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17 Steps to Writing and Selling a Science Fiction Story

October 27th, 2009

Write and Sell a Science Fiction Story


Genre fiction, such as Westerns, Mysteries or Science Fiction, is difficult to write. You have to know the rules of your genre. Science Fiction is one of the hardest genres to write because the readers know what they want and editors will give it to them.

Step 1 – Read Science Fiction

You can’t write Science Fiction unless you read Science Fiction.
Movies don’t count. Written Science fiction is quite different from what Hollywood calls Science Fiction.
You have to know what Editors are buying so you have to read the best selling magazines like Analog, Asimov’s and Fantasy & Science Fiction.
You need to read the ezines to find out what they like to buy.
Before you submit to a magazine make sure that you read a few of their publications to get a feel for what the editors like to publish.
You also have to read the Science Fiction classics and that means everything from the Golden age of Astounding Magazine from the 1940s right up to the present.

Step 2 – Read Science

You need to read the latest science news. You don’t need a degree in hard science (although it helps), but you need to be up on the latest ideas, trends and controversies in science. This is where you will get you Science Fiction ideas. The science in Science Fiction is like an extra character. Science Fiction editors always complain that they need stories firmly rooted in science. Your science needs to be believable, even if it is not exactly factual science. You do this by making sure that whatever you write about has a one foot firmly in current science and the other foot in speculation.

Step 3 – Write something every day

You need to write in order to be a writer. Keep a diary, or two diaries. Keep a secret diary to record your more private thoughts and keep a blog where you express your more public ideas. Add to each every day. You need to put words one after the other. You need to be able to form sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into ideas. The only way to do it is by practicing. If you have a story to work on, then great, but If not, then you need to keep practicing so the words flow easily and naturally. The only way to write well is to write a lot. You need to think about your stories and write a bit of narrative as often as possible. Don’t go too long without adding a few hundred words to your lifetime count.

Step 4 – Create believable characters

The days when a Science Fiction hero was a young white male with a square jaw and good heart are long gone. Editors want real world characters. If you characters are all hip young people, it is probable that no one will want to read your story. Real characters have problems and recognizable personalities. You character is better if it is not a stylized or abstracted idea of what a character should be. A real character might be a 70 year old woman with arthritis or an unemployed electrician or an 11 year old girl with a weight problem. I have heard of editors who reject any story where the protagonist has generic character attributes like “dirty blond” hair.

Step 5 – Give characters a problem to solve

The first few sentences in a short story should set up a problem that must be solved by the end of the story. The author makes a promise to the reader that the problem will be solved. Editors hate it when a writer creates characters, a setting and a situation, but then nothing much happens. A story requires that the main character face a problem. How the character overcomes the problem or fails to overcome the problem is what the story is about.

Step 6 – Let your character grow

Stories must be about how a person changes. You can make a story with problems that are solved and obstacles that are overcome, but if the character is the same schmuck that he was when the story started, there doesn’t seem to be much point. This is why it is always a bad idea for the main character to die at the end of a story or wake up and realize that it was all a dream or part of a game.
A story is the history of a journey through life.
A character, for better or worse, must be altered in some way by the experiences in the story. One way to do this is by creating an internal conflict in the character. This might be a secret fear or an obsession or a hidden guilt. Resolving this internal conflict and having your character change because of it will help make your story satisfying to the reader.

Step 7 – Start a story at a high point of action

A story should start fast and bring a reader into the plot. A story that starts with a long explanation of the current bad economic situation on Orion-gamma III will fail, but a story that starts with a man’s pocket being picked by a starving beggar on a strange planet might get off the ground quicker. There are, of course, events and situations that lead up to the story, but the actual first sentence of a story should start at where stuff gets interesting.
You write a good story by chopping out all the boring parts.
A good story starts with the first bit of important action and should follow that with more action, only occasionally filling in important details.

Step 8 – Before you start to write make notes

When you first have an idea for a story, you sometimes get a nice clear image of what the story should be like. Write down in a few sentences the idea that you want to get across. Make notes of what the characters are like. I often write a little biography of each character including details that I might never use in the story. The more real a character seems to you, the easier it will be to make the character come alive in the story. Make some good descriptions of the scenes. Little things like the color of a rug or the scent of donuts in the air or the sound of a distant dog barking add to the depth of the world that you are creating. Describe at great depth the scenery and location of the action. Even if very little of it makes it into the story, some if it will creep in and paint a more vivid image for your reader.

Step 9 – Create a sense of wonder

The difference between Science Fiction and a bestselling techno-suspense-thriller is that Science Fiction has a sense of wonder. This is the hardest part of writing Science Fiction and the part that I really miss when it’s not there. You say “Gee-Wiz” when you read real Science Fiction. Science Fiction is much more than writing about science.
Science fiction must fill you with the idea that the science will change your life. It must amaze, astound and thrill the reader.
Without this sense of wonder, your story is not Science Fiction – it is just another story that includes some science in the plot.

