Archive Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Fiction of Genre And What It’s Really For

I strongly suspect you already know whether your book is going to be Science Fiction or not. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that you had a shrewd idea of what type of science fiction it was before you read “How To Decide What You’re Writing.” Although this discussion pretends to be about Science Fiction, what it’s really about is genre, and what, if anything, it’s for.

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How To Decide What Story You’re Writing

This is part 2 of a 3-part series on how to write first-class stories in the genre of science fiction:

Part 1How to Write Award-Winning Science Fiction
Part 2 – [You Are Here] – How To Decide What You’re Writing
Part 3 – The Fiction of Genre and What It’s Really For

You might have the impression that everyone who writes science fiction knows, or thinks they know, exactly what science fiction is.

You might, in fact, be surprised by how difficult even science fiction writers find it to define the genre.

What do you think you’re writing?

There seems to be little doubt that this genre exists, and there are many works which are unhesitatingly placed in the category, because, as far as popular culture is concerned, they contain science.

This has led to the genre containing a vast diversity of content and content type, so I’m beginning by asking you this simple question: which one of these best describes your book?

Rockets and Rayguns

Some books are placed in the SF category because the story takes place “in space” – regardless of the type of story, and regardless of whether the rockets or the rayguns are based on (or derived from) known science or are figments of the author’s imagination. The presence of humanoid robots and matter transfer are additional indicators.

In a way, this is the most meaningful type of genre classification because it concerns itself only with the setting, and completely disregards the story, which could be a romance, a tragedy, crime, thriller, horror – it really doesn’t matter. If there are spaceships and lasers, it must be SF.

Rockets & Rayguns may legitimately be referred to as “SciFi.” Some authors don’t like their work being referred to in this way, because they want to distance themselves from 1950s pulp science fiction that is, with a few notable exceptions, one of the two categories below, or something very similar.

In many, possibly most cases, R&R SF falls into one of two main categories:

Knights & Dragons in Space

The stories and characters are straight out of Arthurian legend. There are princesses to be rescued (or more recently, I’m relieved to say, saving themselves), there are strange birthmarks and in some cases, special powers. Often these stories become fairytales in space or sword and sorcery in space.

Cowboys in Space

Space seems to be full of bounty hunters. But it also has its fair share of exploited indigenous peoples, rebels, bandits, US Cavalry, marshals, and so on.


I appreciate Star Wars, because it gives so many examples of cobbling together fun ideas that look awesome in trailers, even if it rarely makes a coherent narrative. Star Wars is of course, a mish-mash of everything, throwing samurai and nazis into the mix.

A purist, and I am not a purist, might prefer that a fiction genre take account of the type of story, but for most readers, a familiar setting is a comfortable place in which to discover and explore new stories.

For those readers, there’s little difference between Asimov’s rambling (or, if you prefer, far ranging) Foundation saga and E. E. “Doc” Smith’s rambling Lensman series.

Both were chemists, but as writers leave a very different impression of their scientific knowledge and its influence on their writing. Doc Smith’s work is definitely Rockets and Rayguns. But to many readers, Asimov’s is…

Other Worlds

Whereas any story may be told in R&R, in Other Worlds, the kind of story that can be told is defined, or at the very least, directed our bounded, by the nature of the world that the writer imagines.

For Other Worlds to be SF, however, certain rules must apply to the imaginary world, of which the primary is:

Everything in it must have a scientific – or at the very least, nonmagical explanation.

The author is expected to build a world on sound physical principles, careful rationalization and extrapolation from what we know. This is usually done by building on a rational “what if” statement:

  • what if a world inhabited by intelligent, sentient creatures orbited binary stars?
  • what if there were humanlike aliens on every planet in a solar system?
  • what if a world evolved two intelligent, sentient species that were unable to interbreed?

Extraordinary Circumstances

Much SF exists only in order to place real people in unreal situations, and explore their reactions and interactions.

In some cases, the story only arises because of some unexpected scientific or technological invention. In many cases, the author and the reader are captivated by the way in which these inventions will change the world – by which, inevitably, I mean change human society.

This type of SF is typically subdivided into Hard SF and Soft SF. There are many categories in between.

Hard Science Fiction

Hard SF explores the potential practical, social and human consequences of real, known, verified science. The author’s imagination is therefore restricted to the consequences of the science or technology.

