Book Tour: Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy, Ch. 1

Sometimes I run across an older book that’s usually out-of-print, but has exceptional wisdom locked up in its pages. I found this one at my local Half Priced Books.1

First Edition cover, 1991.

The very nature of this book—20 essays about writing by the best SFF authors—makes it hard to review as a whole. I think a better strategy is to look at each chapter in detail.

See all of my WSF&F chapter reviews.

Chapter 1: On the Writing of Speculative Fiction

This chapter is by Robert A. Heinlein. I have fond memories of Heinlein. He was the first author whose writing so resonated with me that I set out to find more of his books. That first book was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which remains one of my favorites. Several of the details of the Loonies’ lives still color my outlook. The way Heinlein showed how marriage could evolve to suit the needs of the people was a revelation. This was more interesting2 to me than the moon-colony revolt.

This chapter starts out,

There are at least two principle ways to write speculative fiction—write about people, or write about gadgets. … Most science fiction stories are a mixture of the two types, but will speak as if they were distinct—at which point I will chuck the gadget story aside, dust off my hands, and confine myself to the human-interest story, that being the story I myself write. … I’ll stick to what I know.

From there he touches on selling science fiction to high paying magazines (quaintly called “the slicks”3), “Any story—science fiction, or otherwise—if it is well written, can be sold to the slicks.” He goes on to say that 5000 words seemed to be the sweet spot for length and to keep the focus on the people.

He lists the three types of plots that he recognizes:

  • Boy-meets-girl (or any of the multitude of combinations implied)
  • The Little Tailor (the little man becoming a big shot)
  • The man-who-learned-better (the character grows)

The third is the one that Heinlein uses the most to great affect. This is also at the heart of most current genre fiction writing advice. If the character learns and grows, the first two plots can be woven in for a richer texture. Also, this growth is usually prompted by external pressure. Which can lead to adventure, and a story.

One interesting comment is his view that stories about people dealing with contemporary technology are science fiction. He points our that they get categorized a “speculative fiction” as if it were a more palatable genre.

Heinlein’s definition of the elements of the science fiction story are:

  • The conditions must be different. Even if the difference is invented inside the story.
  • The new condition must be essential to the story.
  • The problem must be a human problem.
  • The problem is caused by the new condition
  • No current science can be violated. (The story must be plausible.)

Simply put, at some point in the future, our science has created created a condition that causes a problem for people. The people then reach a new understanding as they overcome the problem. Don’t write about the condition. Write about the people.

He ends the chapter with another list. Bob is nothing if not practical. In laying out the rules to success as a science fiction writer, he goes as far to guarantee results if they are followed!

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you start.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.4
  4. You must put it on the market.
  5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

He ends by saying these simple rules are the hardest to follow, but they are what truly separates the professional from the amateur.

  1. I really enjoy shopping here. The buy-back payout is good, and the older stuff is reasonably priced.
  2. This was my first look into a world where non-traditionial relationships were not disparaged. I still think a line-marriage would be the best fit for me.
  3. As opposed to pulp magazines, which did not pay as well. Remember Heinlein started writing in the 1930s.
  4. This was before digital, and rewriting meant retyping the whole thing. Publishers also cut writers more slack then. I think the heart of this rule is more about not letting the perfect get in the way of the good.