Science fiction has existed in one form or another since humans began telling stories. It was during the early twentieth century that authors began labeling it as such. In the nearly one hundred years since, many authors have learned the secret of writing great science fiction.
I asked some of the greatest minds in the industry to share their secrets. What follows is a mixture of method and advice.
Award-Winning Author David Brin discusses a few authors that influenced his writing.
Robert Sheckley for perfect stories. Poul Anderson for the gift of tribal, storytelling magic. Aldous Huxley, for showing me that speculation needn’t abandon literary quality. John Brunner, for scaring every other science fiction author in the world half to death, for a dozen years. Alice Sheldon for her courage. Homer, for lighting a candle and all of those who kept lighting them across the dark, dark ages, till we learned how to maintain light.
Award-Winning Author, Editor, and Critic Gary K. Wolfe discusses what he looks for in a good novel.
I really don’t have any rules for what makes a good novel, because I’ve discovered that as soon as I think of some, I read a novel that violates them all and is still terrific. What I try to do is figure out what the author is trying to do, and then read the novel in that spirit. If someone just wants to write an old-fashioned slam-bang space opera, you read it in that spirit and don’t expect a lot of psychological depth or Faulknerian prose. But if the author is trying to write a space opera with a lot of psychological depth and complexity, you go with that and see if they’ve succeeded. You often seen writers who are actually better than the material they’re working with, and occasionally authors who are not quite up to their ambitions, but you have to go with what their apparent intentions are—which, I might point out, are not necessarily the same things that the marketing people are trying to promote.
SFWA Grand Master Michael Moorcock discusses his influences and approach to writing.
The Gothic novel was a big influence — Maturin, in particular. Dissatisfied with where it seemed to be going I went back to the roots of fantasy, before it became a genre just as I’d done with science fiction (see my book Wizardry and Wild Romance). I’d recommend the process to any writer wanting to produce a particular kind of fiction. The problem with any genre (and I think ‘litfic’ is just as prone to this) is that you get a kind of xerography going on, because one author is inspired by and imitates the authors they admire, whereas the further back you go to roots the greater the likelihood of your creating something fresher. I was influenced by mythology and the great Romantics, Wordsworth, de Quincey, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Mary Shelley, the Brontes and so on, using techniques where for instance the landscape and the weather is carefully employed to describe and illustrate internal conflicts within a character. I don’t build worlds because the worlds I describe reflect the character. Landscapes are there to reveal what’s going on in the characters’ minds. On a melodramatic level you find it in all James Whale’s fantastic movies. I’m not very interested in, say, the GNP of Melnibone! I don’t mind if others enjoy playing that sort of game but it’s not of much interest to me. Characters and their moral conflicts interest me.
Award-Winning Author Michael Swanwick on the boundaries of imaginative fiction and story analysis.
The secret to ignoring boundaries is to have read so much fiction both in and out of genre that you know not only where the boundaries are but why they’re there. It doesn’t do a lot of good to combine fairies and spaceships, because the reader will find the combination jarring. But Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Semley’s Necklace” does a masterful job of retooling the fantasy trope of Elf Hill to a science fiction setting, and the world-building of her Earthsea books employs a lot of tools she learned from writing science fiction.
George Scithers used to say that rules are not made to be broken—rules are made to be understood. The same with boundaries. Once you know that, they have no power over you.
I analyze by writing. When a story resists being put into words, I’ll cast about in my memory to find how other writers tackled the same chore. I had trouble starting “Slow Life,” a hard SF story set on Titan, so I went through Larry Niven’s early collections of short fiction, because they had a feel I thought would work well there, and I found that he often started a story with a short science lecture. So I began my story with an analysis of the chemistry of a raindrop falling through the atmosphere. That worked, and I thank Mr. Niven for it.
The hardest challenge I ever faced was expanding “Vergil Magus, King Without Country,” an unpublished story by Avram Davidson, to make it accessible to the average genre reader. Avram’s prose was brilliant but, taken cumulatively, rather daunting, and the plot only became apparent at the story’s end. So I broke his work into sections and alternated them with an action-filled sequence of events, to keep the reader involved enough to read through and discover what a cunning plot he’d actually come up with. I found that the only way to counterfeit Avram’s prose was to steal snippets of it from other works of his, primarily the Adventures in Unhistory essays, to lend a sense of richness to what I’d written.
There’s really no system for any of this. The English language is too rich and literature too diverse to be reduced to one. Whatever works, works. Which is what makes finding out what works so much fun.
It’s kind of a hot mess. Usually, I come up with an idea and play around with it until I come up with the first line. Then I jot that down. I start creating characters, situations, details, individual lines of dialogue, and finally—sometimes this takes years – I find the ending and the last line. Then I go to the first line and start writing, aiming the story or novel at its conclusion, while not knowing how it’s going to get there. I rewrite constantly as I go, so that every page has been thoroughly reworked ten or twenty times; as a result, when I finally do reach that last line, I only have the last several pages to rewrite. In the middle stages, I’ll draw lots of plot diagrams in order to figure out how each section should go.
This is not a method I would recommend to anyone. But, with rare exceptions, it’s what works for me.
Award-Winning Editor Neil Clarke on the mistakes writers make when submitting to his magazine.
The biggest is not reading the guidelines. They cover everything from how we expect a story to be formatted to the types of stories that we’re least likely to be interested in. Word to the wise… don’t send me a zombie story.
Award-Winning Author C. J. Cherryh on creating her amazing space combats.
I don’t try to reconstruct sea battles. I imagine a combination of radar and artificial predictive intelligence and an actively maintained 3-d computer map as something called ‘longscan—I imagine ships that could get from here to Mars in minutes engaged in 3-d conflict—and inside those ships, officers making decisions backed by a team of multiple communications people, multiple longscan operators, with intermediate officers computer-aided in sifting what gets to the chief officers in a pace of information and happening at speeds too great for the human mind to handle. I envision weapons that don’t need explosives. Accelerate a piece of rock to an appreciable fraction of lightspeed and let fly. There are what are called ‘inerts’, which are pieces of metal like a telephone pole launched at a velocity that could create Arizona’s meteor crater if a planet happened to get hit. It’s a combination of technology we don’t have yet, with people-stories that we do see happen in war.
SFWA Grand Master Ursula K. Le Guin on her own approach to writing.
It looks like a woman sitting at a desk, or staring out a window, or cooking dinner, or waking up in the morning, or whatever. You know what a ground bass is in music? A theme that keeps going on underneath, no matter what else is happening on top of it? Writing is the ground bass of my existence.
For me—it’s different for everybody—sometimes a story has to be planned, sometimes it’s jump in and go. Depends on the story.
A novel has to have its basic architecture, its trajectory, clearly in place before you start, but the materials you build it with, or how you get to where it’s going, may be almost entirely a process of discovery—finding out what comes next.
A poem often starts as a cluster of words from which other words unfold, kind of like a rose opening. You can’t force it to open. You just have your attention on it and let it open, and it does. If it does.
AND THEN—story, novel, poem—THEN you revise. Until it’s as good as you can make it.
Then you STOP and wait for the next swan. (I’m thinking of the story about a famous tenor singing in the opera Lohengrin. A swan-boat is supposed to come on stage and carry him off. The machinery stuck. Nothing came. After a while the tenor addressed the audience: “Can you tell me when the next swan is due?”)
Read. Write. Revise. Repeat for several years or decades.
Wait for swans. Sometimes the machinery sticks, but if you wait patiently, a swan will come along.