Typically, the author will take some new scientific discovery, and imagine what would happen if its applications became commonplace.

For example, we know that some forms of cloning are possible. The author would have to explore the consequences on health, society, morality, of those forms of cloning becoming commonplace – such as the availability of genetically identical organs for transplant meaning that there is no longer any argument against banning motorcycles.

Soft Science Fiction

Some readers will argue that if the technological foundation of the science in an SF story is completely imaginary, then the story is not even soft SF, but fantasy.

Doc Smith’s infamous “disintegrating copper bar ” might well be an example of this.
To qualify even as soft SF, then any imagined future tech or future science must be derived from known scientific fact.

I’m sure you can imagine just how much argument there can be over this, which is why, I think, that there is another category in this section:

Moral SF

Moral SF is as much about the popular understanding of science as it is about science itself.

Typically, the author will invent a science or technology that resembles not real science, but what most people think science to be, and use that to explore the ethical, moral and social questions that surround the real science.

This would be the story about cloning where a clone is an identical copy of a person, right down to their knowledge and personality. What would that mean to our sense of self, our sense of what makes a person, and our responsibility for eachother?

Space Opera

You could easily imagine that Star Trek, especially TOS is at best soft SF, at worst R&R. But I think the reality is a little different.

Certainly the voicover of the opening titles uses the rhetoric of colonial exploration – which implies “Colonial Era Explorers In Space” – but the stories themselves are really about the interaction between the crew of the Enterprise and the societies and civilizations that they encounter. It isn’t for nothing that a recurring theme of both TOS and TNG is that the Enterprise crew are tested by an all powerful (or pretending to be all powerful) alien intelligence.

Space Opera is actually a kind of extraordinary circumstance where human society is placed in contact with other societies. It’s a combination of Moral SF and Other Worlds.

Tech Thriller

For me, the Tech Thriller is just a variation of the “McGuffin Plot”, where the author invents an object, item or piece of information that everyone wants to get their hands on. (This could look like an item oriented story but in general I advise against orienting your story this way.

Instead of an object the author comes up with a scientific or technological advance that represents a threat. It’s better to think of it as a type of thriller than as a type of SF. After all, the reader is along for the threat, and the thrill of discovering how it is thwarted.

If the thrills are sufficient, then the reader won’t be too bothered about how convincing the science or technology is. Dan Brown makes a substantial living from understanding this distinction. His critics are always those who see his work as SF, and therefore challenge the science.

Avoiding this kind of criticism is a matter of sticking to one of the two standard Tech Thriller plots:

Tech Thriller Plot #1

  • scientist invents dangerous technology
  • [optional: someone steals it]
  • someone threatens to use it
  • hero is called in
  • hero thwarts dangerous technology
  • dangerous technology is destroyed

Tech Thriller Plot #2

  • scientist invents dangerous technology
  • [optional: someone steals it]
  • someone threatens to use it
  • hero is called in
  • hero nearly thwarts dangerous technology
  • apocalypse

If it seems like I’m doing tech thrillers a disservice, I’m not really. This is more of a short-sell, in the hope that you will look for more plots than just these two, or better still, you’ll write your story without thinking about the plot, and thinking more about the characters and consequences.

Post Apocalypse/Survival

Both of these are arguably genres in their own right, and not SF at all. Sometimes they get listed as subcategories of SF for no better reason than that the action takes place in the future.

This is an insult to the reader’s intelligence.

It doesn’t matter what caused the apocalypse; it doesn’t matter what caused whatever it is that the characters have to survive. What matters is how they set about surviving. To decide whether or not your book is post apoc/survival or SF, ask yourself this simple question:

Could the same story have been told in another time and place?

When your generation ship crash lands on a distant, but improbably habitable, planet, with only 30 survivors, how different is the story you tell from a story of 17th century explorers shipwrecked on a remote island?

If the only differences are in the scientific and technological knowledge of the characters, then you’re probably writing a wilderness/frontier survival story, and not SF.

When nine-tenths of the world population is wiped out by a genetically engineered virus, how different is the story you tell from one set in medieval Europe where nine-tenths of the population is wiped out by the bubonic plague. On the face of it, it might look pretty different.

