On Writing: About Writing Science Fiction

On Writing Science Fiction

If you are going to school anywhere in the United States (including a home-school), you have probably been writing stories since you began to read stories. And, if you are in high school, you have also probably talked about science fiction as a genre, and probably even read Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury.

Writing is writing: writing near-future fiction is much the same as writing any other kind of story; in some ways a little harder, and in some ways a little easier.

All stories are about conflict. There is the conflict of love (Romeo and Juliet, The Yearling). There are the conflicts of the hero/adventure/good versus evil/ old versus new (Lord of the Ring, Oedipus, Beowulf). There is the conflict of transformation: someone is challenged by circumstances and is transformed by it (MacBeth, To Kill a Mockingbird, Things Fall Apart). While novels can include many threads of these elements, short stories usually have to pick one.

Science fiction can also have another kind of conflict – a conflict that transforms the reader.

In this case, the conflict is between the world that the story presents and the world that the reader knows.

Science Fiction: The literary equivalent of (sur)realism.

More than other kinds of stories, a science fiction story can be a literary "still life". Painters in the second half of the 19th century scandalized the art world by taking regular life as their subject matter: a train station (Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare, Monet), an old woman in a rocking chair (Arrangement in Grey and Black, Whistler).

Stories in science fiction can also be portraits – of people in a particular circumstance leading a particular life that may be very different from our own. Like Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, regular life — but maybe with a nude thrown into the mix.


This is where science fiction is both easier and trickier. Easier because the idea itself can be the dramatic element: a good story can be idea driven rather than character driven.

Trickier because you still have to include characters – and the better drawn they are, the more compelling the story — but you also have to find ways of introducing the idea, the new context, the changed circumstances, more or less smoothly into the story.

Getting Started

So how do you start? First of all, you have to have some ideas. Starting Points should give you some great ideas. Then, there is the story.

Cory Doctorow and Karl Schroeder in their book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction say that the tasks in writing are daydreaming, outlining, writing a draft, editing and revising, and polishing.

  1. The first of these is day-dreaming. You will be happy to know that, according to Doctorow and Schroeder, daydreaming is one of your most important activities as a writer.

    If x, y, or z happened, then how would an apple orchard stay in business? What would be different about going to school? Where would an adult find a job? If gasoline went to $10 a gallon, or was banned for all but strategic transportation, who would teenagers in rural towns date? If water levels rose by a meter, and lower Manhattan started to flood, what sorts of arguments would people have as they tried to decide what to do?

    What would have to happen to get to x, y, or z?  A successful writer at the 2006 Boskone science fiction convention in Boston said that when he writes a short story, he creates so many back-stories to get to his story that he ends up with four or five submissions. You don’t need to write them all down, of course, but do let your mind wander down the path from here to there. And take notes when you start speculating.

  2. Make an outline for your story. Knowing what happens next in advance bypasses a lot of writer’s block. Note that you can daydream and outline anywhere – on the bus, in front of the T.V., while eating ice cream.

  3. Write. This is where you close the door and turn off the phone and just keep going.

  4. Rewriting. This is where you (after at least one good night’s sleep) stop and critically read your draft. Tell the story through the character. Don’t write "the world had changed. It was x, y, z." Instead, write "The world had changed. Jamie remembered how it was when he was little, his house was x, y, z."

    Spell out the details. The details in your writing are important. And "details" doesn't just mean a lot of adjectives strung together, or exotic similes or metaphors, it means the little pieces of life that connect to the reader. They are a child complaining about losing a toy, someone stubbing their toe, someone always burning the toast. They may not be the story, but they bring the story to life. They are like the number of pixels on a screen or the high definition graphics that make the flags flutter in the background in a video game: the more details, the higher the resolution, the more definition, and the more realistic the action.

    Have a great beginning. This doesn’t mean a stupendously clever or brilliant beginning, but a beginning that plunks the reader right down in the middle of the story. When you revise, scratch out "It was a grey morning", and substitute "When Danny woke up, he was already afraid."   Ironically, the great beginning can be one of the last elements that you achieve. The Idiot’s Guide says that for Cory Doctorow, the hook isn’t apparent until he is almost finished. "Often, Cory’s rewrites consist of nothing more than cutting the first two pages."

  5. Revising and Polishing: Workshop your story. In schools this is called peer-review or peer-editing. It is called the same thing in the adult world, and most science fiction writers will tell you how important it is. See Clarion workshops

Read and compare it to other stories. Read science fiction/speculative fiction (see suggested reading list below) and see how the authors manage to make their stories interesting. What is their first sentence? When do you first realize that something is different? How is that difference introduced? How is the scientific or social science underpinning of the idea introduced or explained – by the characters? in dialogue? in reminiscence? How much of the story is spent on the idea? What is the mix of idea versus character? What details does the author use to create his/her particular reality?

