Why Writing Science fiction is so Easy, or: How NOT to Write Science Fiction

RG Cameron Nov 1 article illo How NOT to write SFThis is the silliest, lamest, most self-indulgent column you will ever read in Amazing Stories Magazine (assuming it slips by editor Steve). Because it is about me, but more importantly, about you. For we have something in common. Something which all too many fans unleash to the despair of editors and publishers everywhere.

If you scratch a science fiction fan, the type who likes to read, you’ll find a genuine Monster of the Id, a subconscious desire and lust to write science fiction. It is most prevalent in teenagers newly converted to the genre. Something to do with hormones I suppose.

Admit it. We’ve all done it. In the privacy of our home. Scratch that. In the privacy of our bedroom, because we didn’t want our parents or siblings to know. In my case, in my bed.

Yes, you have guessed correctly. I was sitting upright in bed doing Latin homework. I can still remember the yellow cover of the text book. Nothing of the text within. Just the colour of the book.

And now for my favourite literary technique, a digression:

I failed Latin.

On the first day of class my High School Latin teacher put her arm around a plaster bust and said proudly “Class, this is Julius Caesar.”

I shot up my hand. “No it isn’t! It’s a bust of the Emperor Augustus as the Young Octavian based on the full length statue found at his wife Livia’s villa at Prima Porta in 1885!”

Silence. Then a quiet mutter, “I’ll check on it.”

Next day. Growled comment. “Yah, you right.”

I failed Latin. But I digress.

So, anyway, I was pretending to do my Latin homework, circa fall of 1968, when it occurred to me to ask “How is this going to prepare me for the working world?” The very words “working world” sent a cold shudder rippling up my spine. There must be an easy way to earn a living. Got to be!

An epiphany. Tears of joy and a radiant smile ensued. Of course! Become a science fiction novelist! The easiest, most pleasant, most fun-filled working day imaginable!

Wake up. Grab a note pad. Write down all the brilliant ideas which occur to me while asleep. Get up and shuffle over to the table with my typewriter. Spend a couple of hours lightly tapping. Fix myself breakfast. Read. Shower. Get dressed. Indulge in sex, booze and non-stop partying till midnight. Go to bed. Repeat.

I mean, how could I fail? I already knew how to read. I already possessed an imagination (What’s wrong with this boy?” as my Grandfather used to say). What more did I need? Nothing.

First things first. Start with a novel. Come up with a title. I glanced through my Latin text book for something exotic. I don’t remember what the original word was, but I transformed it into “Maluii.” Then came up with “Against the Maluii.” Excellent! The villains are named in the title. Create anticipation that does.

Unfortunately, everyone I showed the manuscript said “Against the Ma-Louie? What kind of idiot name is that?”

“Mal-you-eye! It’s pronounced Mal-you-eye!” Nobody agreed with me. This should have been my first clue that readers can only read text, not scan the glorious vision within the author’s head.

To inspire me further I whipped out a set of crayons (Yes. Crayons.) and drew a portrait of one of the alien bad guys, a reptilian biped with powerful pectoral muscles, or as my Aunt said “Why has your alien got such big tits?” A clue even visual communication can be difficult.

Next day I wrote a plot summary involving the evil Dictator Parn and a hero named Jarn in a country called Capstan IV on a planet named Volvern. I added pirates, resistance fighters, the Maluii of course, assorted spies, alien ruins, and giant monsters. Also robots. Can’t leave out robots. I congratulated myself on producing enough material for a novel. Maybe too much. I got confused.

Start over. “A merchant ship arrives at the planet Lurnid III to trade. Unfortunately the preliminary contact team lands amid the King’s Harem”… No.

Frustrated, I add the note “Hurry up and write the book, stupid!” Self-motivation.

Maybe I had better practice with short stories for a while.

Idea: “Man-animal hybrid, hates light, goes out only at night. Has compulsion to kill. Lopes about, snarls a lot, could build interesting plot angles around that.”