But instead of thinking about what your characters know; what creature-comforts they crave and what kind of world they want to rebuild, think about what they whole experience makes them feel. I suspect the feelings of 21st century plague survivors would be much the same as those in the 14th century.


Clearly I have to take a pop at this. The Zombie Zeitgeist seems to be enduring longer than ever this time around.

Zombies are mainstream. There may be good, if disturbing, reasons for this.

Broadly speaking, zombie fiction can be divided into one of three categories:

  1. supernatural zombies
  2. scientificy-explanationey zombies
  3. alien zombies

Supernatural zombies obviously aren’t SF. They are the stuff of horror or fantasy.

I quite like to see a supernatural zombie or two in Urban Fantasy. Supernatural zombies are the ones that claw their way out of their own graves in spite of their soft tissue being in the process of rotting away. It’s simple mechanics; if you haven’t got working muscles and sinews, you have to have magic.

Scientificy-explanationey zombies are arguably science fiction. Whenever zombeism is caused by a pathogen or poison, but the zombie is basically still alive, then the author is at least nodding to some sort of scientific thinking.

The purest form of this in recent years was the movie 28 Days Later. Darren & Marcus Wearmouth’s Activation series is sometimes called a “zombie apocalypse without zombies” but it’s really more of a post-apoc/tech thriller crossover. Arguably, the Activation series fits in the last category – even though there are no aliens.

Alien zombies happen whenever the author wants to avoid the supernatural but handwaves the scientific explanation with a vague or veiled reference to outside forces or evil science. In a sense, this is science fiction because the story premise arises from the idea of what science might do. This is a core concern of:

“Luddite science fiction”

Yay special category.

A significant proportion of science fiction is about the fear of science. In such stories it’s only natural that the science be unreal – because it symbolizes the excesses and the dangers of science.

These stories are still SF, however, because they are about the consequences of science. Luddite SF, therefore, often resembles fable or parable.

John Wyndam’s work often comes across this way (Trouble with Lichen, The Kraken Wakes), even though he was not himself opposed to science or technology.

Speculative Fiction

Spec. Fic. is the bucket genre of any non-realist fiction. It is often an excuse for letting your imagination run wild, and as a result often results in writing that lacks focus, or even coherence.

Spec. Fic. can all to easily head off on dreamlike tangents from which it never returns.

What Spec. Fic. ought to be is the exploration of the possibilities beyond the bounds of our current knowledge. A solid Spec. Fic. starting point is found someplace where human knowledge ends. There are two possible launch platforms:

  • the hard scientific
  • the mystical

Hard scientific spec. fic. wonders what might exist beyond the boundaries of our knowledge or (more contentiously) our understanding. For instance, what sort of Universe preceded the last “big bang?”

Hard scientific Spec. Fic. can get a little softer, when exploring questions like “what sort of life would have evolved on Earth had the initial conditions been different?” And softer still: what if the dinosaurs had not died out? (We already know this one; they didn’t. They turned into birds.)

Mystical Spec. Fic at its best explores the what-if: “supposing superstition X were true?” If you approach this as a sociologist or hard SF author, it can result in some very interesting social consequences.

At its worst, mystical Spec. Fic. is about the afterlife. There are lots of stories about people discovering that the afterlife is real, and that there are problems there that need to be solved. 99% of such stories are awful, because the afterlife described is non-symbolic.

If you really want to know how to do this, read D. P. Prior’s Shader series, where other worlds, including a sort of afterlife/limbo are described as if real but their role is entirely symbolic. Using symbolism this way is a technique well worth learning and will be covered in detail in a future course.

So Does Science Fiction Really Exist?

How do you draw the line between Science Fiction and Fantasy?

I suspect that the real difference between SF and Fantasy is not about the setting, the trappings, the magic or the tech.

I think it’s really about the character.

Fantasy stories are about individual struggles. Science Fiction stories are about groups – about societies.

I think that’s why SF writers feel a need to anchor their stories in hard facts wherever possible.

