Writing

Six Books on Writing Science Fiction, Compared

Back cover of Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

Art from the back cover of Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy by Brian Stableford

A while back, I compared books on writing fantasy. Now it’s time for science fiction to get the same treatment. We’ll also look at science fiction plus fantasy, because the rest of those have to go somewhere.

1. Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy

By Crawford Kilian

kilianOriginally printed in 1998, Kilian created a second edition in 2007. It comes with a CD that I haven’t looked at. Supposedly this CD contains “resources,” but since that can mean anything, who knows.*

On to the introduction. Kilian makes a great first impression by judging writers by their personal decisions about their careers:

If all you do is try to write for the existing market, you are betraying your craft, your readers, and yourself.

After this declaration of betrayal, he goes on to decry “formula fiction” at length. He states, “Science fiction and fantasy spring from our love of the new and strange, not from the comfort of the old and familiar.” That’s why it is so very, very weird that he spends a large portion of his book telling his readers to copy what other speculative fiction writers have been doing.

For instance, in Part 1: Know Your Genre, he lists a bunch of conventions from science fiction and fantasy. A generous reader might take these conventions as fun ideas or just as an FYI, but he actually means them as recommendations. Apparently he defines the genre as the tropes commonly used therein. He also repeatedly insists that all speculative fiction stories are about “power and how to use it.” While magic and advanced tech can certainly bring that out, this theme no more applies to every spec fic story than it does to mainstream stories. Then in his worldbuilding section, he arbitrarily decides magic is about symbolism and ritual. This is only a fraction of the shackles he applies to genre works.

Not only is this mostly useless advice to new writers, but it unnecessarily restricts their creativity. This is not what you say if you want to encourage innovation. Even worse, though this book was revised in 2007, most of what he recommends is dated. The tropes he leans on are Eurocentric, assume black vs white morality, and have uncomfortable hints of bigotry. When he gets to character archetypes such as the “tricky slave,” he even warns, “Since these images are much older than what is now politically correct, they can cause problems,” but he chose to put them in his book. This is not a book on common trends in the genre; it’s on the basics of writing.

Once he gets into the core of the craft – characters, plot, general storyteller – the book improves. He has a lot of solid advice, but unfortunately, his treatment of each concept is too brief. I’m not convinced that three paragraphs is enough to explain the purpose of foreshadowing and how to do it well. Many of these tiny sections don’t come with any examples. Instead of going deeper into essential topics, he wastes pages on symbolism, because readers must know that a crone means evil knowledge or impending death.

He also goes into the writing process and the business of writing. Some of this, like his sample timeline for getting paid for a story and his advice on writing query letters, seems very useful. However, the business of traditional publishing is beyond my expertise. I also have trouble believing anything that uses the term “World Wide Web” has been updated for the great changes happening in the industry.

While I can imagine someone getting ideas and useful tips from this book, I think most people would be better off with a different one. If you do want it, you can get it here.

2. Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop-I

By Barry B. Longyear

longyearFirst published in 1980, Longyear writes on the basis that the hard lessons he learned are still clear in his memory, and he wants to share them.

After an introduction summarizing a dizzying number of topics, he proceeds to demonstrate bad beginnings and their solutions by showing early revisions of his own work. I suspect many writers will find this incredibly useful. While he doesn’t go into the detail I do in my critiques of popular works, describing mistakes in less depth allows him to cover more scenarios and display problems that rarely make it into print. After each example, he asks critical questions for readers to think about before providing his analysis. I think this is good practice, though it is not always possible to guess his answers. For instance, his summary of Enemy Mine sounds like a different type of story than what he says it is, making it difficult to guess why he made the choices he did until he tells you.

Unfortunately, as he moves away from discussion on beginnings, his advice is often less concrete and less useful. His strongest points are when he brings in more example text for practical demonstrations. When he doesn’t have that, as for much of his commentary on characters, he tends to wax philosophical. He gets caught up responding to other writer’s theories instead of just telling readers what they need to know to build strong characters.

