The Secret of Writing Great Science Fiction

scientifiction_featureLean closer. I have a secret to tell you. The secret is closely guarded, yet dangles within reach for anyone to seize.The conspiracy began in the 1920s, when Hugo Gernsback coined the term “scientifiction.” Authors around the world joined the movement and began labeling their captured imagination “science fiction.” They filled thousands of pages with this burgeoning genre, and a few of them even managed to do it really well.

Those few had discovered the secret. They discovered the secret of writing great science fiction. While many have guarded the secret, others have agreed to share this wonderful insight. I asked some of the greatest minds in the industry to whisper their secrets to us. What follows is a mixture of method and advice.


Award-Winning Author Kim Stanley Robinson  

It usually starts with an idea, fairly simple and basic. Inhabit Mars and terraform it. What would the world be like if all the Europeans had died in the Black Death? What if Galileo were taken by time travelers to the moons of Jupiter? What if a mercurial personality and a saturnine personality fell in love?

Then I build from there. Often it takes many years, and eventually I have a sense of the story’s basic outline, with some events, and the climax or ending, but a lot of vagueness. Eventually I need to figure out a form, and then a narrator. The story tends to create the characters necessary to live the story. And so on it goes. Much is never decided until I am faced with writing particular scenes. That’s when it gets really hard.

Galaxy MagazineSFWA Grand Master Robert Silverberg 

Science Fiction 101 is about to return to print under the auspices of Berkley Books, and I do agree that it should be on everyone’s reading list. It opens with a long autobiographical essay in which I set forth some of my own ambitions as a young SF writer and how I turned them into reality, and then presents thirteen short stories, by such writers as Kuttner, Bester, Sheckley, Dick, Vance, and James Blish, from which I was able to learn my craft. Each story is linked to a critical essay in which I discuss the virtues of the story and the particular technical aspects by which the writers created their powerful effects.

Horace Gold, the editor of Galaxy, was a fierce critic of my work, even while he was buying my stories. (This was in the late 1950s.) Horace was always urging me to aim higher, to write at the highest level I was capable of reaching, rather than to settle for the easy sale. About the same time, the writer Lester del Rey said the same thing to me—that I was selling everything I wrote, sure, but most of it was quick and facile stuff that would never merit reprinting, whereas if I took a little more time with my work I might earn less in the short run but the stories would go on being reprinted and read for decades. I took what they said to heart. At the same time, I was reading the ferocious critical essays of James Blish (“William Atheling, jr.”) and Damon Knight, who, to my relief, were usually tearing other writers’ work apart and leaving mine alone. It was my hope to write something someday that would live up to the lofty standards of these two critics, who were so very hard to please, and I like to think that ultimately I did.

SFWA Grand Master Frederik Pohl

Touch-typing, followed by spelling and grammar. Then just keep on doing these things until they get good.

Award-Winning Author Bradley Denton

The process is different — or at least somewhat different — for every book or story. Despite the fact that I do revisit certain broad themes (like music) from time to time, I try to never tell the same story twice. And when every story is different, every path to the finished product is different, too.

For  Blackburn, for example, I wrote the middle chapter first and sold it as a short story entitled “The Murderer Chooses Sterility.” Then I wrote the rest of the book around it.

Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on GanymedeFor Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede, I gave each secondary character a chance to describe the same events from his or her different perspective, in every chapter — a story structure I had never used before, and have never used since.

For “The Adakian Eagle,” I read five books (three biographies of Dashiell Hammett, plus two of his novels), watched two documentaries, and researched dozens of articles and photographs about the Aleutian Campaign of WWII — all for one piece of short fiction. And it was wonderful.

Some things are almost always the same, though. I almost always have a detailed outline for everything I write . . . and I almost always deviate from that outline somewhere in the middle of my first draft, in some crucial way.

But I always know where the story will end. Everything else on the way can vary . . . but I always know how the protagonist will wind up when it’s all over.

One other thing is always the same, too.

I don’t always like writing, or being a writer.  But I always love the thing I’m writing.

