HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION: Lesson 3: “Start Small.”

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Last year, it was suggested we run a series of tips on how to write Science Fiction. I’m not sure that I have anything of any merit to teach you, and I’m not sure I *could* teach even if I had something worth telling you. I am, however, arrogant enough to try.

Some caveats: I’m not a professional writer. I’ve never sold a story, I’ve never made a dime. I’ve been writing, on and off, for a quarter century, but aside from some sporadic moments of inspiration here and there, I really don’t think I was any good at it until the second half of 2006 when I was writing my novel “Home Again,” and suddenly things just sort of clicked. Anything I say here should be taken as the braying of a jackass, and not as authoritative advice. I’m just saying what’s worked for me.

Feel free to ask questions or make comments below. If something requires expansion or explanation, or just rambling wise-ass comments, I’ll be happy to do it.

LESSON # 3: Start Small

In the previous two lessons we’ve discussed the surprisingly non-obvious difference between “Ideas” and “Stories,” and the fundamental credo of all successful authors, which is “Write, don’t talk.” Today we’re going to discuss having a sense of proportion.

Now, anyone who writes entertains some delusions of grandeur. We all want to write The Great American Novel (Or, if you’re one of the three or four people who remember Twice Upon a Time, the great Amurkian novel). If you’re going to go, go big, right? I mean, we all know inspirational stories of out-of-nowhere talents like Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell who burst upon the scene with a brilliant, massively huge novel. If they can do it, why can’t you?

Well, for starters, I’m not even sure if you’re a chick…

No, no, I’m kidding. I’m kidding. There really *are* talents like that out there who just explode on to the scene, and take everyone by storm. Such people really exist, and for all I know you might be one of ‘em. But such talents are unspeakably rare. And they generally shine for only a short time. Lee and Mitchell were one-hit wonders. They had one story in ‘em, and they knew it. They told their story, and then gracefully exited the stage. For every one of those, there’s a Salinger or Fitzgerald who didn’t stop writing, but should have. True, there are a few timeless and tireless creative geniuses like Nabokov or Twain, and you *may* be the next one to join their vaunted ranks.

But you probably aren’t. I mean, hell, Nabokov wrote achingly brilliant novels in three separate languages - Russian, French, and English - at three separate points in his career. Can you even speak three languages? I can’t.

I say this not to discourage you - the whole point of this feature is that I *WANT* you to write and develop your talents. I mention my artistic betters not to make anyone feel bad, but just to encourage a sense of perspective. Don’t go into the ring acting like you’re the heavyweight champion of the world if you weigh sixty-five pounds and have never fought a single bout. It’s just embarrassing for everyone involved. You may become the next Nabokov - and when you do, I’ll be right there next to you, asking to borrow money that I have no intention of ever paying back - but it’s a statistical probability that you won’t *start out* at the top of your game like that. Such people are genetic freaks. Are you a genetic freak? I know I’m not. The rest of us, we have to actually work at it.

Set your sights for a bit more manageable target. Heinlein, perhaps? Heinlein is manageable, and you could probably do it without all that icky swinger stuff and incest stuff he inexplicably got into late in his career. Or Clarke. I don’t know you, I’ve never read your stuff, but I can pretty much guarantee you’re already a better writer than Arthur C. Clarke ever was. My next door neighbor wrote a grocery list yesterday that was better than anything Clarke ever wrote, and he’s only got seven teeth. (I don’t live in the greatest of neighborhoods)

My point being: the stars may be your destination, but the launch pad is where you are right now. Start small. Set reasonable goals for yourself. Experiment. If you want to try out a new narrative technique, and it doesn’t work, it’s better to blow it on a ten-page short story than on a 300-page novel, right? The world if full of people who spend decades laboring over novels that, maybe, aren’t worth the time, or that they don’t have the skills to pull off. Start small, work larger as time and talent allow.

Might I suggest short stories? Science Fiction is fundamentally about ideas, and short stories are a far more efficient idea-delivery system than novels are. We'll discuss that next time