Read How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy Online

Authors: Orson Scott Card

Tags: #Language Arts & Disciplines, #Reference, #Writing Skills, #Composition & Creative Writing, #Science Fiction, #Creative Writing, #Authorship, #Fantasy Literature

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy

BOOK: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy
7.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy

by Orson Scott Card

1 The Infinite Boundary
What is, and isn’t, science fiction and fantasy, and by whose standards: publishers’, writers’, readers’.
What basic concepts and approaches qual
a story as true speculative fiction, and how SF and fantasy differ from one another.
2 World Creation
How to build, populate, and dramatize a credible, inviting world that readers will want to share with you. Dragging ideas through “the idea net”
why, how,
with what result.
Developing the rules of your world … and then abiding by them and
making them matter:
the rules of Time, Space, and Magic.
Working out the history, language, geography, and customs
your invented world.
3 Story Construction
Finding a character for an idea, or developing ideas for a character to enact.
Qualifications for the main character:
who hurts the most? Who has power and freedom to act?
Should the viewpoint character be the main character? How do you decide?
Determining where the story should begin and end. The MICE quotient: milieu, idea, character, event-knowing which is most important in
story will help you decide its proper shape.
4 Writing Well
Keeping exposition in its place. m Leading your reader into the strangeness, step by step. Piquing the reader’s interest.
Keeping the “level of diction” appropriate to the story’s imagined world. Using invented jargon sparsely and effectively.
5 The Life and Business of Writing
The markets for short and long speculative fiction-magazines, anthologies, fanzines-and how to reach them. Classes, workshops, conferences and conventions. Collaboration, adaptation, and shared worlds.
Professional writers’ organizations.
Awards in speculative fiction.

To my sister Janice,

Who taught me how to read,

Which was the beginning of wisdom,

And how to be charitable,

Which is wisdom’s end.

About the Author

one had ever won both the Hugo and the Nebula Award for best
science fiction novel two years in a row-until 1987, when
Speaker for the Dead
won the same awards given to
Ender’s Game.
But Orson Scott Card’s experience is not limited to one genre or form of storytelling. A dozen of his plays have been produced in regional theatre; his historical novel,
has been an underground hit for several years; and Card has written hundreds of audio plays and a dozen scripts for animated videoplays for the family market. He has also edited books, magazines, and anthologies; he writes a regular review column for
The Magazine
Fantasy and Science Fiction;
he publishes
Short Form,
a journal of short-fiction criticism; he even reviews computer games for
Along the way, Card earned a master’s degree in literature and has an abiding love for Chaucer, Shakespeare, Boccaccio, and the Medieval Romance. He has taught writing courses at several universities and at such workshops as Antioch, Clarion, Clarion West, and the Cape Cod Writers Workshop. It is fair to say that Orson Scott Card has examined storytelling from every angle.

Born in Richland, Washington, Card grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He lived in Brazil for two years as an unpaid missionary for the Mormon Church and received degrees from Brigham Young University and the University of Utah. He currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine, and their three children, Geoffrey, Emily, and Charles (named for Chaucer, Bronte, and Dickens).


A writer never knows who’s going to be reading his book, but I’ve made a few assumptions about you, anyway. I figure that you’re probably not yet an established writer in the genre of speculative fiction, or you wouldn’t feel a need to read a book on how to write it. Still, you have a genuine interest in writing science fiction and fantasy, not because you have some notion that it’s somehow “easier” to make a buck in this field (if that’s your delusion, give it up at once!), but rather because you believe that the kind of story you want to tell might be best received by the science fiction and fantasy audience.

I hope you’re right, because in many ways this is the best audience in the world to write for. They’re open-minded and intelligent. They want to think as well as feel, understand as well as dream. Above all, they want to be led into places that no one has ever visited before. It’s a privilege to tell stories to these readers, and an honor when they applaud the tales you tell.

