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.
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.
Chapter 9: Good Writing Is Not Enough
This the first chapter of Part II: Ideas and Foundations and is second of Stanley Schmidt’s four chapters. Here talks about the absolutely dismal odds of getting published and what it takes to stand out.
He starts by saying that a magazine like Analog is publishing only one to two percent of its submissions (remember this was written in 1991). He continues, “Many stories are rejected not because of anything conspicuously wrong with them, but simply because nothing sufficiently special about them makes them stand out from ninety-eight percent of the competition.”
The three most important ingredients according to Schmidt are imagination, discipline and science. The writing is important, but simply good writing is not enough. Exceptional writing might pull your story up out of the slush pile by the power of its prose. It may even breath new life into an old idea as it struggles from the depths. This would be the exception that proves the rule.
Most stories he sees are simply competent. Solid works that just don’t say much. These stories lack ideas. He says that writing science fiction requires a skillset beyond writing: the ability to imagine in a way that makes speculative fiction “both plausible and integral to the story.” He wants writers to stop trying to get by on writing alone and develop the other tools needed for successful science fiction writing.
Adam and Eve, Revisited
Writing science fiction requires an understanding of what it actually is. Schmidt doesn’t consider “science fiction” movies or television to live up to the standards of written science fiction.
If you haven’t read many science fiction books and magazines, you should—both to get a feel for what it takes to write them and to avoid rehashing old ideas. (Ben Bova, my predecessor at Analog, warned me that I’d get several stories a month involving a man and woman who find themselves alone on an unnamed planet and turn out to be Adam and Eve. I quickly learned to recognize theses stories on the first page.)1
Touching on ideas from previous chapters he reminds us what makes science fiction:
- At least one speculative idea is integral to the story.
- Whatever science the story uses is plausible in the light of known science.
The story doesn’t have to be scientific dissertation, loaded with jargon. Integral means there would be no story if the speculative idea is removed. By this standard, even the most beloved of franchises, Star Wars fails the test. Its story can be told without the blasters and spaceships. In its heart it’s a western. There is no single element that can’t be replaced with say, a steampunk equivalent.
As for plausibility, “What can and can’t happen in a particular setting is determined by scientific laws.” Our current understanding is that the laws of physics, chemistry, and astronomy apply throughout the universe. But the science closer to home, our earthly biology for example, might not apply elsewhere. To add science the author must know something about the subject.
Schmidt gives the example of aliens moving the earth to another galaxy in order to save it from an exploding Milky Way. This is the plot from his The Sins of the Fathers and Lifeboat Earth. His story is about the people dealing with the planet under their feet crossing the interstellar void. To make the science plausible he had to calculate what the sky would look like to the people living through this.
“But I can’t do that,” you might say. “You’re talking about calculation, and I’m a writer, not a mathematician.” Sorry; you must do that, to the extent you can, and get help when need it…But if you want to write real science fiction, and not fantasy or westerns with spaceships, you must check the consequences of your assumptions and see whether they work and what side effects they have.
He goes on to recommend: taking classes, read the sciences and be open to scientific learning of any kind. But keep learning, science is advancing faster than you can write. He does offer that some questions are unanswerable. In those cases structure the story so that an exact answer isn’t needed.
The good news is that every story need not be presented with a rigorous proof of the science involved. Schmidt uses a “negative impossibility” test. Anything that cannot be proved impossible is usable. This means things like faster-than-light travel is acceptable if it’s presented in a way that works around the laws of general relativity.2
There’s one piece of important advice near the end of this section: no matter how much detail you’ve worked out to make the science plausible, don’t show off. “Know as much as you can about your [story] background—and tell no more than you have to.” Simply put, don’t scare off the reader.
From Idea to Story
Science fiction has evolved from its origins as an outlet for scientists and engineers with wild ideas. The early pioneers of the field were “primarily concerned with exploring challenging ideas, did not shape the words into stories with the finesse of today’s best writers.”
Stories must be good on both counts: idea and execution.
One way to work out a plot is to look at the problems that would arise if the speculation came to pass. Then don’t stop with the first problem. The more thought devoted to the problems will suggest the ways that people deal with them. Those people are you characters. Different ones will deal with the problem in their own way. This is the root of the story’s conflict.
Schmidt concludes with a reflection on the writing process that led to the two books listed previously. Noting that he could only write after the background work was done. Science fiction is at its best when, as Poul Anderson said, “Philosophy, love, technology, poetry and the minutiae of daily living” are brought together in the imagination of the writer.
That’s not just a recipe for good science fiction, it’s just good fiction.
- I had to quote this, it’s still true today. Schmidt continues this theme in chapter 14. ↩
- I would add that if a story does break a fundamental law as we know it, the breakthrough should be part of the story. In such a story the science needs to go deeper than what’s been discussed. The breakthrough must be plausible. ↩