Want to write a science fiction novel? My day (night, weekend) job is teaching composition at a university to students who are mostly engineers and bio sci majors, business students, and the occasional computer scientist. Everyone likes lists and rules. Order imposed on the chaos, a sense of control. Writing scares them because they think it’s this messy thing that just happens because of divine inspiration and miracles. (Truth: it is messy. Also truth: there are no miracles.) They worry about where the words are going to come from. Mostly they worry about how to start.
Yeah, well. Me, too. When you’ve got an idea in your head, and you need to tell the story, and you think it’s gonna be big, where do you begin? Use this advice to write a science fiction novel.
This guest post is by K. Eason. Eason started telling tales in her early childhood and is the author of ENEMY. After earning two degrees in English literature, she decided to stop writing about everyone else’s stories and get back to writing her own. Now she teaches first-year college students about the zombie apocalypse, Aristotelian ethics, and Beowulf (not all at once). She lives in Southern California with her husband and two black cats, and she powers everything with coffee.
1. Start with Questions.
Some authors like to start with characters; others like to create the world and then populate it. I say–the world is a character, and now we’re just quibbling over which character we make first.
In practice, I do both in parallel; I might hear a character’s voice in my head, or have an idea for a character concept, but then I have to start asking why: why is she angry? Why is he alone in the middle of winter in the mountains? Why are the legion troops running? Hey…why is that village on fire?
The answers to my whys build character and plot, but they also show me the scaffolding of the world I’m creating. Then I just have to go and fill in the gaps. (This is where a miracle might come in handy. Alas.)
2. Create Complexity … Slowly.
With On the Bones of Gods I started small, geographically: in Enemy, the story takes place during cold, snowy winter, in a small border city on the edge of an empire, where I could lay out the various ethnic and economic stress-points in the dominant culture. Then, in the second book, Outlaw, I moved the characters and action into the capital city, and further developed the political and socioeconomic conflicts within the Republic that would complicate the larger problem the characters are trying to solve.
As my plot in Enemy unfolded, my world-build had to expand and deepen as well. The world is also a character, in the sense that it develops, it changes, it has reasons that it works like it does. In a series, that character-world needs to be solid enough, realized enough, to sustain multiple installments. You should think about things like (but not limited to) gender, race, religions, languages, foods, music, taboos, regional quirks, accents…. And you’ll need to repeat the process for every other culture your characters run into.
The more of those things that you know about, the more real the world feels. Then look for the seams, where say, class, gender and race intersect. The seams of a world are like tectonic plates building up pressure until something breaks. That’s where the conflict happens. And conflict is what drives plot and character when you write a science fiction novel.
3. Be Consistent When You Write a Science Fiction Novel.
This is important in any novel; it’s even more important in a series. Characters can, and do, develop. Worlds can also change and develop. But the rules, whatever they may be, need to remain consistent. If you establish in the first chapter of the first book that X happens because Y, you shouldn’t change that in book three just because you got a better idea. If change happens, make it part of a story. Make sure there’s a reason. This is true for characters, as well.
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4. Character is Everything.
No matter how cool the world–no matter how detailed–characters are why readers stay with a book (or keep coming back to a series). Characters need to be unique individuals, not merely representative stereotypes of their respective culture/ethnicity/species, but also not so unique that they don’t seem like they could have come from the world you’ve created. Sometimes an outsider POV character–like Bren, in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series, the lone human among alien atevi–gives the readers a path to understanding the otherness of the world, while showcasing the effects that otherness has on a normal human being. Sometimes several POV characters–as with Richard Morgan’s Land Fit for Heroes series–offer readers several ways into the world, with different, and sometimes conflicting, perspectives. The tension among the characters, and their efforts to negotiate their differences, helps drive and complicate the narrative.
5. Are We There Yet?
If you’re planning a book series, you need some hint of how it all ends. Are you aiming at an open or closed series? Epic or episodic? Are you trying to change the world and the characters irrevocably by the end of your series, like Lord of the Rings? Or do you want smaller stories in which actions accrete to change the world and the characters over time, as happens in Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series?
6. One Book At A Time.
Regardless—and this is the may be the most important thing when you write a science fiction novel series—you’re only writing (and your readers are only reading) one book at a time. If the series itself maps a whole storyline, then each installment, each new book, is a stop on the journey. At each stop, the characters get their arcs, they develop, and they achieve–or fail–in their goals. Each story needs to be able to stand on its own.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.