How to Write Science Fiction




So, you're ready to jet around the US, Europe, and Canada, boozing with the great literati of our day to discuss the big ideas. You're ready to get the call from top government brass to prepare an actionable defense against alien invasion. You're ready to have assholes Twitter burn you for not supporting racist facists with your influencer Internet power. You're ready to have beautiful humans fawn over you, hoping for a handshake, an autograph, the chance to hear you utter a real pearl of wisdom from out of your unending cerebral ocean of intellect and prophetic vision. You're ready to live in the Villa Straylight, complete with its own cryogenic chamber for you and your loved ones, and an artificially intelligent computer personality to turn off the stove for you when you leave the house in a hurry and unlock the place when you return from a night of revelry only to find that it was your keys that the svelte transgender Pop star threw into the Mediterranean during the mescalin fueled zeppelin ride. Well, then you've come to the right place. Or, at least, you could have done a lot worse. Read on and learn how to write science fiction and become a sci-fi writer!


Warning!


Becoming a science fiction writer isn't easy, nor is it practical, nor is it for the faint of heart (those all-night zeppelin rides take their toll). Of those writers that qualify for membership in the 
Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors of America, less than 10% of them make what starts to function as a livable wage: at least 30k a year. And if you're in the 30k camp, get ready to eat ramen noodles and not contribute to a 401k. 

So, if you want to write science fiction, then you should first figure out how you will earn a living while you aren't earning anything from your writing. While teaching creative writing sounds like a good idea, remember that no university will hire you until you have an MA in creative writing and a major publication under your belt. In other words, to get the job that can put you in a great position to write, you have to already have found success as a writer.

I don't intend to scare anyone. I really want you to succeed. Remember that everything is hard. If you want to make it in life as a janitor, that's hard too. So, if you want to write science fiction, then be prepared for the challenge and go after it!

My own story is that I have a Ph.D. in English Literature, specializing in the study of science fiction, and I sometimes have full-time teaching work and sometimes have lots of adjunct courses to teach. I am not in the top 10 percent of SF writers by earnings. But I do have a published book on the study of science fiction, and I have a shoebox full of rejection letters from basically everyone in the industry. I've self-published two sci-fi novels. The interval of time that it took me to complete all this work is insignificant compared to the time left until the heat death of the universe.


What follows are several of the strategies I employ to make it in the SF industry. If you find any of these helpful or harmful, let me know in the comments section below!


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First--You must write


You must write a lot. Write stories and write novels. Write journal articles and write blog posts. Write in online threads about sci-fi. Write in your head as you sleep. Write letters! Think about stories when you aren't writing. Talk to people about your story ideas. Challenge yourself to come up with one sentence ideas for stories that you would want to read if someone else wrote it.

If you write all the time, then you will complete some stories. Gradually, you will write and then complete your first novel.


But you already knew you had to write. You need to know how to write.


Rule # 1: The characters must speak!


In my first draft of my first novel, the characters almost never spoke. Worse, the characters didn't even think. The narrator related everything. In other words, the first draft of Tower Defender was trash. I knew it was trash after I finished it and then read a couple fun novels. I think I read Heinlein's Puppet Masters about that time and was blown away by the interplay between the character's personalities and the narrator's voice, which was really just one of the characters.


Rule #2: Themes must show up in the action!


Sure, it's okay to infodump here and there. Sci fi is known for infodumps after all. But don't neglect the power of creating conflict that puts your theme on display. In other words, show don't tell. If you're writing about a world of desertification where people burn to death if they walk outside, then show that happening and make that danger part of your plot.



Rule #3: Don't reinvent the wheel: steal!


The best writers steal. Grab a classic novel and outline the plot. Use a beloved plot as the starting point of your story and then play with it. Maybe you start by outlining what happens in Shelley's Frankenstein but then decide that it would be cool if Frankenstein rejected his nature and continued to experiment on himself to perfect what Victor began.


