Vision: A Resource for Writers

Welcome to the archives.  Current Issue is here


Book Review:

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 give up.

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 principles.

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 chapter.

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 travel.

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.

Benini's second 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 you do."

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 it all:

"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 resources.

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 Darin Park

With contributions by:

Michele Acker

Jeanne Allen

Piers Anthony

Milena Benini

Orson Scott Card

Carol Hightshoe

Ian Irvine

Dave A. Law

Wil McCarthy

Michael McRae

Tina Morgan

Bob Nailor

Darin Park

Kim Richards

Simon Rose

Bud Sparhawk

ISBN 10: 1-896944-39-6 (paperback)

ISBN 13: 978-1-896944-39-5

320 pages

ISBN 10: 1-896944-53-1 (electronic)

ISBN 13: 978-T-896944-53-1

311 pages

Language: English

Publisher: Dragon Moon Press (August 1, 2007)