Despite the fact that this book was originally published over thirty years ago, most of it doesn’t feel jarringly outdated. Well, if you ignore the lack of female characters or pronouns. The dialogue examples toward the end are a little uncomfortable. And the business and writing process section has typing tips, oh boy!

Overall, I think this book would be useful for writers who are struggling to get their stories accepted by editors. It highlights mistakes and suggests corrections well. Get it here.

3. The Complete Guide to Writing Science Fiction: Volume One

Edited by Dave A. Law and Darin Park

Law&ParkThis compilation was put together in 2007, five years after The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy: Volume One, and with one of the same editors. Last time, I made fun of the fantasy book for its ridiculous title. In this one, even Park admits in the opening that the name is “a bit of a misnomer.” I rest my case.

Like the fantasy volume, each chapter is written by a different author. However, whereas the fantasy version felt like a random assortment of essays, this one is neatly organized into sections on Defining, Building, Crafting, Specializing, and Publishing and Beyond. However, if you read the book in its entirety, you’ll find they didn’t erase disagreements between the writers.

For instance, chapter five, written by Wil McCarthy, opens with this tidbit:

It’s accepted by writers these days as an obvious truth that science fiction needs to be character-driven. As a result, fewer and fewer people are reading it.

Poor baby, are characters destroying your genre?

But it looks like the editors might agree with this one, because there’s a lot more space devoted to science and worldbuilding than to characters. Part I: Defining has an entire four chapters dedicated to a belabored look at the history of science fiction, what the genre might be or might not be, and its conventions.

Part II is on worldbuilding and science. However, I don’t think the worldbuilding information will be as useful as it was in the fantasy version. That’s because, unlike its fantasy counterpart, this volume is tackling topics too large to sufficiently cover in one chapter. For instance, the fantasy book had a section on food. Few fantasy stories focus on food as a major story element, so it’s easy to cover what background information a fantasy writer might want to know about medieval European food in one chapter. But in a science fiction book, many of the concepts are things that would be a centerpiece for a story. In which case, the reader had better go research a whole bunch on their own anyway. Unfortunately, it does take after the fantasy collection in that it focuses on what the genre stereotypically contains. It doesn’t do much to broaden reader horizons.

There’s still some use for this material. For the writer of another Star Trek, for example, who is only interested in space travel on a superficial level, these chapters are much better than not doing any research. The writers also provide assorted advice on learning more science, though unlike the fantasy volume, it doesn’t have useful bibliographies or an entire chapter on research.

Part III: Crafting is a whirlwind tour of storytelling basics. It has a chapter each on characters, plot, theme, and revisions. Devoting a whole chapter to theming/lessons feels indulgent. While Orson Scott Card’s writing on it is probably the best writing on the subject I’ve seen, I can’t help wondering why this book spends as much time discussing the single cherry on top of the cake as it does on each layer that holds it up. But then again, it’s not like this book is The Complete Guide to Writing Science Fiction or anything.

I don’t think most people could make good use of this volume. If you’re one of the few who could, get it here.

4. The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells

By Ben Bova

bovaAfter a brief chapter on genre, Bova gets right into the heart of storytelling. And unlike any other genre writing book I’ve seen, he starts with internal conflict. In other words, the character arc. This is an interesting choice because the main conflict, character development in general, or ideas for stories seem like more obvious places to start. However, that’s also what makes this a good choice. Readers have probably heard lots about character backstories and plotting. The internal conflict is more likely to be neglected and often holds the story together.

Bova focuses on four major areas and goes into depth on each one: character, background, conflict, and plot. First he has a chapter on theory. Then he offers one of his short stories as an example of the theory in action. Last, he spends a chapter analyzing the story, pulling more positive examples from previous stories and famous works as needed. He ends the section with a checklist that also acts as a review of the section.