What I can’t do in a book this brief is tell you everything you need to know about writing fiction. What I can do is tell you everything I know about how to write speculative fiction in particular. I’ve written a whole book on characterization and point of view, so I hardly need to cover that same material here; nor will I attempt to teach you plotting or style, dialogue or marketing or copyright law or any of the other things that writers of
kind of fiction have to know something about. But I can attempt to tell you the things that only the writers of speculative fiction need to worry about: world creation, alien societies, the rules of magic, rigorous extrapolation of possible futures - tasks that don’t come up in your average mystery or romance or literary tale.

To do that, I’ve divided this book into five chapters of varying length. Chapter I deals with the boundaries of speculative fiction; it’s an essay on what science fiction and fantasy are, so that you can get an idea of the range of possibilities and educate yourself with the literature that has gone before.

Chapter II, the longest, begins the practical, hands-on work of world creation, perhaps the most vital step in creating a good speculative story.

    Chapter III deals with the structuring of a science fiction or fantasy

tale-how you go about turning your world into a story, or making your story work well within its world.

With Chapter IV, we go through the actual writing process, dealing with the problems of exposition and language that only speculative fiction writers face.

The first part of Chapter V deals with the practical business of selling science fiction and fantasy-though you’d better check the copyright date on this edition of the book before acting on my advice, since this is the section most likely to become outdated.

And also in Chapter V we get a little personal and I offer you some advice on how to live successfully as a science fiction or fantasy writer. Not that I know how you should live your life-but I have made some really first-rate mistakes in my time, and have seen others make some doozies, too, and if by forewarning you I can forewarn you, I think it’s worth the effort.

1. The Infinite Boundary

It was 1975. I was twenty-four years old. The naive ambitions of youth were beginning to be tempered by reality.

I had written a couple of dozen plays and more than half of them had been produced in college or community theatres-for a total remuneration of about $300. At that rate, I figured, I had only to write sixteen full-length plays a week to make $10,000 a year-hardly major money, even then. And I was fast, but not that fast.

Furthermore, the non-profit theatre company I had started was tumbling toward bankruptcy with all its debts looming over me. My day job as an editor with a university press didn’t pay me enough to live on, let alone pay what the company owed. The only thing I knew how to do that had any hope of bringing in extra money was writing- and it was plain that I’d have to find something to write besides plays.

I had dabbled in science fiction for years, reading quite a bit of it, even trying my hand at a few stories. For a while in my late teens I had even worked on a cycle of stories tracing the development of a family with peculiar psychic abilities as they worked out their genetic destiny on a colony planet. Now, with new enthusiasm-or was it desperation?-I dusted off the best of them, one that had once earned a nice note from an editor, and proceeded to rewrite it from beginning to end.

It was the tale of a wandering tinker who had a psionic gift that manifested itself in two ways: He could communicate with birds, and he could heal the sick. When he returned to his hometown, Worthing, a medievil village deep in the Forest of Waters, he came into conflict with the villagers over their treatment of his birds; eventually he was blamed for an epidemic that carried off many villagers during a devastating winter storm, and they killed him.

In short, it was the sort of
perky, cheerful little
tale that I’ve been writing ever since.

As I rewrote “Tinker,” I was delighted to see how terrible the earlier version had been. After all, if I could see, at twenty-four, how bad the story was that looked so brilliant to me at nineteen, it must mean I had learned something in the intervening years. So it was with high hopes that I typed the new draft, tucked it into an envelope and mailed it away to Analog magazine.

Why Analog? Because in those days it was the only science fiction magazine that was listed in
Writer’s Market. I
had never actually read an issue of the magazine. Still, my story was science fiction, and Analog was a science fiction magazine. What could be more logical?

The story came back in due course, rejected. But there was something in the accompanying letter to encourage me. Ben Bova, then editor of Analog, told me that he liked the way I wrote and hoped to see more stories from me.

So why was he rejecting “Tinker”?

Because it wasn’t science fiction. “Analog publishes only science fiction,” said Ben, so of course a fantasy like “Tinker” simply wouldn’t do.

I was outraged-at first. “Tinker” had psionic powers, a colony planet, a far future time period-if that wasn’t science fiction, what was?