Or maybe not. Have the vague feeling not entirely original in concept.

Idea: “Computers rule world. Support man. Chief Computer thinks this a bad idea. Plots to short circuit other computers. Accidentally short circuits human race. Turns out humans were robots. Oops!”

Hmm, needs work.

Idea: “Merchant spaceship carrying containers of unknown white organic material. Cargo combines into single blob. Does this threaten crew? Is ship in danger or not? Should Captain carry on as if nothing has happened?”

Lacks oomph somehow.

Idea: “Long after nuclear war between ‘Reds’ and ‘Natos,’ humans land on moon, discover remains of prewar expedition, finds American Flag, news of which is suppressed, because red stripes on the flag prove ‘Reds’ got to the moon first…”

Clever, but not clever enough methinks…

Idea: “Domed city full of mindless Conservatives living at subsistence level. Countryside full of wealthy intellectual Liberals living in luxurious villas. Conflict?”

Hmmm, not exactly an accurate prediction of contemporary reality. Wishful thinking mayhaps.

Idea: “Humans in future believe ancient comic strips (only surviving literature) record genuine events and characters. Invent a machine to bring ancient human to life. Are disappointed he does not resemble Betty Boop.”

Possibilities, barely glimpsed.

I have a thick notebook full of these concepts. Which is more disturbing? That I enthusiastically believed these were terrific ideas? Or that I kept the notebook?

It gradually dawned on me that any twit can come up with ideas and just because the concept is conceived does not mean the bulk of the work is done (fen offering ‘suggestions’ to writers for 50% of the profit are unaware of this), let alone that the idea is any good. I was wasting my time thinking. It was time to write instead.

So on June 24th, 1969, I began writing “Against The Maluii.” Completed 269 words. A good start. Ultimately built up to 1,000 words a day. I felt very professional.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

“The Company Rep. thumbed nervously through his manual. His fat stubby fingers faltered as they turned the pages; he couldn’t find the information he needed. He silently cursed the company for their eccentric policy of issuing paper manuals to its agents. Why couldn’t they use portable knowledge blocks? They were so much easier to handle.”

Safe to say I was ignorant of the need to ‘hook’ the reader with opening lines. Instead I assumed the reader would find a glacially paced opening terribly exciting.

Three paragraphs later I threw in the following dialogue to add momentum:

“I understand the government of Lurnid III is a Constitutional Monarchy,” said the Company Rep. “Just how is it organized?”

Probably not the only question on the reader’s mind at that point…

John Park, later a professional writer, read my first draft and pronounced it “turgid.” Bit of a shock that. So I set about rewriting it. Rewrote it four times over two decades.

The Fifth Draft,Titled “Devil From the Tower,” was the version Del Rey rejected, saying the main character was not likeable, the overall voice too monotone, the conversation drawn out and repetitive, the plot without focus, and the concept and imagery too cliché .

I began a sixth draft, titled ‘The God Box’, but stopped writing when I saw a pocket book version of Barry B. Longyear’s 1989 novel ‘The God Box’ in a local book store. I took it as an omen my fiction career was not meant to be.

We all begin as fans adrift in sense of wonder. Often we aspire to contribute. A worthy ambition.

Unfortunately writing fiction is hard work. It isn’t just describing ideas in your head. It’s all about flow and credibility and originality. About sucking the reader into events and characters you render vivid and enticing. The best writing is addictive. I am nowhere near that level.

But you might be. You’ll never know till you try.

And now for something lugubriously different:


Mr. TW, formally of Ulan Bator, Mongolia, asks:


MR. GUESS-IT-ALL: God has the ability to turn stars on and off as if he were flicking a near-infinite number of cosmic light switches. He does this when he is bored. Note that he has been doing it continuously throughout recorded history. This is a bad sign. We better shape up and meet his expectations. Lest he shut off the lights forever.

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