Wednesday, December 3, 2008

“How Do I Get My Science Fiction Stories Published?”

You may well ask… “Unless you follow the rules, you’re doomed to failure,” writes Hugo- and Nebula-award winning SF author, Robert J. Sawyer (in The Canadian Writer’s Guide, 2003). What Sawyer means is that there are certain qualities of science fiction in literature that you need to know and follow before you can seriously consider publishing your work in the field of science fiction.

Let’s start with a pretty good definition of science fiction by Richard Treitel: science fiction is fiction set in a world that differs from our everyday world in a way that importantly involves science or technology.
Sawyer lists several key things you should know and consider about good science fiction. I’ve added a few of my own:

  • Science Fiction is the literature of change: usually something significant happens, is discovered or is revealed that is science-based and has profound effects on the world—See John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Children
  • SF literature is about ideas: “what if” is a frequent premise that sets an often largely character-driven story toward resolving some deeper question about humanity, social behavior and evolution. “Good SF,” says Sawyer, “is usually about something and often something very profound, such as whether or not God exists”—see Sawyer’s Calculating God, for instance.
  • SF is about something large: in keeping with “what ifs” and the deeper questions, science fiction— whether set on Earth, outer space or some other planet, dimension or universe—is usually multilayered and metaphorically portrays a large concept through a whole world. World-building (and setting too), when done well, not only follows good science (see point number 4) but also encompasses theme and provides plot-issues to convey your theme. In other words, the “world” you build is a main character. See Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy are very different, antithetical genres, says Sawyer. SF stories are often created from a scientific premise; you can usually get there from here by following a premise based on some current scientific thought (albeit imaginatively). Fantasy is based not on science but on the fantastical (usually magic). It’s important to know what you’re writing.
  • SF literature must portray science accurately. Most science fiction readers expect that you will have done your research on how that gizmo works or that you carried out a logical extrapolation of the theory of irrelativity when using it in your SF story.
  • Science fiction literature is a pro-science genre, according to Sawyer. It rarely takes the anti-science stance (e.g., like Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park) .

Okay, now go out and write!

Recommended Reading:
Munteanu, Nina. 2009. “Alien Architecture: Building from Scenes to Worlds” In: The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!
Munteanu, Nina. 2009. “House or Home…Creating Memorable Settings” In: The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!
Sawyer, Robert J. 2003. “Breaking into the Science-Fiction Marketplace”. In: The Canadian Writer’s Guide. Official Handbook of the Canadian Authors Association, 13th Edition. 2003.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Unknown said...

Great info - and just what I needed! I've been a writer all my life, but I've only ventured into science fiction in the past few months. This post was very timely for me!

Janet said...

I'm going to take issue with the last point. Advocating the responsible use of science is not being anti-science. I think there is some room for some very fine science fiction that explores the possibility that sometimes it might be better to back off.

In the case of Jurassic Park, it was the irresponsible application of scientific discoveries that was the problem, without proper consideration of unforeseen consequences. I don't consider either the book or the film to be anti-science.

Nina Munteanu said...

You're very welcome, Bobbi. I'll be posting more like it in the future... Happy writing!

Nina Munteanu said...

Good point, Janet. That was one of Rob Sawyer's points and I left it in because, in most cases, it is true. Let me explain:

I, myself, as a scientist, continually question how science is used and abused. And this is not what I think Rob Sawyer meant when he cited "anti-science" themes as well-representing the genre of science ficion. And I do agree with him. Most of these (and most of them are movies, not literature; perhaps Jurassic Park isn't the best example) are inflamatory, sensationalist and do make science itself the "bad guy". Most are horror-thrillers that abuse science and make it a stereo-type. To a large degree they don't represent nor understand the pursuit of science very well.

Janet said...

I can certainly understand that. But movies, especially the lower calibre ones, often descend into facile stereotypes. Religious people have a very similar frustration. Those of us who love both science and God get it from both sides. ;o)

Jean-Luc Picard said...

I can imagine many people ask this question to authors.

Nina Munteanu said...

So true, Janet... That's one I find the most interesting (and frustrating) ... More on THAT one later... :)

Nina Munteanu said...

yes, Jean-Luc.... we get it all the time! LOL! That's why we have the answers too... :) I will be doing a series of writer's workshops (online telecourses) in the new year and science fiction writing, particularly, will be one of them. I'll discuss anything from premise to world-building. People can watch for the series at "The Passionate Writer" )

Unknown said...

I hae always admired SF writers not only for the creaive passions but the stick-to-it attitude, paricularly when they develop a race and let it expand into a series. My problem is that I can never keep track. For example , my friends used to tease me when I offered suggestions on how the Borg could overrun Deep Space 9. My friends were very very patient and one even made up a flow chart so that i could get all my dimensionsright. But I never did and i think this is because I ould never keep track. I would make a sad sad sad SF writer. So I say to all the SF writers out there stick to it. And heed the advice of the Alien Next Door, she can share the tools and tricks to get those stories out there.

Kathleen Molloy, author - Dining with Death

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Kathleen. I really liked your story about the Borg... hehe...

RobertJSawyer said...

Janet, if you don't like the Jurassic Park example, try more recent Crichton. Go and read Prey, State of Fear, or Next; they are clearly anti-science.

And the point I was making was a marketing one: the commercial science-fiction publishers rarely publish anti-science SF (outside of the genre, there's lots of it; inside, not so much).

Sure, outliers get published -- but they are outliers. One can always say about anything that there's room for something that isn't the norm.

I have lots, lots more to say on this topic than just that brief bullet point. For instance, see this talk that I gave in 1999 at the Library of Congress.

Janet said...

I haven't read the other Crichton novels you mention, Robert, but I'm willing to take your word for it. :o)

It makes more sense from a marketing viewpoint, that's for sure. I had understood it more as a normative thing, or as a definition of science fiction, which I found a bit more problematic.

isabella mori said...

hey, you ARE the girl next door! i'm in vancouver, too. wonder whether we know each other. ever been to the vancouver bloggers meetup? anyway, great overview of what's science fiction.

i bet there are quite a few people who would want to argue with you re SF vs. fantasy.

Nina Munteanu said...

Sounds like a good debate that I'd love to jump into, Isabella... :) Care to start one? :D

Mama Podkayne said...

Did you ever debate the sci fi vs fantasy question? It is one I pose to my undergrad class and to me has a very clear outcome. I'm curious how you approached it.

Nina Munteanu said...

It is an age-old debate that seems to evade a clear-cut answer or solution... I think this is because of several things:
1. the definition of each genre varies with each individual
2. the two genres are often crossed and mixed in wonderful ways in the same book

I usually approach the debate with independent definitions of each genre. Usually, what I find is that these overlap a fair bit with each other; mainly because each, in turn, has its own sub-categories that together span a continuum from, say, hard SF to epic fantasy. So, yes... let the debate begin...