HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION: Lesson 4: “You have to actually write something.”

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Welcome to our ongoing series of tips on how to write Science Fiction. I’m not sure that I have anything of any merit to teach you, but I am arrogant enough to try.

I’m not a professional writer. My book - available here - has sold a whopping five copies, netting me $1.75. It is entirely possible that I suck. 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 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: You have to actually write something.

Last time out, we discussed having reasonable goals. Develop your talents with baby-steps and the whole “It’s a long way to the top if you wanna’ rock and roll” thing. I suggested Short Stories are probably a better place to start out than full-fledged novels, particularly if you want to write Science Fiction.

Why? Because at root Science Fiction is a medium of ideas, and short stories are simply more efficient idea delivery systems than novels are. Take, for instance, Atlas Shrugged. My copy weighed 4.6 pounds and has really only five actual ideas, which comes to about 3.28 ounces of book per idea. That’s really a lot to ask of your audience, you know? Granted, Rand is always an extreme example. I heard that once she took a job writing cooking instructions to go on boxes of brownie mix, and her initial manuscript clocked in at eleven hundred pages. The editor complained - I mean, fifty pages of it was just ruminations on the moral significance of cigarettes - after which she revised it to 1300 pages, most of which was about a Catholic Priest who lost his faith because of the anticapitalist practices of his church. Whatever. Novels obviously *can* be efficient idea-delivery systems. John Scalzi’s recent barely-novel-length novel, “The God Engines” does an elegant job of it (Review: ) but the point is to start small.

Short stories are small.

As for me, personally, I tend to be a short story guy. I can and do write longer, but short stories are my comfort range. They’re easy. You take a hook, and you structure a little tale around it. The hook can either be the punch line to the piece, or it can pervade the entire structure, but Science Fiction is primarily a genre of ideas, and your story needs to hang on one. In short stories, characterization is somewhat rudimentary, occasionally even minimalist. This doesn’t mean that knowing your character isn’t important, but simply that you can get away with showing less of what makes him tick. In a novel, you pretty much have to know what your protagonist eats for lunch, and how he first came across it. In a short story, that’s not important.

Short stories are fun and easy and should be rather fast: get in, make your point, get out. Don’t belabor it, don’t over-think it. Did you ever work and worry over a term paper for six weeks and get a “C” while your roommate just slapped something together at the last minute and got a “B minus?” The best short stories are kinda’ like that. Think of the authors from the pulp era. They were cranking out a story a week, most of ‘em. If they didn’t, then they didn’t eat.

In general, if you want to be a writer, then you should write a little bit every day. A half hour, an hour. A story, a blog, a book review, a letter to a friend, it doesn’t matter: the exercise is more important than the fact that the treadmill isn’t going anywhere. If you’re doing this anyway, then I’d suggest you try writing a short story. Have an idea in mind, and resolve that you’ll start it on Monday and end it on Friday. (My “Dog Days” story was one of those: ) Promise yourself that, no matter what, you’ll be done with it on Friday. Probably that’ll mean your final session will run long, and you’ll probably pour too much into the ending, which will be kind of abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying. I call this “The Star Trek: The Next Generation Syndrome.” (“We’ve got how much film left? Four minutes? Oh, crap, ok, soooo….uhm….Geordi treknobabbles for a bit, then rejiggers the dealiewhacker with the thingamabob, and the evil alien entity is destroyed. The end. Denouement? I never heard of that. What is it? Does it taste good?”)

The slapped-together ending is probably going to seem unsatisfying to you as well, but trust me: it doesn’t matter. Just let it sit on the shelf. You can come back to it later. Right now you need to start another story. Again, give yourself a week to finish it, writing thirty or sixty minutes a day. Again, the Friday session will undoubtedly last too long, and the ending will be kinda’ Trekish, but - important point - it should be slightly less abrupt and less TNG than the previous one. Do a third story the same way, and you’ll feel the gears beginning to clank together in your head. The climax will move back a bit, be telegraphed a bit better. The ending will be more logical and conclusive. Your use of words will get more efficient. If you’re anything like me, you *will* write a lot of garbage, but each story will be less crappy than the last.

Believe it or not, a lot of the energy of a story, the driving force of the narrative, comes from having a deadline. If there’s a stop date, if it has to be in by that point, then you’ve got a hard ending to work towards, and that makes the writing a bit more psychologically focused for the writer. There’s less “Well, I think I should involve more sight-seeing on Planet Koozbane” and more “Get to the point.”