Some readers may not like that he includes worldbuilding in the background chapter rather than addressing it specifically. However, this also serves a function – reminding readers that in a book, the world exists to serve the story, not vice versa. Bova knows how to prioritize what’s important and focus on doing that well instead of trying to cover everything there is to know about spec fic storytelling. He also balances his focus between short stories and novels, whereas many other works are mostly focused on novel-length stories.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for storytellers of any spec fic genre. Go buy it.

But… you didn’t think I could review a book without anything negative to say, did you? What merry delusions! Bova’s biggest downfall is his ego. He’s a strong writer, so in the heart of the book that becomes invisible. However, here’s how the book opens, starting with a quote from Ernest Hemingway:

“All good books are alike that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.” – Ernest Hemingway

All my life I have been a writer.

Maybe this boasting is just the unfortunate result of placing a quote without looking at the context. However, then Bova narrates his life story for no discernible reason. In the business section, he warns readers away from local workshops lead by “wannabe” writers then reminisces about a wonderful workshop he attended where only published authors were allowed. This book is for new and unpublished writers; snubbing resources they have access to and praising ones they don’t is a jerk move.

Naturally, he also displays snobbery in his chapter defining the genre, because that seems to be the trash heap of just about every book on the subject.

The term sci-fi, which most science fiction writers loathe, I will reserve for those motion pictures that claim to be science fiction but are actually based on comic strips.

Uh huh. So… is there something wrong with comic strips? Or some reason that comics strips can’t be science fiction? The material for this book was written anywhere from 1975 to 1994, so it’s difficult to say which movies he’s even talking about.

My recommendation is to skip the intro and Chapter 1 (defines genre); his ego sticks out and there’s nothing worthwhile within. The business and process section at the end has both good tips and ego, so read it if you think it’s worth it for you.

5. How to Write Science Fiction

By Matthew J. Costello

CostelloAfter his intro, Costello has the apparently obligatory chapter defining genre, in which he suggests that the topic of his book is actually the whole of speculative fiction, including fantasy. This is very strange considering the title and cover illustration.

Then he goes right into telling readers what their process should be:

Before you create a story, before you even try to breathe life into a cast of characters, you must create a world.

This is nonsense. Plenty of successful science fiction writers start their concept with a character and build out from there, including Ben “hot-shot” Bova. In fact, despite doubling down on this idea during the worldbuilding section, when Costello closes his character section, he includes this quote from Charles de Lint:

“I start with the characters,” he says. “I have a final scene in mind. I have a mood I want the book to be, I have some thematic concern I want to put across. But other than that, I just start with the characters.”

Costello seems to be saying that to make a great world you have to start with the world, and to make strong characters you have to start with them. Apparently writing a book with both a great world and strong characters is just impossible.

The book might have made up for this if it had wonderful worldbuilding advice, but despite its focus on the subject, it doesn’t. It starts with examples of worlds by “three masters,” but offers no substantial takeaways from these examples. Then it outlines an arbitrary and restrictive process for creating worlds. This process starts with the biggest aspects (create a planet first) and then gets into the details. This might seem like a good system if you forget that many storytellers are inspired by interesting details and then must build worlds around the concept that inspires them. Costello does not recognize this possibility.

Instead of explaining what makes a world strong, Costello focuses on positive examples and process tips. This leaves readers without the ability to evaluate whether they’ve succeeded once they’ve finished the process he’s given them. What evaluation criteria he does offer feels like drive-by shouting. I heard you the last time you said worlds should have rules, Costello, but what kind of rules and how does a writer go about making them?

Despite his emphasis on worldbuilding, Costello does better when he focuses on character. He has some solid advice on subjects such as point of view and motivation. When the books gets into plot, the advice gets a little rougher, but he goes into depth on important topics like maintaining tension in a story.

If you are expanding your library collection, you might get some use out of this book. If you want it, here it is. However, if you are choosing one book to read, this is not your book. If want advice on worldbuilding, grab Mark Rosenfelder’s The Planet Construction Kit. Otherwise get the book by Bova.

6. Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

By Brian Stableford

In the introduction, Stableford writes:

I shall not go to great lengths here to describe or define fantasy and science fiction. It is exceedingly difficult to figure out what it is that all stories within any publishing category have, or ought to have, in common […] and if you have picked up this book you probably have as good idea as anyone else as to what the terms might signify.

Cover of Writing Fantasy and Science FictionI am in love! And there is genuinely a lot to love about this book. Stableford’s analysis is thoughtful and thorough. His writing has the ring of someone who’s thought long and hard on the subject and understands all the complexity it offers. He has good insights on suspension of disbelief, point of view, and many other important topics.

But after reading halfway through his intro, my enthusiasm waned. The problem is that every page is filled with large paragraphs, and those with sentences that look something like this:

Many stories whose novums are to be patiently extrapolated, or introduced by degrees into the everyday world, try to develop a “crescendo” effect by starting with a small and enigmatic disruption of the patterns of everyday life and proceeding through increasingly assertive revelations to a climactic confrontation.

Again, that is one sentence. Stableford doesn’t write concretely or concisely, and that makes getting the specific pieces of advice out of his work a laborious process. For instance, in his chapter on beginnings he says that there are six questions that openings must answer. You’ll have to read a bunch of pages to find out what they are, but spoiler: when, where, who, what, why, and how. These questions fit neatly together, but the latter three are largely useless because they’re so vague. After reading the section for each you can get the general gist of what he means, and then you can wonder why he didn’t just say that instead.

Stableford never breaks the monotony of his thick walls of text. He doesn’t highlight the important bits so they stand out from the rest. He never offers any sizable examples; even his section on dialogue doesn’t have a single written example of dialogue.

If you have the patience to get through this work, power to you, you’ll probably learn something. But if you have a standard attention span, this book will be a trial. Begin your trial here.


I think The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells is the clear winner, but perhaps I’m being too harsh on the books that dwell on genre definitions. Have you ever found genre descriptions useful to your work? Do you want this material in the next writing book you purchase? Tell me in the comments.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

 

Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I have to admit I did recommend “Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy” in another comment here. I did take a look at the CD, too, and found sort of forms on it which you can use to organise your materials and stuff. To be honest, I never worked much with the book, since I haven’t written Science Fiction or Fantasy so far. I found some of the examples in the book useful to ponder, though. It may be Eurocentric, but I can’t comment on that, since I’m from Europe and can’t tell the difference between Eurocentric and somewhere-else-centric.

    The first book on writing in English I read was “You Can Write A Mystery” which I found pretty interesting, but I haven’t become a mystery writer so far … I like writing adventure stories or heists more than solving the mysteries, even though I like reading mystery stories.

    The two books “First Draft in 30 Days” and “From First Draft to Finished Novel” are interesting, too, but I’m anything but an organized writer. I do a little organising (since I started writing a series, I had to put information down where I could find it again without scanning the books already written), so I didn’t work much with those books, either, but I guess for an organized writer, they could be pretty useful. (And just to brag, I wrote the first drafts of two novels last October … it was a mad time.)

    When it comes to creating interesting characters, I found some inspiration in “Bullies, Bastards & Bitches”.

    “Beginnings, Middles & Ends” also has some help for getting through whatever part of a story is hardest for you to write (my problem are ends).

    Apart from three source books for crime stories, I only have a few more books about writing in my bookcase and all of those, while interesting, didn’t prove overly helpful to me. (Those are two books with collected columns from Lawrence Block in Writer’s Digest, “The Anatomy of Story” and “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”.)

  2. Paul

    Good article. Could you do one with with the fantasy genre? Preferably the best books for helping one write fantasy

    • Cay Reet

      He’s actually linking to an article about writing fantasy at the beginning of this article.

  3. Alverant

    I have a book called “Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy” by Crawford Kilian. I don’t remember too much of it except for the part about using made-up swear words. Basically the idea was “don’t do it, use real swear words”. Did anyone else read it?

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