Even if you don't use the exact plot of a classic work, consider basing the movement of your plot on the beats of classic works. What do you mean? Consider the plot of Cinderella. The story begins in medias res, after a girl has lost her parents and with them all hope of happiness and access to the wealth and resources of her departed father. Later, Cinderella gets a boost from her fairy godmother and meets the Prince. Things are looking up. But, uh oh, the clock strikes twelve. The fantasy is torched and Cinderella runs away in rags. Now everything is worse than before because she's had a taste of the good life but it's unattainable for a girl of her station. Oh, but wait! Things end up really great by the end. All that building conflict is fixed with the shoe that fits.

Does your novel have a figurative fitting shoe? Does your novel have high points and low points? Does your protagonist have to go through the fire?

They should.


Rule #4: Make sure every page makes demands for the reader to continue


You've heard of pot boilers and page turners, right? I know that those terms have something of a negative connotation, but that's only among the ivory tower elite, people looking for an elitist literature, people looking for shit to read that no one else can even stomach. By reading impossibly boring books, pretentious literature elitists can claim their superiority over the common rabble, the Harry Potterites and Dark Towerists. But, oh my god, it's fun to read Harry Potter. It's fun to read Dark Tower
So, how do you write a page turner? Easy. Make sure every page is interesting or sexy or eyebrow raising or fascinating or awe-inspiring or revolting. Make writing elicit a response in your reader and they will respond.



Rule #5: It doesn't have to be set in space.


Some of the best sci-fi is based on old Terra, and you don't even have to call it Terra. You don't have to even refer to the earth. If you write cli-fi, you might just say that the planet is fucked and get on with it.



Rule #6. You can set your novel in space.

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The setting doesn't really matter. What matters is intrigue. Do you have a story where something involving scientific or technological development intersects with the lives of likable characters? Heinlein always created books where humans had real reactions, real experiences as a result of shifts in the world due to science and tech. It worked for him.

Rule #7: Use literary techniques


Check out this list of literary devices. I'd recommend learning all of them. Shakespeare used this stuff. So did Charles Dickens. Ernest Hemingway used it. People have made a living as writers by using all the writing tricks that the Greeks and Romans discovered millenia ago. Why do literary devices work? They draw emphasis to writing. They make your writing different from everyday language use. And that's the point of reading isn't it? We want to pick up a book and transcend. If I pick up your book, get three pages in, and feel like I'm still sitting in Kentucky hearing the passers-by relate the quotidian, then you've done something badly wrong. Transport me.


Rule #8: Edit forever


Read and reread your manuscript again and again. When people read an unknown author, they don't give them very many chances. I mean, I could list out to you dozens of authors I'd like to read that I just haven't found time to spend on yet. I haven't read Malka Older, Ann Leckie, T.E. Lawrence, Joanna Russ, Nalo Hopkinson, James Tiptree Jr., and I created that list by turning around and looking at my bookshelf for fifteen seconds. I mean, I've bought their books and will read them, but life is busy. Most readers have a backlog of titles they want to get to, so if they do pick your work up, it had better be so perfect that they have to read it.

Okay, Dr. Hurtgen, I've got THE BEST MANUSCRIPT EVER WRITTEN IN THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION! Now What?

Now that you have your masterpiece, eclipsing all of Frank Herbert and Robert A. Heinlein's work, surpassing the cyberpunk virtuosity of Sterling and Gibson, making Bacigalupi and Scalzi look like hacks, it’s time to think about how you will become a popular, paid sci-fi writer. 

The only thing harder than finishing a science fiction book is getting people to read your book and then want to read more of your books. And, write all you want, if you don't market your book, you might as well not have written it because it won't get read. After I finished Tower Defender, I believed I would magically have tens of thousands of readers, maybe more. Tower Defender is pretty awesome after all—it has an evil scientist, weird cyberpunk technology, brain destroying drugs, babes, fast cars, more drugs, and a tower that turns into a weaponized space platform. The book hearkens back to beloved science fiction authors: A. E. Van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson. But no one knew about Joseph Hurtgen the science fiction author when I dropped Tower Defender on the world. So, upon release, I had about eight of my very closest friends buy my book and that was it. I instantly learned the value of marketing.
And I am happy to pass on what I've learned. So, on to advice about how to get your name added to the list of the most famous science fiction authors.