Until I looked again at the story the way Ben Bova must have seen it. He knew nothing about the other stories in the cycle. “Tinker” included no mention of its taking place on a world being colonized by human beings, and there was nothing alien about the landscape. It could have been an English village in about 950

As for John Tinker’s psionic powers, there was nothing in the story to suggest they weren’t magical powers. There was nothing to suggest they
either, of course-he chanted no spells, rubbed no talisman, prayed to no pagan deity.

But in the absence of other evidence, the landscape clearly marked “Tinker” as fantasy. It was all those trees in the Forest of Waters. A rustic setting always suggests fantasy; to suggest science fiction, you need sheet metal and plastic. You need
The buildings in “Tinker” didn’t even use nails!

I had discovered the first kind of boundary that marks the twin genres of fantasy and science fiction: the publishing category.

Boundary 1: A Publishing Category

When fiction publishers send out books through the distributors and on to the bookstores, they have few ways of influencing the way those books are displayed and handled. Naturally, every publisher would like to see all his novels displayed face out on the shelves, preferably in a section labeled “New and Brilliant.” But in the real world, this is not going to happen. Instead, most novels will be crammed spine out into the store’s precious shelf space, with only the alphabetical accident of the author’s last name deciding where on the shelf the books will be placed.

Having to browse through a thousand spine-out volumes grouped by the last names of authors he’s never heard of would be quite inconvenient for the novelbuyer, of course. Fortunately, fiction publishers learned something from the nonfiction side of the business, which groups books by super-subjects, or categories. How
to Cross-Stitch is
grouped with
Plumbing Made Easy
under “How-to Books.” Biographies are grouped by the last name of the
rather than the
history is roughly grouped by region and time period. New categories spring up as needed in 1975, there was no bookstore section labeled “Computers.”

Why not group fiction in a similar way? Micro-subjects wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t be practical to have sections called “Dog Stories,” “Horse Stories,” “Mid-life Crisis and Adultery,” “Writers and Artists Struggling to Discover Themselves,” “People in Past Eras Who Think and Talk Just Like Modern Americans,” and “Reminiscences of Childhoods in Which Nothing Happened,” even though these are all fairly popular themes for fiction.

But there
some broad categories that were quite useful, like “Science Fiction,” “Fantasy,” “Historicals”, “Romances,” “Mysteries,” and “Westerns.” Anything that didn’t fit into the categories was lumped together under the heading “Fiction.” Publishers could slap these labels on their books and know that bookstore owners-who couldn’t possibly be familiar with, let alone read, every work by every author-would know how to group these books within the store so that readers could find them more easily.

For many years, the appetite of science fiction readers far outstripped the production of science fiction writers and publishers. About 30,000 or 40,000 readers were so hungry for another sf novel that they’d buy
thing, however bad it might be, as long as it had a rocket on the cover. As

a result, while science fiction never sold very much, it
sell a certain guaranteed minimum. You couldn’t lose money publishing it, almost regardless of quality.

As a result, the publishing category was able to nurture many young, talented, but utterly inept writers as they served their apprenticeships and eventually learned how to write. Unlike the literary genre, where first novels often sell in the hundreds rather than the thousands, promising but clumsy sf writers could live on the advances and royalties from sales of
books. And a surprising number of us whose inept first novels exposed more of our weaknesses than our strengths eventually learned how to turn in work that had polish-and, sometimes, depth.

Those days have passed, however. The ceiling has come off the genre, with hardcovers by Herbert, McCaffrey, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and Douglas Adams all having hit the best-seller lists in the 1970s and 1980s. But the floor has also dropped out of the genre. As soon as there were big bucks to be made in science fiction and fantasy, publishers began to bring out more and more novels, until it was impossible for anyone to read half of them, let alone all. Instead of
readers buying one copy of everything, there were hundreds of thousands of readers buying copies of maybe half the books, and some books that almost nobody read.