I always love the story.

Award-Winning Author Lois McMaster Bujold

I try to write clearly, an aim improved over the years by my growing grip on spelling and grammar. Beyond such basics, almost everything about my so-called “style” I consider a subset of characterization: each point-of-view character should, ideally, have his or her (or, being SF, its) own voice and lexicon and world-view, embodied in every sentence filtered through them. (Well, some sentences are necessarily more utilitarian.)

Paragraphs have their own internal structure and rhythm, like little prose poems, flowing out of what went before and pointing to what’s next. Sentence length gets varied for cadence and effect. Paragraphs themselves range as needed from long discursions to a single, sharp word; with beginnings, middles, and ends that should arrive somewhere worth the trip. Same goes for scenes, chaining up.

Most of this sort of thinking belongs in the revision stage rather than the tap-dancing-centipede writing stage, though I do edit some as I go. (I seem to spend a great deal of time winkling out word repetitions, especially now as I’m writing directly on the computer instead of going through a handwritten first draft.) Could also stand to kill more semicolons, I suppose.

I don’t make up my whole novel in detail on Day One; my head would explode. I capture a certain amount of pre-writing in messy notes and outlines, mainly as a memory aid, and work out a lot of my structural issues at that stage. At some point these notes reach a critical mass, and I can see how the story starts, outlining up to the first “event horizon.” I can usually write that far without knowing exactly what comes next, and in the process of getting there, the new ideas have time (and stimulus) to cook. “Just-in-time plotting” as it were.

My most fundamental work-unit is the scene, which I pull out of my chapter outline, re-outline and generally pummel a bit, and then capture on the page/screen in the first typed draft. This makes room in my head for the next scene, progressing one after another, like beads on a string. I do not, usually, write scenes out of order.

Abbadon's Gate by James S.A. CoreyBest Selling Author Daniel Abraham

Writing isn’t one of those secrets you can dispel just by telling. The thing that’s been most interesting for me is figuring out that by “finding your voice” — which sounds very spiritual and enlightened — people really mean “understand what a narrator is and find what sort you work with best.”  I was always a little intimidated by the sense that I had to find some sort of literary Buddha-nature before I’d be any good, but it turns out it’s actually just picking up a toolbox of good tricks and doing a lot of hard work.

Best Selling Author Ty Franck

I’m in charge of the big plot arcs and the setting. When we plot out a novel, I tell Daniel what I think should happen, then together he and I start chopping it up. We pick our POV characters, trying to find the people who are most involved in the interesting bits. We do a very limited outline of the plot. We then break it into five acts, and do a much more detailed outline of the first act. We start putting POVs into chapters. We dig into the details, and we have a lot of long rambling conversations about the coolest things we can fit into each act and chapter.

Daniel is brilliant at structure, so he starts pulling on the threads of my big story to see which ones are loose and which ones are solid. We drop things. We add new things. At some point, we’ve got a one act outline with all the info we need to start writing. Once that’s in place, we get together and plot out two chapters. This is really detailed stuff, and a lot of back and forth conversation happens. At that scene by scene level, Daniel is really orchestrating more than I am  His sense of story at the scene level is very acute. After we’re happy with the two chapters, we sit down and write them. We pass the completed chapter to the other person, who then edits it. I edit Daniel, he edits me. This part is a bit unusual in that our agreement is that no word is precious, and we have to have the right to make changes without argument. So far, it’s worked out just fine. And, I think it’s what ultimately causes us to have such a unified voice for the books. James Corey doesn’t sound like Daniel, he doesn’t sound like me. Jimmy has his own voice.

Award-Winning Editor Ellen Datlow

Rewrite before you submit anything, but don’t rewrite too much. At some point you must let go and get your fiction out into the world.

Never throw anything away. You can always cannibalize bits of unsuccessful stories or novels.

You’re not a writer unless you write. By this I mean you must make time for your writing no matter what.


Now the pressure is on. The secret is out. Can you wrap your hands around it and write great science fiction?

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