Believe it or not, a lot of the energy of a story is inertia. Once you start telling a story, do *not* stop until it’s done. I don’t mean “Write until you pass out,” obviously we’re talking about writing in small sessions every day. But don’t abandon a story in the middle, and come back to it days or weeks later. Just don’t. You lose the energy of the piece by doing that, and it’s much, much harder to go back to it. And if/when you do finish it, it feels like it’s lost a wheel, you know?

Finish *Everything* you write. Don’t worry about editing, or anything like that, but when you start to tell a story, see it through to the end. Yes, even if it sucks, even if you’re aware it’s not working out like you want. We learn as much from failures as we do from successes, and having one complete bad story on your shelf is far better than having a dozen abandoned good ones in your drawer. If nothing else, the experience of completing something is important. Also, frequently, bad stories can be redeemed simply by sticking with them, or by revisiting them a few years later and saying, “Oh, I see what I needed to do here.”

Even if neither of those work out, the corpse of a failed story can be ghoulishly picked over for good bits you can use elsewhere. Heinlein wrote an unspeakably awful novel called “For Us, The Living,” which no publisher would touch with a ten foot pole (“Gee, Bob, I don’t think naked men with shaved genitals lounging about with other men and discussing arcane economic theory is really what our readers want.” “Are you sure? He smokes a pipe!”). He was, however, able to harvest bits and pieces of that desiccated turd of a book and build much, much, much better stories around them later on. Nehemiah Scudder? Started out in that novel, and once he was excised and planted elsewhere, a huge part of the Future History revolved around him.

I cite Heinlein because he started out utterly crappy, and he ended up inexplicably crappy (I think there was a blood clot or something that brought his creepy swinger fantasies to the surface), but for a good long time there, he was really, really good. Not brilliant, mind you, never brilliant, but very, very good. For a substantial part of three decades, he was the standard against which SF Authors were judged. I firmly believe that it is every geek’s right as an American to be as good a writer as Heinlein. Your mother and I have been watching you. We think you’re ready.

Now, obviously, cranking out stories week after week is a great and glorious thing that you can spin into picking up chicks (or fellas if you’re a chick yourself, or just happen to have Florentine tastes), or (vastly less likely) might get you paid. (I mean, people give sex away for free, but publishing deals….not so much.) Just the same, obviously, all play and no work makes Jack a dull trust fund baby. You’ll get burned out pretty quickly.

What I’d suggest, then, is writing *other* stuff besides just stories. Guest-blogging is a great way to start. Ninety-nine percent of all blogs out there (Including this one) are starving for new content. Find one you like (Please let it be ours), contact the bloggers (Please let it be us), volunteer to write some content for them (Please please please), and most sites will be happy to take whatever you can generate, within certain guidelines. Contribute to several sites if you can (Please let one of them be ours).

Use the same regimen you use for writing short stories: thirty to sixty minutes a day, five days a week. You can start a piece on Monday, work on it all week, and wrap it up on Friday, or if you’re a fast typist maybe you can bang out two or five pieces in that time. The point of this is simply that *any* kind of directed, goal-oriented writing helps your over-all writing skills. It helps you become more economical in your style, less clunky, more elegant. It helps you learn to say what’s important, and not just a bunch of words. Ever those seventeen-page Stargate: Atlantis reviews on some blog sites where at least two pages are dedicated to how much the author would like to see Sheppard and McKay kiss? Yeah. That’s something to avoid. Any kind of writing that makes people think you’re an obese woman with a “Coexist” bumper sticker on her car is something to be avoided.

(Yeah, yeah, I know, that’s more sexist than I normally get. I apologize. I know the internet is littered with rambling DS9 reviews written by morbidly obese guys who yammer on about wanting to see Dax and Kira and the evil Kira get it on together. I apologize. But seriously, there was one reviewer for another site who endlessly wrote like that, and it just really stuck in my craw. And if you emailed her, requesting to just, you know, talk about the show, and not her weird fantasies, she’d get mad at you.)

((See what I just did there? That’s a ramble. You should avoid those.))

Don’t want to write blogs? Fine, write letters. Not Email, but actual physical letters. Thank your aunt Freya for that ant farm she got you twenty years ago. Write your priest and thank him for not doing anything naughty to you. As your insurance agent some questions you’ve had lingering for a while. The point is, write something, anything, try to get a conversation going. Write, dammit, write!

Ellison once said, “There are three things everyone thinks they do better than everyone else: Everyone thinks they can drive, f__k, and write, and pretty much everyone is always wrong about it.”

So you may not be able to do it, now, but you *can* learn it. We learn by doing, it’s how we’re wired as humans.

So: do!