There are a few books that have been written over the years about writing science fiction, but in the end the rules boil down to the following:

  • Write.
  • Finish what you write.
  • Send it in.

That’s all you really need to do.

And remember, there is a lot of discussion about what is science fiction or speculative fiction, but one of the most characteristic consequences of the importance of the idea, is that science fiction is most usually written by amateurs – some probably just like you.

[According to Wikipedia, Ursula Le Guin submitted her first story to the magazine Astounding Science Fiction at the age of eleven (it was rejected).]

An acknowledgement: Much of the material for this section was adapted from The Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, which is out of print, but available as an e-book, as well as the chapter by Robert A. Heinlein in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. The Idiot's Guide is indeed a guide; it is particularly straight-forward and useful (and interesting). Chapters 5 though 8 offer a clear and practical blueprint for the writing part of getting a short story published.

Reading: A Key to Good Writing

Science fiction covers a huge range of possibilities, and not all stories (e.g. cowboys in space, or end of the universe) may be useful for ideas or for examples for your near-future story for this contest.

One useful aspect of science fiction is that is gives a society a vehicle for introspection, for vision, and for examining issues that may be too controversial to handle directly.  There is a bloom of science fiction when a society is being challenged by outside forces, including but not limited to new technologies.  The website China.org reported in 2002 that China's Science Fiction World is one of China's most popular magazines, with a circulation exceeding 500,000, dwarfing all international counterparts.  Moreover, this is with most of its readers sharing single copies between dozens of friends.

In the U.S., similar circumstances existed after World War II when we as a society were driven to try and understand the implications of all of the technical and social changes of the first half of the twentieth century.  According to Isaac Asimov, this period was a golden age of "sociological" science fiction.  As a result, many examples of these stories are still in print and are also readily available in libraries.

Suggested Science Fiction Reading

  • Golden Age Classics

"The Place of the Gods", by Stephen Vincent Benét. Originally published as "By the Waters of Babylon" in 1937, it predates the atom bomb (but not World War I), but deals in the best SF tradition with a civilization that has come and gone. And yes, this is the same Stephen Vincent Benét who wrote "The Devil and Daniel Webster".

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, edited by Robert Silverberg, reissued by Tor Books in 2003. Half a dozen of these twenty-six stories take place in a near-future or current earth-based reality. Try "That Only a Mother", and "It’s a Good Life".

Selected Stories, by Philip K. Dick, a new (2002) collection, with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem.  Various other collections of his short stories are also available under various titles.

Philip Dick was an incredibly prolific and incredibly brilliant writer (the two don’t always occur simultaneously), whose short stories include a substantial portion of near-future or parallel-universe earth-based settings.

Philip Dick covered a huge range of stories, some soft and instructional, some ironic, some funny, and some horrendously post-apocalyptic, on a huge range of subjects: conformity, man’s place in the universe, technology carried to extremes, war, and new cultural twists.

Try: "The Turning Wheel", "Exhibit Piece", "Foster, You’re Dead", "Second Variety", "The Days of Perky Pat","Orpheus with Clay Feet", "Captive Market", "The Mold of Yancy"

Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut.  This collection is a mix of real world and projected world short stories.  Vonnegut was adamant that his work was not classified as "science fiction", but some of these stories are great examples.  Read "Tomorrow & Tomorrow & Tomorrow".

More Current Examples

It is not so easy to find more recently written near-future stories, particularly ones that are good examples of both writing and ideas, so we have culled through collections to find some. The following suggestions are included because they illustrate the range of possibilities in ideas, in subject matter, in story line and in tone (and because in most cases, they were available as a link).

Thank you to the authors who generously provided PDFs, or who maintain online publications of their stories.

"Bread and Bombs", by M. Richert, available in The Years Best SF4. A post-war world where our modern-world affluence is only a bitter memory for the adults, and bitterness towards enemies is an ongoing obsession. There aren’t too many people writing dystopia near-future fiction, but here is one example.

"Dying in Hull", by David Alexander Smith, available at Infinity Plus. You can also download a PDF, courtesy of the author. This story is a beautiful portrait of loss and change. David was the leader of the Future Boston Project, and this story was one of his contributions.

"The Eckener Alternative" (PDF courtesy of the author), by James L. Cambias. Included in two books currently in print, The Best of Science Fiction 10, and All Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories. A good example of a time-travel/alternate history story, and also a good example of a fairly light-hearted approach to a fascinating question.

"Evolution Never Sleeps" (PDF courtesy of the author), by Elizabeth Malartre. Included in The Year's Best SF 5. This is unusual in that the setting is absolutely familiar, with believable characters only slowly accumulating the impression that something small -- but important -- has changed.

