The Complete Guide to Writing
Science Fiction: Volume One - First Contact
Edited by Dave A. Law and Darin Park
Reviewed by Carole Ann Moleti
Copyright © 2008 by Carole Ann Moleti, All Rights Reserved
The Complete Guide to
Writing Science Fiction: Volume One-First Contact
edited by Dave A. Law and Darin Park, Calgary Alberta, Canada, Dragon
Moon Press, 2007.
The title implies that this
book is designed for the neophyte science fiction writer, and indeed, I
recommend it as an excellent first place to start. Broken into short
chapters, written in simple (but not simplistic) language, the book
follows a logical progression. Three sections organize the material into
five parts, plus appendices. Part I focuses on defining the history and
parameters of the genre. Part II delves deep into basic scientific
principles, word building, and aerospace technology. Part III covers
crafting and revision and Part IV specialty sub-genres. Part V addresses
publishing, marketing, and the writing life.
The aspiring science fiction
writer who starts at the beginning of this book will build understanding
and a strong foundation of knowledge. While this by no means ensures
success in a very tough business, it can offer a distinct advantage.
I have read, heard, studied,
and practiced all of these techniques for years. But I still found new
truths and a wealth of new insights in the words. Particularly welcome
was the repetitive theme that is a watchword for adult learning
materials: You wouldn't be reading this if you couldn't do it, so don't
Darin Park opens the book
with an overview of the history of science fiction. Using a timeline,
Park takes us back to the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2750
BCE) and Homer's Odyssey, (800 BCE). He then moves forward in
time to discuss the international evolution of science fiction, whose
Golden Age was considered to have begun with the work of John W.
Campbell, Jr. in 1930 and continued into the 1950s with Isaac Asimov,
Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke.
Jeanne Allen follows,
examining the definition of science fiction and the differences between
science fiction and fantasy. She discusses the muddy term "speculative
fiction," which could be stories that speculate on the future as well as
the all encompassing term for the genres of science fiction, fantasy,
horror, paranormal, and alternative history. That is a critical
definition for the reader because this book focuses on science fiction,
and writers in the other speculative genres best look elsewhere.
Numerous authors are quoted
but Frederick Pohl says it best:
"Does the story tell me
something worth knowing, that I had not known before, about the
relationship between man and technology? Does it enlighten me on some
area of science where I had been in the dark…Does it illuminate events
and trends of today by showing me where they may lead tomorrow?"
Bob Nailor follows in
Chapter Three, defining basic scientific principles, and techniques the
writer can use to communicate them to readers. His advice is to focus on
science first, fiction second.
Kim Richards discusses
sub-genres. She provides a brief overview of the characteristics of a
long list: hard and soft science fiction, slipstream, space opera,
military science fiction, cyberpunk/splatterpunk, first contact, near
future, time travel, parallel/alternate universe, steampunk, lost and
other worlds, frontier, apocalyptic, dystopia/utopia, science fantasy,
dark, new weird/bizarro, erotic, humorous, flash, media/gaming tie-ins,
and children's/young adult science fiction.
It's important for the
writer to understand the multiple sub-genres, and techniques used in
each, to create good stories, as well as to target marketing efforts.
Wil McCarthy discusses
technology in science fiction because most agree that if you take the
technology out of the story, it probably isn't going to be science
fiction. He discusses the process of discovery the writer must go
through to take ideas and research them so that they can be turned into
a story that makes sense in terms of generally accepted scientific
Chapter Six, "World
Building" by Kim Richards, follows as an excellent primer, quoting
numerous experts and providing an easy to understand approach to
creating a fictional world. It describes the pitfalls of over research
as well as of the "dive in and write approach" that can land the writer
in a situation where they have created a scenario that is not plausible
given scientific principles as we know them. But Richards affirms that
every writer develops their own style and method. By way of
encouragement, consider this quote from Orson Scott Card:
"….when it comes to
storytelling…and making up maps of imaginary lands in a kind of
storytelling...mistakes are often the beginning of the best ideas."
"Alien Creation" by Michael
McRae was the most difficult chapter to read since he spends a great
deal of time reviewing biochemistry and physics to provide a groundwork
for defining life, understanding how it can develop and thrive in its
particular environment, and the probability that it exists in other, as
yet undiscovered, places. As with all the other chapters in the book, it
is simply written, but the concepts are far from simple.
