analog magazine, which publishes serious hardcore sci-fi stories with the proper science and engineering background fully exploited and realized. Fantasy & Science Fiction might not prefer such a story either, but wouldn’t necessarily balk at one featuring both robots and ghosts, or even the ghost of a robot. Asimov’s Science Fiction is known for its more literary approach, and Talebones for the dark spin on its stories. There are many other science fiction outlets, mostly low-paying, but all good places to start and to learn about marketing. Be sure you make a thorough study of the different categories.

Unfortunately, every science fiction editor can testify that neophytes eagerly submit stories in which the lone survivors of a spaceship crash are revealed to be Adam and Eve.

Such cliches may bring smiles, but can easily be avoided by knowing science fiction’s history, from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein to the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, to E.E. “Doc” Smith to Robert Heinlein.

Luckily, there are many excellent annual anthologies full of Hugo and Nebula award-winning stories, and fine anthologies of pulp and Golden Age science fiction. It’s easy to find lists of novels that have won honors: check your local bookstore, the library and the Internet. Becoming familiar with the science fiction genre is not only easy, but great fun, too. Think of all the superb, mind-expanding stories you’ll get to read.

Pose a question

To write effective, appealing science fiction, isolate an idea, learn what’s been done with it by writers who have come before, and then put a spin on it that marks it as your own.

“What if?” and “If this goes on …” are two classic types of science fiction questions. You will be well-served by an interest in what the future may bring–not only the trends and Delphic surveys of futurists (who often are held in contempt by science fiction writers) but the utterly surprising and unpredicted wrinkles that science and technology might bring into our lives.

For example, while many predicted that the automobile would become common as a means of transportation, no one foresaw the effect of cars and back seats on our mating habits. Had anyone done so, it would have been a superb example of science fiction thinking.

As Brazilian science fiction writer Andre Carneiro wrote in a 1967 essay, “Introduction to the Study of Science Fiction,” “Science fiction is not an escapist literature, but a way for placing man inside the fantastic reality of technological progress.” Introducing new ideas, by the way, is a rare occurrence, and it’s rewarded. The late Irish science fiction writer Bob Shaw came up with an entirely new concept–slow glass, a special type of glass through which light passed very slowly. This concept allowed for all sorts of story ideas to evolve. Shaw’s innovative thinking earned him special standing with readers.

Such original ideas come along once or twice in a generation. It’s great if you come up with one, but you can write successfully by building on established science fiction concepts and presenting them in a new way, bringing a fresh slant to your story.

Find a new angle

When writing a science fiction story, one ought to prepare as if for court. Do your homework: Read not only classic science fiction, but as much science fiction as possible. It will help you find out if your idea for a story was covered already and, if so, whether all angles have been examined.

Above all, remember that readers are loyal to their favorite authors. It doesn’t pay to sneer at what’s honored in the field. The old pros are like the senior partners in the law firm: established stars in science fiction’s firmament by dint of hard work and years of genuine accomplishment. You can learn from them.

Playing off established themes and motifs or finding new ways of handling them will appeal not only to editors but to readers, too. Science fiction is in many ways less a literary genre than a continual debate. In no other genre is Golden Age material kept alive by constant references and citations. In no other genre is comparison and contrast used so ruthlessly to weed out the derivative from the original. In no other genre is there such a detailed, endless reassessment of the entire body of work.

Conduct thorough research

Knowing the material already covered and the names of main proponents lets you find where you can fit in on your own terms, establishing your own name.

Every year there are dozens of science fiction conventions attended by thousands of enthusiastic, informed, dedicated people. No other genre supports such a subculture. To enter this detailed, diverse arena, your work must be well researched discussion. Those who bring in new topics and themes are lauded as Big Names. Those who merely fill in the gaps left by Big Names are banished to franchise fiction and work-for-hire media tie-ins.

Fitting in is the key, especially when there are so few open slots. While science fiction is arguably one of the healthiest genres–look at all the popular sci-fi movies–the market for printed science fiction has shrunk to only a few magazines for short fiction and a diminished mid-list for novels.

It can take a while to break into the field. Impatience may be the single factor responsible for most failed science fiction writers. Too many want immediate success and don’t do the research required to become informed; therefore, they are not taken seriously by the players, the debaters and the readers.

To quote Carneiro’s essay: “Science fiction is above all literature, and must be judged as such.” Writers need to take the time to do it right.

If you have done your research, been inventive and written well, the genre’s fans will judge your work to be worthy of their interest.

One Response to “Why Sci-Fi Writers Fail”

  • Pia Khalsa says:

    Now I am ready to accept sci fi writing projects. I was a bit hesitant to accept such project seeing that a lot of good writers failed to consistently come up with interesting stories. The tips you mentioned just taught me what to do to be good at it.




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