"Marketing Report", by Alexander Jablokov.  Included inThe Years Best SF.  Virtual networked communities transformed into real communities collide with market tracking, ratcheted up (only) a notch or two; embedded in an absolutely real portrait of realtionships among an adult child and his two parents. 

"A Modest Proposal for the Perfection of Nature", by Vonda N. McIntyre.  Originally published in Nature, it is included in The Years Best SF11, and is also available at the author's website.  Anyone who doesn't find this spine-chilling should go immediately to their nearest science teacher, or failing that, should read something by E.O. Wilson. 

"State of Nature", by Nancy Kress. Included in The Year's Best SF 4. A slice of a near-future life with a far different economic reality having replaced the one that we know.

"Visit the Sins", Cory Doctorow, available at Strange Horizons. Cory Doctorow is one of the best young writers in science fiction today, with an imagination and energy that leaves no idea behind. Much of Cory’s work is available online through Creative Commons; Cory is a co-editor of the blog Boing, Boing.

"The Year of the Mouse", Norman Spinrad, available at the Spinrad website. Included in The Year's Best SF 4. A satiric look at our cultural imperialism carried to an extreme and also an interesting idea on how it might backfire.

Two Non-fiction Stories:

A good story doesn't always have to be fiction.  In The Best American Science Writing of 2006, there are two wonderful examples:

Earth Without People, by Alan Weisman, a journalist and a faculty member at the University of Arizona. 

The Curse of Akkad, by Elizabeth Kolbert; this was included in Field Notes from a Catastrophe, a book about global warming, published in 2006.   


Three (okay four) Books

Distraction, by Bruce Sterling, a novel.  To quote the reviews "It is the year 2044, and American has gone to hell."  Originally published in 1998, the most amazing thing about this particular hell is how far-away it must have seemed seven years ago, and how close it seems now (maybe 2024? -- if we're lucky?).  Global warming and climate change have raised sea levels, with random, extreme "natural" disasters of floods and forest fires; the dollar is almost worthless; the U.S. government is totally out control, with networked "krewes" in the middle of political power-struggles.  The story has too many elements to explain in a short paragraph, but there is humor, credibility, and even some (maybe even enough) hope in the mix of Sterling's brilliant imagination and writing.

Fisherman on an Inland Sea, by Ursula LeGuin. This is a collection of short stories. As a reviewer writes at Amazon, "the connecting theme of Fisherman is narrative--story as a way to organize reality, story as revelation, story as truth." Haunting is the best word to describe the best of LeGuin's writing, and "The Shobies' Story" and "Dancing to Ganam" tell you everything that you need in order to begin thinking about the power of story.

Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson. Again, novels, not short stories (so save them for later), but they are brilliant and fascinating. Among the things that make them unusual are that the worlds that they portray, although close and familiar, are dramatically changed from the U.S. centric view that SF often carries into its future worlds. They were also successful enough that they might be in the regular fiction section of your library or bookstore.


General Science Fiction Sources

If you like science fiction in general, there are other sources that cover the entire range of science fiction, with the bulk of the stories in some far away or very far-future universe.

The Best of . . . collections are continuously published and in bookstores for a short while before they disappear. Every year, David Hartwell from Tor books edits The Year’s Best SF; he is now up to The Year’s Best SF 10 (his wife Kathryn Cramer is now a co-editor). Gardner Dozois, until recently the editor of Asimov's, also issues an annual collection, The Year's Best Science Fiction.

Strange Horizons is a weekly speculative fiction magazine, with online publication of stories.

Other websites that might be interesting are:

Analog Science Fiction and Fact is the longest running almost-continuously published science fiction magazine in the world.

Ansible has been published since 1979 (with one long gap) by Dave Langford. It first appeared at Seacon '79, the World SF Convention held in Brighton, England, in August 1979.

Asimov's Science Fiction includes excerpts from upcoming issues, book reviews, online interviews, Isaac Asimov's famous Editorials, Robert Silverberg's controversial Reflections column, reprints of classic Asimov's stories, puzzles, letters, and cartoons, "as well as special features available only online".

Interzone was founded in 1982, and "has maintained its position as one of the world's leading professional Science Fiction and Fantasy magazines".

Locus Magazine is "the newspaper of the science fiction field", with articles and reviews, and sometimes stories.

And for writers:

The Clarion Workshop was founded by Robin Scott Wilson in 1968 at Clarion State College, and now resides at Michigan State.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc., was founded in 1965 by Damon Knight, who also served as its first president. In 1992, the membership voted to officially change the name to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. (SFWA).

SFF NET "is designed to support fast-moving, intelligent conversation about genre literature of all kinds. It's the place for authors, editors, readers, and publishers to get together to discuss books, stories, the art and craft of popular fiction, and all aspects of the literary life."

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