The Last War – Guest Blog

This week, if you want to read my top tips on reading at live lit events, you should head to Alex Davis’ blog here. Alex has a novel coming out shortly, The Last War, which is likely to be a cracking book so he’s come over to my blog to talk about science fiction writing today (or, more accurately in 2013, but that’s close enough isn’t it?).

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I’ll leave you in his capable hands:

So, among the many things I get up to as a freelancer, I write a regular series of columns for the wonderful Writers News magazine. It’s a fantastic publication – well worth checking out each month – and with my SF book on the way out this felt like a good opportunity to look back at some of my non-fiction about the genre. This article was written in February 2013 – one of my very first for the magazine – so it comes with a public health warning that some of the info may have changed a bit in two and a half years. With that said, there’s hopefully plenty of useful info, an ideas exercise I rather like and plenty of good insight from the wonderful John Jarrold, one of the UK’s top genre fiction agents. I think it does OK for 1500 words. Enjoy!

INTO THE FUTURE –

SCIENCE-FICTION WRITING TODAY

The Market –

 

Over the course of many years, tracing all the way back to the 1940s and 1950s, it is fair to say that science-fiction has always been a dependable market. In the earliest days of the genre, there were a host of magazines – commonly known as the ‘pulp magazines’ – which enabled many SF writers to first make a name for themselves or indeed make a living from short fiction alone. This is still referred to as the ‘Golden Age of Science-Fiction’, with authors such as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert A Heinlein and many more rising to prominence for the first time.

It is right that this is called a golden age, with so many legendary authors to its credit, but that did not necessarily mean more sales at the time than we see now. The market for science-fiction for a long time has been something you could set your watch by. In the same manner of crime, romance and historical fiction, SF is a genre with an established readership and as such new titles in the field can be expected to achieve or perhaps exceed their targets with regularity.

However it is fair to say that SF has been a growth area over the last decade or so, with many authors within the genre arriving for the first time on the New York and Sunday Times bestseller lists and a recent record of steady growth. It is unquestionably a good time to be an SF writer – and indeed an SF publisher. Whether the mainstream popularity of SF television and film has fed into this is ultimately hard to tell.

John Jarrold, one of the UK’s leading literary agents in the field, said “Although fantasy remains the largest part of the overall SFF genre, SF has certainly been stronger commercially over the past decade than it was for the fifteen years or more before that; partially owing to the prevalence of new UK science-fiction novelists who have been successful commercially as well as critically – for instance, Alastair Reynolds, Richard Morgan, Charles Stross, Neil Asher and Hannu Rajaniemi.”

Writing Science-Fiction – The Broadest of Spectrums

 

  • A key point that cannot be emphasised enough – just because it has science in the title, writing science-fiction doesn’t require any technical knowledge whatsoever! SF is a hugely broad genre, and while what is dubbed ‘Hard SF’ observes technological rigour, there is a great deal of ‘Soft SF’ out there. Soft SF is far more interested in the social, cultural and philosophical aspects of science-fiction. In this light you could argue that books such as 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, Never Let Me Go, A Clockwork Orange and Brave New World are classics of science-fiction.
  • Building your world is important within the field of science-fiction. What often lifts a strong idea to the next level is a well-realised setting that the author has put a lot of thought into. SF tends to take place in the future, or an alternative version of the Earth as we know it. How is this different to the present day? It’s well worth considering key societal questions such as where people live, what they do for a living, what they do for leisure, how the world is governed etc. This can be surprisingly informative in developing your setting in-depth.
  • The conflicts in science-fiction often emerge from the inherent conflicts within your world, and then zoom in one character close to that matter. For example, Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 explores the issue of what the world would be like if all books were burned. Then it explores this through the eyes of character at its very heart – a ‘fireman’, charged with the burning of these books. It is when he begins to take an interest in the books themselves that the conflict truly emerges.
  • Don’t get too bogged down in description! Your setting may be fabulous, with any number of spectacular sights to convey to the reader. However it is vital to avoid the habit of ‘info dumping’ and giving long descriptions of landscapes, or explanations of scientific or technological advances. There are two vital things to bear in mind – NOTHING should hold up the story and the movement of the plot, no matter how interesting you may consider that aspect of your world to be. It is also crucial to give the reader the KEY INFORMATION – give them enough to picture the scene and come on the journey with you. Ideally you want to give no more than that. Remember to give credit the power of your reader’s imagination – given even scant details, they will be able to form their own impression.