Step 10 – Write the good bits first

It is hard to write a story from the beginning to the end. Often you have an idea for a story, but you can only visualize certain parts. These are the good bits and they will contribute the most to the story.
Write a good part from the middle of the story and then write the ending. Then write about another important plot point and then another.
Write the vivid and intense parts of the story.
When you are done paste these together and write some bridges to connect them. You will find that by writing only the good bits, you never really need to write the boring parts.

Step 11 – Proofread the story

Set the finished story aside for a week or two. It is easy to think that your story is the greatest literature ever written. I have often fallen into the trap of sending a story out without even proofreading it, because it was just so darn good. Give yourself a chance to forget about the details of a story before you proofread it.
It is never a good idea to completely rewrite a story, but all stories need to be proofread. It is easier to fix a badly written story than it is to write a perfect story the first time. Wait until you can view your story with a more critical eye. Typos are hard to spot. If they were easy to spot, you would have fixed them the first time through.
It helps to read a story aloud and see how it flows. If the sentences are awkward or ambiguous, you can hear it better if you speak them out loud. In addition to relying on a spell checker and grammar checker to spot problems, you need a Sense Checker. Microsoft doesn’t make one, so you have to hear yourself reading the story to see if the words make any sense.
Delete all adverbs immediately.
Chop long compound sentences into short simpler sentences.

Step 12 – Prepare the story for submission

It is amazing how many writers don’t pay any attention to preparing their manuscripts. Every magazine has guidelines for submitting. These guidelines have strict rules for how a manuscript must be formatted. If you don’t follow these rules, it is possible that you will be rejected before your story is even read. You are asking editors for a favor when you submit to them. If you don’t bother to follow their simple rules, you don’t deserve their attention.

Step 13 – Decide where to submit your story

Make a list of likely places to send your story. You might get lucky and sell to the first magazine on the list, but it usually takes a while before you find an editor who thinks about the story in the same way you do. I order mine by speediest first. There are many sites on the internet that record the average response times for magazines. I am impatient so I will take speed over high payment every time. I won’t submit to a venue that makes me wait six months for a response.
Good places to find magazines that want your story are Ralan.com and Duotrope.com.

Step 14 – SUBMIT!

Lots of writers including myself wind up at this step and never make it further. I hate rejections and I find that by not submitting I get far fewer rejections. Don’t fall into this trap. Send the story out. It’s a good one and if the editor doesn’t like it, you can find a better editor that does like it.

Step 15 – Keep good records

Make a spreadsheet (I use Google documents) and record the date that you submit each story. Record the date a story is rejected or accepted and if accepted record how much you received. One reason records are good is that you never send an editor a story twice – they hate that. You also always know if a story is out so that you don’t wind up annoying an editor by sending out a story that is in the process of being accepted somewhere else. My spreadsheet is quite complicated and I keep track of the number of words in each story and the average response times for each venue and the acceptance rate at each venue. If you know how to program spreadsheets this is quite simple.

Step 16 – Resubmit

One rejection doesn’t mean the story is bad. I’ve had editors say unkind things about my writing and then I’ve sold the same story the next time out. Editors have different criteria for accepting stories. If they don’t accept your story, it doesn’t mean it is bad. Editors may not be looking for the kind of story you submitted or they just bought a story very much like it, or they may not need any stories at that moment. I am not good at grammar and sentence structure so sometimes I get rejections for sentence level problems with my stories.
I have been told that there is a secret society of editors and they meet from time to time and read the badly written stories out loud and make jokes about them. I am sure my stories have been the subjects of these jokes, but I have still managed to sell about 40 stories in the last few years.

Step 17 – Don’t give up

There’s a seat for every ass, as the used car salesmen say. Your story will find a home. I don’t believe in putting stories in a metaphorical trunk. I keep hitting new markets until they sell. Sometimes a marginal story winds up at one of the “for the love of” websites, but every story I write gets published eventually. I have a story that has been rejected about 25 times. I like the story and from time to time I find a market that hasn’t seen it. I haven’t given up on it and eventually it will find a home.

2 Responses to “17 Steps to Writing and Selling a Science Fiction Story”

  1. Keith says:

    John,
    The “sense of wonder” is the author’s personal excitement and enthusiasm for the science and it’s implications. If the science in SF is merely a plot point or a “McGuffin”, for which the author has no emotional investments, then there is no sense of wonder.

    A movie example would be found in “forbidden Planet”. Dr. Morpheus takes us on a tour of the planet and we are amazed by it all. There is a sense of wonder from Robbie the Robot, the menagerie to the giant technical works of the long dead aliens.

  2. John says:

    So… How exactly do I create “a sense of wonder?” I understand somewhat what you’re talking about with this (I.e. 2001 has a sense of wonder). But in a time when technology is rapidly surpassing the fiction we write, how does one still write something captivating? My friends like the story concepts I’ve outlined thus far but after reading this I wonder how well ideas translate once transcribed.

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