The fantasy genre followed the same track with book publishing-only it was compressed into a much shorter time. With the word-of-mouth success of Tolkien’s
Lord of the Rings
trilogy and
The Hobbit,
the fantasy genre was born in the late sixties. Only a few years later, Ballantine published Terry Brooks’s
Sword of Shannara
and hit the best-seller lists. At once fantasy was as big a business as science fiction was becoming.

The appetite for new writers in the field of speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy) is still enormous. If you write competently and if your story has any spark of life, you will sell it. And, while you no longer have the guarantee that even your weakest early work will be read and remembered, that can also be a blessing: I’m certainly glad that my first novel isn’t trotted out and displayed wherever I go.

New writers are, if anything, even
welcome in the magazines. Here, too, the publishing categories matter. While the two most prestigious magazines,
Issiac Asirnov’s Science Fiction Magazine
(hereafter called
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (Fe&SF), will
occasionally publish rustic fantasies, all the magazines
science fiction with rivets and plastic. And not because that is necessarily the editors’

taste, but because that’s what the majority of the magazine-buying audience wants most and rewards best, with sales, with favorable letters of comment, and with Nebula and Hugo awards. The other two major magazines, Omni (which pays billions of dollars but buys only two stories an issue) and Analog, won’t even consider rustic fantasy, though Omni will occasionally buy a contemporary or urban fantasy-the kind of story where something magical is happening in a familiar high-tech environment.

All these magazines pride themselves on publishing stories from new writers. What doesn’t get told quite as often is that they survive by discovering new writers. There’s a cycle in science fiction that most writers follow. They break into the field by selling short stories and novelettes to the magazines until their names and styles become familiar to book editors. Then they sign a few book contracts, get some novels under their belts, and suddenly they don’t have time for those $400 stories anymore. The magazines that nurtured them and gave them their starts watch as the novels flow and the short fiction trickles in. So the magazines are forced to search constantly for new talent.

This is even more true with the newer and smaller markets. Aboriginal SF and Amazing Stories-the newest and oldest magazines in the field have much smaller impact on the field, in part because the strongest writers are generally selling to Omni, Asimov’s, and
But because of that, Abo and Amazing are that much more open to newcomers.

In practical terms, you’ll have a better chance selling to the magazines if your story is (1) short and (2) science fiction rather than fantasy. My career followed that track; so did the careers of most other science fiction writers in the field. Only fantasy writers are virtually forced to begin selling at novel length because the market is so much smaller for fantasy.

Boundary 2: A Community of Readers and Writers

It’s important to remember that there was a time when every one of today’s publishing categories was part of the mainstream of fiction. When Gone with
the Wind
was published it was simply a novel, not a “historical” or a “romance”-though it would almost certainly be categorized that way today. And back when H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, A. Merritt, H. Rider Haggard, and others were inventing the genre of science fiction, their novels

were published and displayed right alongside contemporaries like James, Dreiser, Woolf, and Conrad.

Yet there was a clear difference even in the early 1900s between incipient science fiction, fantasy, and all the rest of literature. It was hard to put it into words then. H. G. Wells’s
The Time Machine, The War
the Worlds,
The Invisible Man
were wildly different from each other, yet alike in the sense that they dealt with advances in science; hence he called these novels “scientific romances.”

This surely made them similar to the works of Jules Verne, who also dealt with scientific advances in novels like
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
But Verne never seemed to see danger or a dark side in advancing technology, and in the long run his novels were never so much about the science as about the sights and wonders to be found in strange, inaccessible places.
Twenty Thousand Leagues
Nemo’s submarine as much as it was about the marvelous sights to be seen from its portholes.
Journey to the Center
the Earth
was about survival in a strange, hostile environment, and included such delightful nonsense as the ruins of ancient Atlantis and dinosaurs that had survived deep in the bowels of the Earth.

BOOK: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy
7.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Say Good-bye by Laurie Halse Anderson
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell
No One Must Know by Eva Wiseman
The Corollaria by Courtney Lyn Batten
CursedLaird by Tara Nina
Forgiven by Karen Kingsbury