10 Things That Every Brand New Creator of Science Fiction Should Know

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10 Things That Every Brand New Creator of Science Fiction Should KnowExpand

Being a science fiction creator is the most amazing adventure — you get to invent whole new worlds, brand new futures, and fantastic technologies, and you get to tell the most incredible stories about them. But it’s also a tough and heartbreaking career path, whether you’re in books, comics, movies or television. Here are 10 things that every brand new science fiction creator ought to know at the start.

Top image: guitfiddle on Deviant Art.

1) You’re still just telling personal stories

This is kind of a big one — no matter who you are or what kind of work you’re doing, you’re still telling a story that’s personally meaningful to you. Because science fiction is so idea-focused and so often driven by technologies or world-changing discoveries, it’s easy to lose sight of that. But not finding the personal story inside your huge alien-invasion narrative is the easiest way to fail. The only way to stand out, and the only way to tell stories that are going to move others, is to figure out what you’re personally connecting to in your work, no matter how clever or widescreen your premise.

2) The things everybody remembers about their favorite stories are never why those stories work

We see this all the time nowadays — once a movie or book becomes a classic, people fixate on that one cool moment or that one clever line of dialogue. (Or sometimes, they fixate on something totally random, that just became a meme for some reason.) But no matter what, that one cool moment is not why people love that story — they love it for everything that sets up the cool moment, and everything else that makes it a great story. And this is why nostalgia is so deadly — because nostalgia tends to focus on the tip of the iceberg rather than the huge frozen juggernaut beneath. So if you spend a lot of time trying to recreate the coolest moment from your favorite TV episode, you’ll miss the stuff that mostly goes unnoticed, which made people care in the first place. Nostalgia always cheats, and the only answer is to try and create your own thing.

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Image via JadrienC/Deviant Art.

3) Science fiction is always about the time when it was created

That means that no matter how clever your extrapolation about the world of 100 years from now is, or no matter how brilliant your tribute to 1950s B-movies is, you’re still commenting on the world of today. And your perceptions of other times and other places will always be colored by the time and place you’re writing in. (This is especially important to remember for white Americans writing about non-U.S. cultures, past present or future.) Tons of studies have shown that humans have a hard time anticipating futures that are radically different from what we’ve already experienced. This means you need to be on the lookout for unwarranted assumptions in your worldbuilding — but also embrace the fact that you’re really commenting on the here and now, and be somewhat okay with that.

4) Ideas aren’t stories

Basically, you need to understand the difference between a premise and a plot. (This took me years to master, and I’m still not always great at telling the difference.) A premise is “in the future, everybody has a brain chip that regulates emotion.” A plot is “one person’s brain chip malfunctions,” or “someone invents a second brain chip that allows technology, but people who have both chips go insane.” A story that just lays out a basic premise isn’t really a story at all — it’s a pitch, at best. The hard part is often turning the idea into an actual story, and see point #1 above — you need to find what’s speaking to you personally about this premise.

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Image: samsonsreaper/CG Hub.

5) Even if you perfectly imitated your heroes, you’d still fail.

Let’s say you manage to write a book that Ursula K. Le Guin could have written, or you figure out how to direct a movie exactly like James Cameron. Leaving aside the impossibility of fully capturing the style of one of the genre’s great originals, you’ll still be kind of screwed. For one thing, even if people may say they’re looking for the next James Cameron, they don’t mean they’re looking for a carbon copy of James Cameron. It’ll just fall flat. For another, the field is constantly changing, and if you copy your heroes too much, you risk coming up with a perfect rendition of what everybody was looking for 20 years ago. Pay homage to Le Guin all you want — but you also have to work to develop your own style, that’s something new and fresh.

6) Cool story ideas are dime a dozen.

People get paranoid about having their ideas stolen, or being accused of stealing someone else’s idea, or “wasting” an idea, or whatever. But ideas really are as common as dirt, and it’s easy to come up with more. Even cool ideas. Just spend half an hour reading New Scientist, or scanning the front page of the newspaper, or watching people in a public place — story ideas come from everywhere. And they’re mostly worthless. Even if you come up with a clever story idea that would make a Hollywood producer’s ears prick up, it’s still worthless unless you can turn it into something. And that, in turn, requires coming up with a protagonist who’s fascinating and belongs in the middle of that cool idea. Ideas are easy, but stories are freakishly hard.

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Image by eddiedelrio/CG Hub.

7) Resist the urge to give up on your characters

If your characters aren’t clicking, or if you can’t figure out how to make them go in the direction your plot needs them to go in, that usually means you need to take a step back and think about what they’re really going through and what they would really feel in that situation. It’s tempting to push them into a pat resolution that satisfies your plot needs but doesn’t actually make that much sense for the characters. It’s also tempting to fall into a bleak, “existential” ending where your characters fail, just because you’re annoyed with them and can’t figure out what else to do with them. (And there’s nothing worse than a bleak ending that hasn’t been earned.) The end of your story is not a finish line, and this isn’t a race. Sometimes you need to go back and figure out where you went wrong.