Tweet

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Yes, Twitter works the best when you're already famous. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't use it to get some traction going. You too can create your own network of Twitter bots to manipulate the Twitter algorithms and be seen by the hordes of impulsive science fiction fans waiting to get duped into buying the book of an unknown writer.

Wait! Don't leave. I'll ease off the dark humor and tell you something helpful. Here goes.
Every time I tweet a quote from Heinlein or Philip K. Dick or whoever, I usually get one new follower. That’s slow, but it’s a steady way to add to my audience. Now, I am willing to bet that some of these followers are Russian bots and others are almost certainly FBI agents on the hunt for Russian bots, but you’ve got to learn to be okay with that. Remember the old adage, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Consider this—would you rather have five friends get excited about your book and read it or have 100,000 enemies outraged that you might have written something they don’t like rush out to buy your book to read your poisonous poison, your venomous venom. Think Donald Trump effect and then merely write about money laundering and hooking up with porn stars instead of committing treason and violating the sanctity of marriage.
Here’s my twitter account. There’s stuff to love and hate here. Remember, you may be more interested in the stuff you hate! And doubly remember that I’m totally okay with that! As long as you’re buying my books, you can let hate for me rot your bones for all I care! Just don’t put a copy of Catcher in the Rye in your jacket pocket and come looking for me.

Hang out with your Fans: Head to Conventions and Conferences

Attending conferences and conventions is a great way to meet people interested in the things you’re interested in. In other words, you get to go geek out about science fiction while developing relationships and connecting with potential fans. Presenting on a conference panel is a great way to garner interest in what you do. I've had the opportunity to speak at the MOSF Escape Velocity Conference in Washington, D.C. I talked about the intersection of man and machine. I made some friends, affixed a NASA sticker on my laptop, and had my picture taken beside a facsimile of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 obelisk and the Philip K. Dick simulacrum. I had middling sushi at a place that was hard to find, music too loud to speak over, and a server too disinterested in her work to serve our table. I heard Joe Haldeman talk about the real reason the US ever got embroiled in the Vietnam War. I did not get to speak to Haldeman because during his meet and greet I was on a panel talking about how to get published in scholarly journals. 

Use Mailchimp to Create a Mailing List for your Fanbase


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If you want to increase your ability to communicate with your followers, a mailing list is one of the best ways to keep everyone aware of what you're doing. If you look at engagement rates, the likelihood of someone on your mailing list looking at a new blog post or buying a new book is very good. These are people who, given the opportunity, want to follow your work more closely. GIve them the opportunity!

Mailchimp is the perfect solution to your email list needs. You can add Mail Chimp to the sidebar of your blog, at the bottom of each post, or, if you so choose, have it pop up on the screen as people are getting ready to click away from your website. I don't particularly like the popup method, nor do I like being super spammy with email notifications. But it's important to make the invitation to join your mailing list prominent enough that people will see it. You'll be glad you gave people a way to stay aware of your work once your list starts growing.

Join Online Communities

Online communities are where you will find a fan base for your work. But, beware, there’s a wrong way to join online communities. The wrong way is what most people usually do when they join online communities. Here’s what the wrong way looks like.
1 PM: Jonny SF Writer joins the ALL THINGS SF Facebook Group.

2 PM: Jonny SF Writer “likes” a post with a trailer for the newest Star Wars thing. (Can they please slow down with the Star Wars things?)

3 PM: Jonny SF Writer posts a link to his book.

4 PM: Jonny SF Writer navigates to his post and notices no one has “liked” it.

4:05 PM: Jonny SF Writer mentally castigates all the know-nothing members of the ALL THINGS SF Facebook Group and purposes in his heart to never again set digital foot in its digital soot.
Fortunately, there’s a right way to join online communities.