EXERCISE

  • This exercise is going to look at the concept of EXTRAPOLATION. This is the process of looking at a trend and making a sensible estimate based on the information in front of you.
  • Pick a present trend of societal issue that is of interest to you. This could be any of the following, or many more: the growth of social media, cloning/genetic engineering, overpopulation, poverty, creating sustainable energy and overuse of fossil fuels, censorship… simply pick a theme that has recently piqued your interest.
  • Look a little into the trend, and where things are at currently. A initial read on Wikipedia should yield some useful information to begin with, then follow this up with a search on a major news site or newspaper – BBC, Sky News, The Guardian, The Telegraph etc. Make a few notes on matters that interest you as you go.
  • Try and consider what the logical next step may be, then take this to its most extreme conclusion. Much SF is based on looking at today’s world and then tracing the potential path as we go forward – Charlie Brooker’s recent series Black Mirror is an excellent example of this, and available to watch for free on 4OD. Take the below as an example:

TREND: Reality TV

EXTRAPOLATION: With the growth in reality television, many minor celebrities realise that their television programmes are not sufficient to satisfy their audiences. As such, a few reality stars launch their own TV channels, which follow them 24 hours a day. Such is the initial success that within a few years there are thousands of television channels devoted to following the whole life of single individuals. Television sales sky-rocket as celebrity-obsessed viewers buy multiple sets to keep up with a host of celebrities at once. The end result? The complete demise of fictional programming on television. Comedy, drama and news are subsumed by the unstoppable wave of reality TV.

Getting published in science-fiction

 

Science-fiction, as a perennially popular genre, is covered by one imprint at all off the major London publishers. These imprints allow editors and publicists to specialise in the field, focussing on the new talent, events scene and marketing opportunities within the field. You may have seen many of the names below without even realising their parent organisation!

Voyager at Harper Collins

Gollancz at Orion Books

Tor at Pan McMillan

Orbit at Little Brown

Transworld at Random House

Solaris at Rebellion Books

Angry Robot

There are also many other UK publishers working in the field without a specific imprint, including the likes of Headline, Hodder and Stoughton and Titan Books. As such, there are significant opportunities for new writers to gain publication within the field.

Of course, to reach these major publishers, you will have to go through a literary agent. But just what is an agent looking for in a science-fiction title? John Jarrold says: “We know it when we see it! Invention, great characters, wonderful setting – and above all prose and story-telling that makes us go ‘Wow!’. It doesn’t matter is you have a great idea unless you are also a wonderful writer and story-teller. You need to write what moves you, but be aware that there is a market.”

There is also a hugely active magazine scene within science-fiction, with leading publications including Asimov’s, Interzone, Analog and Clarkesworld and many more looking for short stories as well as longer fiction.

Recommended reading

There is a hugely active events and convention scene within science-fiction, which can be a great way to meet fellow writers and hear direct from those working inside the industry. There are many resources listing these activities, with David Langford’s superb Ansible being highly recommended. You can check out the homepage at http://www.ansible.co.uk/ and also visit their extensive events listing at http://news.ansible.co.uk/

For those looking for a monthly fix of books and industry information, both SFX and Sci-Fi Now magazine feature excellent sections on books and writing. Both publications are available in the majority of newsagents, or alternatively you can stop by their respective websites at http://www.sfx.co.uk/ and http://www.scifinow.co.uk/

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction recently passed the astounding landmark of having 4 million words of articles and information on the field. There’s no more extensive resource out there, and the website is easily searchable to boot. You can get started at http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/

There are many guides to writing science-fiction available, but two of the most recommended are Orson Scott Card’s HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY – penned by one of the genre’s most established leading lights – as well as the handy 101 WRITING PROMPTS FOR SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY WRITERS by L.K Grant, which can help you find your creativity and ideas in the genre.

To find out more about my debut SF novel, The Last War, visit http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00YQICMHQ. To find out more about John Jarrold’s work, visit http://www.johnjarrold.co.uk/

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