8) Trends are at least half over by the time you know about them

Seriously. Everybody who’s been around for a while has a sob story in which they (or a friend) tried to jump on that hot vampire romance trend, or that super-popular “dystopian teen fiction” trend, and then realized that the trend was already on its last legs. You shouldn’t chase trends anyway, because that’s probably not going to result in work that you’re going to feel as good about in the end. But even if trend-chasing was a good idea, bear in mind there’s a long pipeline for books and an even longer one for movies or TV — the things you see coming out right now represent the trends that are already ending.

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Image: Ben Wootten via Concept Ships

9) Doing your homework is half the battle

Research is a huge part of writing really good science fiction, especially if you’re speculating about future developments. Learn how to talk to scientists about their work — if you seem smart and interested in telling good stories about science, they’ll often be willing to talk toyou. Also, learn how to read scientific papers and do research. And learn how to do research about other cultures and other times, too — even if you’re not writing about them, it’ll make your worldbuilding way stronger.

10) You’re the worst judge of your own work

This never really stops being true, for a lot of us. Especially when you’ve just finished something, you often can’t see what’s working. There’s no substitute at all for getting feedback from others, and running your work past professionals as much as you possibly can. Join a critique group or take classes, just to get more feedback on your work. When you wonder why your favorite writer or director has gone downhill since they became a megastar, it’s usually because they stopped getting feedback on their work. But especially when you’re starting out, you need constant abuse to get better at your craft.

Pep Talks – Dicas Literárias – Patrick Rothfuss

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November 06, 2013 15:44

Hello there everybody,

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I should write here. Though I’ve known about NaNoWriMo for ages, I’ve only done it once before.

But this is supposed to be a pep talk, so I get the impression that I’m supposed to cheer you on. Inspire you. Encourage you keep NaNoWriMo-ing for all you’re worth.

So. You’re awesome. You know that, right? We’re all writers here. We’re awesome by definition.

Consider yourself cheered.

Now, I’m going to encourage you to break the rules.

I’m not talking about the little rules—grammar stuff like avoiding sentence fragments and ending sentences with prepositions. (Though I encourage breaking those rules, too.)

I’m not even talking about the bigger rules that pretty much everyone agrees on, like Write What You Know, Avoid Adverbs, and Don’t Use The Passive Voice. (Though I can take or leave those rules, as well.)

No. I’m going to encourage you to break the rules of NaNoWriMo itself.

I know what you’re supposed to do here. You’re supposed to start from scratch. Start a new novel and blaze a trail, always moving forward. And most importantly, never ever go back and revise.

And these aren’t bad rules. They encourage you to learn the one true rule of writing. The rule which is absolutely inviolate and true:

1. Yay, Verily. You Must Sit Down and Write.

1a. Thou shalt not go see a movie instead. Or watch reality TV. Thou shalt write. No. Stop. You don’t need to clean out the fridge right now. Neither dost thou need to sort the recycling. I’m not even kidding. Go and write.

1b. Thou shalt not just think about writing. Seriously. That is not writing. The worst unpublished novel of all-time is better than the brilliant idea you have in your head. Why? Because the worst novel ever is written down. That means it’s a book, while your idea is just an idle fancy. My dog used to dream about chasing rabbits; she didn’t write a novel about chasing rabbits. There is a difference.

1c. Thou shalt not read, either. I know it’s book-related, but it’s not actually writing. Yes, even if it’s a book about how to write. Yes, even if you’re doing research. You can research later. Sit. Down. Write.

NaNoWriMo’s rules are useful because they force you to attend to that one singular Platonic Truth, as outlined above.

That said, I’m going to encourage you to break those rules.

NaNoWriMo is great at teaching you to blaze a trail, but you can have too much of a good thing. I’ve known people who start from scratch every year because that’s part of the rules, and they’ve ended up with a string of half-finished, 50,000-word novels.

So I say unto you: You don’t have to start entirely from scratch. (But you can’t count previously written words in your word count. Obviously.)

NaNoWriMo says you shouldn’t go back and revise. But honestly, writing is all about revision. So if you realize you need to change something three chapters back, go and do it. Sure it means you aren’t constantly churning out words, but it makes your story better. Writing good stories is why we’re all here, right?

So I say unto you: Revise sometimes.

NaNoWriMo says that you shouldn’t switch between projects. When I did NaNoWriMo a couple years ago, I moved back and forth between my start-from-scratch project and the third book in my trilogy. Why? Because I had a brilliant idea for a scene in Book Three. Something that I was excited to write.

Why would I ignore that impulse? When you’re enthusiastic, the writing comes quick and easy. And do you think my editor cried any tears that I’d broken that particular rule? Do you think my readers were pissed? No. No they weren’t.