Here goes.

For every time that you post something about your own work, make sure to have posted a few times about other things that are not about yourself. Keep a tally going if you must. I recommend a 4:1 ratio of posts, which means you post four times not about yourself before posting about your own work once. Become one of the regulars in an online community. Write cool, helpful things. When you become a trusted source, people will take more notice of the clearly amazing sci-fi you’ve written.

Make a Website and Regularly Add Content

When you become a popular writer, your fans will need to have a locus for finding out what you’re up to. I’ve created that space by putting together this website that I hope you’re enjoying. Like every teenager that moves into their first apartment knows, it’s fun to have a space of your own. You get to decide how to decorate the place and what to spend your time on.

You'll notice that I'm using a free blogger site. I've been using blogger for over ten years now, so I'm comfortable here. Though I miss WordPress and all it's helpful add-ons.

Speaking of, there's no doubt an independent domain with a .com and a WordPress powered site is attractive. Hosting an independent domain can cost up to a couple hundred a year, but if your website gives you a platform that results in selling thousands of books, it's a small price to pay. If you go this route, websites like Bluehost have affordable plans. But before you sign up, I recommend talking with an agent to ensure you are getting a package that allows you to install WordPress.

Get creative and find stuff to write about that other people have not addressed. If you can’t think of anything new, then just do the same stuff everyone else does but with your own spin. Keep in mind that the best writers are usually the best because they write better versions of what has come before.
Think Shakespeare or—for an example based in the SF community—William Gibson. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was a version of Romeo and Juliet. He didn’t come up with Romeo and Juliet, Luigi Da Porto did nearly a century earlier. Gibson’s Neuromancer wasn’t all that new of a novel idea. He lifted his plot from the hard-boiled detective stories of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, stories written half a century before Gibson took up his pen. But the style! Gibson’s style is so great it deserves a sentence fragment. All that “neon origami trick” stuff is mad, rad writing.
And think of this—there are probably a thousand blog posts just like this one. But if you’ve read all the way here, you must have liked something about the style. When people like your style, they’ll read and read. Don’t believe it’s true? Ask Robert Heinlein. His The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is a rehash of the stuff he’d always written. Nothing new there, but it’s fun, and if you like Heinlein’s voice—that confident, been there voice—then you’ll like The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.


SEO


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 While writing engaging content that satisfies the needs of readers is primary, SEO strategy will help funnel the readers that want to read what you have to say. Unfortunately, because the internet is a neverending sea, if you don't optimize your content, it may well never see the light of day.

Here's a quick and dirty SEO plan. Use Google Adwords to research search terms that people are looking for. Resist using keywords that are popular and competitive. Go for the long tail. Maybe only 10 or 20 people are searching for a given string each month, but those are 10 or 20 readers that you may actually be able to net.

Make sure that your keyword appears in your blog title, its meta description, and pepper it through the post. Don't overdo it! And don't keyword stuff. Just find one or maybe two keywords and then add them into your post naturally. Remember, Google will penalize keyword stuffing.

Look into PA--page authority--and DA--domain authority. These scores help predict whether Google and other search engines will select your content during a search. You can raise these numbers by regularly posting quality content, getting quality links, dropping in helpful internal links to your website so it can be crawled easily, and adding metadata to your posts.

Guest Blogging

To grow your fan base, tap the fan base of your colleagues. They won’t mind because the benefit is mutual. While you can and should write your own articles on your website, don’t neglect the beauty and power of inviting a guest blogger to contribute to your site. If nothing else, you will create a connection with the guest blogger. But they may return the favor and have you write something for their blog. This is an excellent opportunity and really half the reason for inviting others to write on your blog. Why? Because it puts you in front of an audience that you normally do not reach. An alternate guest blogging strategy is that you can volunteer to write a guest post for a popular blog. Unlike outer space or the hostile conditions of Mars, in the writing world, exposure is good.