Like a good textbook used to
understand basic concepts and study from just before the exam, this
chapter is best read when you are sitting down to create your alien
species and writing that part of the story where the reader is being
transported, literally and figuratively, into your world. Having a
single source for very detailed biochemistry, genetics and evolutionary
biology, the Drake Equation, The Fermi Paradox, and Search for
Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is much easier than unearthing it
from other places. Anyone creating alien life forms that do not conform
to anything we have ever seen here on Earth will benefit from this
Jeanne Allen returns in
Chapter Eight to help the writer navigate through outer space by
providing an overview of known facts about space and space travel,
current capabilities, the limits we now face, and some ways they might
be overcome. Allen does yeowoman's work here in a long, technical
chapter that is a must read review for anyone writing about space
Milena Benini follows with
an amusing look at the "crooks" or cliches and writing mistakes that
steal life from stories and conduct them into a black hole. I would have
expected this chapter to fit into the next section on craft, but placed
here it serves as bridge to Chapter Ten by Tina Morgan that discusses
how to bring characters to life.
contribution, Chapter Eleven, serves as a mid-book review of major
concepts from the previous chapters on world building, basic science
concepts, plotting, and scene setting. She weaves the individual
components together, showing writers how to do the same with their
stories. And Benini adds a humorous tone which is fun to read.
Orson Scott Card, who has
his own book on writing science fiction, took the time to contribute his
views on using science fiction as a way to advance knowledge, promulgate
debate about ethics and values, and make political statements without
beating the reader over the head with them. "If you tell your story as
plainly as possible, concentrating on making the story believable and
interesting and clear to your readers, your fiction will end up being
more effective at persuading readers to come to see the world the way
The last part of the book
guides the reader/writer into the most difficult part of the process.
After the glorious feeling of writing The End, one realizes it is never
finished. Morgan jumps in again to show us the how to "slash and burn"
and "when to make your manuscript bleed." That doesn't need much
explanation but suffice it to say that this is a review of techniques
for writers useful in ferreting out problems with point of view, passive
voice, redundancy, and other craft issues.
The part of the book
dedicated to specialty sub-genres begins with Bud Sparhawk's primer on
writing humorous science fiction. Carol Hightshoe discusses the
pleasures, perils, and pitfalls of writing fan fiction and visiting
someone else's universe.
Chapter Sixteen, by Dave
Law, is for writers of graphic novels. In addition to a history of the
genre, born of comic books in 1933, Law gives a very detailed outline of
the process of creating a graphic novel and the collaboration required
between the author(s), artist(s), and publishers. The special
considerations for formatting reminded me of a cross between
screenwriting and animation in this fascinating and popular new form.
Simon Rose completes this
section with an overview of how to write science fiction for younger
readers, aged eight to twelve.
Chapters Eighteen, Nineteen
and Twenty are fitting chapters to end this book. By the time you have
put all this into practice, and completed, revised, and polished your
work, you have to get it published. Michele Acker takes the writer
through the how to of the submission process, beginning with workshops
and conferences, market research, queries, and formatting. In an
interview with literary agents Donald Maass and Nadia Cornier, and
editor Liz Scheier, the writer learns what needs to be done in the
query and submission process to get the attention of the slush gods.
The end of this chock-full
chapter discusses the various publishing venues including traditional
publishing houses, small independent presses, electronic publishers,
vanity, self, and POD publishing. There is a big dose of reality here,
and there is emphasis on difficulty of the process and the need for
networking, professional conduct and approach, persistence, and
dedication to creating the best work you can.
Riding on the publishing
dragon's tail is Ian Irvine's chapter discussing the art and science of
book promotion in detail that I dearly hope to need someday soon: The
chapter goes from basic facts about how the publishing industry works to
how to look good and prepare for your television and radio interviews.
Oh yes, and how to land them as well. Very advanced and very daunting. I
will go back and re-read this one when I sign the contract for my first
book. But a lot of the suggestions can be implemented by any writer,
such as setting up a website, networking, and thinking of innovative
ways to publicize your work.
Irvine's lead sentences say
"Writing fiction is hard and
the world couldn't care less whether you succeed or fail. No one, not
even your publisher, editor, or agent cares about your books the way you
do... But for you, the success of your books is everything, and an early
failure may doom your career."
Piers Anthony closes the
book with a rambling but delightful look at the life of a writer, using
himself as a mirror. This chapter made me feel like I was sitting next
to Mr. Anthony, hearing his oral history and sage advice, both
cautionary and reassuring in the way only someone who has lived a long
and productive life can be.
I am undecided about the
benefits of the electronic version (which I read) versus the print one.
I am partial to having a book on my desk to pull out and thumb through
when I need to find something. Then again, having this in an electronic
format would enable easy access to the information. There is a detailed
table of contents, extensive index, and pages of references and
The Complete Guide to
Writing Science Fiction: Volume One-First Contact
follows the basic premise of academic writing: Tell them what you're
going to say, say it, and then review what you told them. Then end it
all with an inspiring keynote speech at graduation.
I recommend this as the
first book for new science fiction writers to buy. I see it as the last
one those of us slogging through the process will need.
Title: The Complete Guide
to Writing Science Fiction: Volume One-First Contact
Edited by: Dave A. Law and
With contributions by:
Orson Scott Card
Dave A. Law
ISBN 10: 1-896944-39-6
ISBN 13: 978-1-896944-39-5
ISBN 10: 1-896944-53-1
ISBN 13: 978-T-896944-53-1
Publisher: Dragon Moon Press
(August 1, 2007)