So I say unto you: Follow your enthusiasm.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I lost NaNoWriMo when I did all these things. I only wrote about 35,000 words. I did not get bragging rights, the special icon on my profile, or a cool T-shirt.

But I learned some things, and I improved my craft.

Is there a moral to this story? Not really. I’m just a contrary person by nature, and I like encouraging people to think about all their options.

As a writer, considering your options means thinking about what part of your craft you’re looking to improve. So if you’re the sort of writer who needs practice getting words down (like me), maybe the strict NaNoWriMo ruleset is for you. But then again, maybe not…

Either way, the most important thing is to get in there and do it. Sit. Down. Write.

Pat

P.S. If you’re curious about all the particular details of how I lost NaNoWriMo, I wrote a blog post about it here.

Patrick Rothfuss is the author of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. He is currently working hard on the final installment of the series.

Pep Talk – Dicas literárias – Catherynne M. Valente

Carol

November 05, 2013 16:06

Dear Speed Racers of Literature,

As I write this to you, I am myself deep in the midst of a breakneck race toward a novel deadline. I have a very short time in which to commit a large amount of fiction, and I have taken a moment out of the word mines to talk to you about this mad thing we insist on doing.

I discovered NaNoWriMo in its second year and just the notion of it—the challenge, the seeming impossibility—lit a fire under me. I even wrote a little manifesto about it. But it turned out that I couldn’t wait until November to start. And being 22 and thus full of equal parts arrogance, stupidity, and ambition, I decided that 30 days was too easy. I would do it in 10.

And I did. My first novel, The Labyrinth, was written from October 1 to 11, 2002. I didn’t know I couldn’t do it. So I did. That novel became my first published book. It was rereleased in a brand-new edition last year and I am still proud of it. Without NaNoWriMo, the lost 22-year-old poet working as a fortune teller in a little shop next to a Starbucks in Rhode Island, the girl with no particular prospects and even less clue how to write something longer than her (admittedly long-winded) poems, might never have figured out how many novels she had waiting inside her.

I will share with you, my kindred souls, that since that first book, most of my novels have been written at double-quick speed. They come out in about 4 to 12 weeks these days. By which I mean the typing of it. The thinking, the dreaming out loud, the imagining of novels—well, that still takes years. But it is the sweetest work in the world.

The structure that NaNoWriMo taught me 11 years ago still shapes and drives my work habits today—for better or for worse. It helps my number-obsessed, structure-craving mind to bound my infinite space in a nutshell and try to write as though every month were November. (The key word there would be try.)

Yes, this is an experiment. Yes, it is difficult and not meant to be the scaffolding of a career. But the fact is, it can be. A professional, full-time writer quite often writes more than 1,667 words a day for periods longer than a month. Learn how to flex that muscle, and how to build it up so it looks back on the early days of 50,000-words-in-a-month as an easy gig.

To show up to play, puff out your chest like a damn proud toucan, and get shit done.

That is, perhaps, the single most important skill of a working life, no matter what that work may be.

I am here to tell you that you can do this. Not only can you do it, you can keep doing it. Take care of yourself, and this weird, stressful, wrist-aching trip you’re on can—like Red Bull, Daedelus, and garage-level genetic engineering—give you wings.

I’m going to tell you what I tried to say in 2002 to the NaNoWriMo forums, a notion that found little support and much scoffing then, but perhaps will find more friends now that I’ve spent most of the last decade putting my money where my mouth is.

So here it is, cats and kittens: my one and only Personal Rule of Literary Land Speed Record Attempts, According to Catherynne Valente, Circa 2013.

(Like all rules put forth by writers, feel free to ignore it, or not, at your leisure.)

You can be good and fast at the same time.

Though it is important not to put too much pressure on yourself, it is also important to know that quality and speed have absolutely nothing to do with one another. You can write something heart-catchingly brilliant in 30 days. You can do it in 10. There is no reason on this green earth not to try for glory. You’re going to spend these 30 days at the computer anyway. You might as well be mindful while you’re there.

You can come out transformed.

Write something true. Write something frightening. Write something close to the bone. You are on this planet to tell the story of what you saw here. What you heard. What you felt. What you learned. Any effort spent in that pursuit cannot be wasted. Any way that you can tell that story more truly, more vividly, more you-ly, is the right way.

So holler. Tell it loud and tell it bright and tell it slant and tell it bold. Tell it with space whales and silent films or tell it with quiet desperation or tell it with war or tell it with dragons or tell it with tall ships or tell it with divorce in the suburbs or tell it with dancing skeletons and a kraken in the wings.

Tell it fast before you get scared and silence yourself. You’ll never wish you’d held back a little more.

Catherynne

Catherynne M. Valente is the author of over 20 fiction and poetry books, including The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own MakingThe Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, and the new The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two.