If you don't know where to start, contact me. You can write a guest post at Rapid Transmission.

Free Content and Content Hosting Sites

Good! You're still on the quest and ready to learn how to become a writer! Consider posting free short stories. You can use your website for this space or consider Amazon’s Royalroadl or Patreon. But don’t get too excited about getting paid on Patreon. Yes, plenty of people get support for making content through Patreon, but it’s better for already established content creators than any old Jonny SF Writer. You’ll see lots of people posting about schemes for getting Patreon patrons. People beg their parents to give them a dollar a month. These same people shame their friends into signing up for the dollar-a-month pledge. They even make pacts with other content creators to each give each other a dollar a month and then repeat the process with dozens of content creators. So, for the unknown content creator, Patreon is a big massage train. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. But no one’s back is really getting scratched. You’re not even getting your dollar back. Patreon is taking their cut, so you wind up getting about .92 cents back, the other content provider didn’t read what you wrote, and you surely didn’t listen to their podcast, right?


Get Book Reviews

Book reviews are a funnel for book readers. Few readers like to dive into a book without first finding out what authoritative voices have to say about it. You can get reviews in 4 main ways.

Beg -- If you're like me, begging is not much of an option. I will sometimes give someone a book and say, "Hey, if you really like it, please leave a review on Amazon." But I usually don't even do that. But a lot of people have found good returns through rounding up a few dozen confederates and getting a bunch of reviews. One problem with this method is that the reviews generally won't be worthy of placing on a book jacket, personal website, or author page. 

Have a large following already -- If you have a large following already, you don't need to read this--you're getting reviews left and right because people are interested in your books. Because people search for reviews of popular books, review sites and book bloggers are interested in reviewing popular books to increase their web traffic and give their readers the reviews they would like to see. But if you're just getting started, this is no help. 

Trade -- An eye for an eye, goeth Hammurabi's Code. Well, it's not that painful, but the trading method isn't fast. It's painfully slow. The good part about the "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" method is that you get a review out of it. But how much time do you have to build up a sizeable cache of reviews? While it could be good to get one or two reviews this way, it's not a sustainable plan.

Pay -- Short reviews cost as little as $100. Long reviews cost north of $500. The negative aspect of a paid review is that it comes at a cost. The positive aspect is that it provides you with copy for your book jacket, author pages, web pages, etc. A paid review service also comes with the added exposure of having a permanent review posted on the review website and social media shares. Kirkus has one of the best-known services. Rapid Transmission has one of the best deals. We get the review back several weeks faster than most book review services. No one will write a longer review for you. Our price is competitive with other services. Our reviews are written by trained literary specialists, scholars with Ph.D.s in the study of Literature. At $400, Rapid Transmission's review service provides incredible value.

Submit, Submit, Submit

Send out your work. If publishers like it, then you’ll get paid, they will market your story or book and increase your fan base overnight, and you will get read. If they don’t like it, then they may give you useful advice about how to make your writing publishable. Even if you don’t get published and you don’t get advice, you’re still usefully gauging how your writing is being received. No writer worth their salt doesn’t have a pile of rejection slips in their junk drawer. I have so many rejection slips, I had to create a second junk drawer! Those rejection slips will motivate you to consider what steps you need to take to write something that people will want to read.

Keep a journal or a document that lists all your submissions. Write down the story's name, the publisher, publisher contact information, and the date you submitted your story. Check off each entry when you get news back from them. If a lot of time has passed and you haven't heard anything back, give them a nudge. How much time? You probably have to wait at least three months before nudging.

Don’t Stop

The key to becoming a sci-fi writer and building a readership is in staying consistent. If you consistently update your website, interact with the science fiction community, push out cool tweets, and stick to a regular writing schedule, then slowly but surely, you will build a solid readership and people will talk about your books, stories, and ideas on the threads. And your dreams are worth it. Don't give up.

What other strategies have worked for you? What should people steer clear of? What makes you seethe with the rage of Khan? Let us know in the comments. 


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