This is part 2 of a 3-part series on how to write first-class stories in the genre of science fiction:

Part 1How to Write Award-Winning Science Fiction
Part 2 – [You Are Here] – How To Decide What You’re Writing
Part 3 – The Fiction of Genre and What It’s Really For

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How To Write Award Winning Science Fiction

This is part 1 of a 3-part series on how to write first-class stories in the genre of science fiction:

Part 1 – [You Are Here] – How to Write Award-Winning Science Fiction
Part 2How To Decide What You’re Writing
Part 3 – The Fiction of Genre and What It’s Really For

It would be a bold, not to say ridiculous claim, that I could teach you to write an award-winning story. But what I can do is show you how a successful writer does it, and show that in principle it isn’t complex or difficult to understand.

An Award-Winning Writer

In April 2015, Kary English won the Writer’s of the Future Award for short fiction, for her short story, Poseidon’s Eyes. At time of writing (May 2015) she is nominated for a Hugo Award for her short story “Totaled” and a John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer. It’s been my good fortune to work with Kary developing both of those stories.

What makes an award-winning writer?

It should come as no surprise to learn that Kary has been a professional writer for a long time – and even though for most of her career she hasn’t been writing fiction, she has been reading it constantly. It’s probably fair to say that Kary was always going to be a writer.
So is that why she’s getting awards and nominations?

Actually, no. But it does explain why she can.

Since Kary is an experienced, well practiced and well-read writer, she has all the tools you need to be able to write exactly the right story – to be able to do a good job of transforming a great story idea into a narrative and committing it to the page. She has acquired those tools through her commitment to learning the skills and the art of writing.

But that isn’t what wins awards. What wins awards is a great story.

How to develop a great story

I’m going to show you the process by which Kary creates an award-winning story, and I’m going to take the example of “Totaled” (which you can download to your e-reader for $0.99 here).

Guiding Ideas.

A short story must be clearly focused on a central idea. This is often called the theme. To build her short stories, Kary selects two ideas whose very specific nature is what makes these stories great science fiction.

The High Concept

The high concept is what makes these stories SF. It is an idea, ideally drawn from, or even better, extrapolated from real life, but which is pushing beyond the boundaries of today’s science or technology. You can think of the high concept as the story’s “what if?”

It’s essential, for maintaining the focus (that is necessary both for short stories in general and in particular if you want to win awards) that the story only have one, unique “what if?”; one high concept per story.

In Totaled, the high concept is:

“What if a person could be totaled like an automobile?”

If you can sum up your high concept in a sentence as short as that, then you can be sure it is a strong contender for the driving theme of your story. If it takes you more than a sentence to describe, then think again.

Take another look at that high concept. Its strength comes as much from the additional questions it begs, as it comes from the consequences – the situations or scenes you could imagine; they ways it could come about. The biggest of the additional questions is the one that provides much of the story framework:

“What would have to happen to someone, that you would describe them as ‘totaled’?”

The Human Experience

The second guiding idea is what makes it possible to turn a high concept into a compelling story. Without it, you’ll have no real characters, and it will be difficult to convince the reader to care about the story. And the reader must care enough about the story and the characters to accept anything else that happens.

Remember, this is science fiction. Some of the things that happen will be impossible, or at the very least, highly improbable. You have to create a situation where the reader trusts you; trusts that these improbable or impossible things are essential to telling the human story.

In Totaled, the human experience is a very simple one:

To fulfill the desire to tell someone how you really feel about them before it is too late.

Because in Totaled nothing is left of the person but his brain, the question naturally arises: how much of your body do you need to be able to be a person, to have desires, to have feelings?


You will, I hope, recognize, that this second guiding idea is universal. It is not at all unique to any particular genre. This is especially important in SF, because people who don’t read SF – and many of the people who do – think that SF is all about the high concept.

The reality is that the greatest SF stories are not even a balanced synthesis of the high concept and the human experience.

They exploit the high concept to provide a framework through which to explore the human experience.

This is the lesson. If you get this, and you keep your focus on it, you will be able to write great SF.

The Story Framework

Once the two ideas are selected, and you’re satisfied that they are compatible and they set up an adequate conflict of ideas to be able to provide you with enough questions both to ask and to answer, you can begin to develop your story framework.

Kary says that the high concept for Totaled came from her desire to write her take on the classic SF concept of a “brain-in-a-jar.” Because this was the origin of the idea, Kary selected a classic SF setting for her story: among the researchers in a neuroscience lab.

From this, the initial story framework arises quite naturally.

The story framework is not the story itself. It’s best thought of as the environment in which the story takes place. This is usually a combination of a physical environment, a social environment and a conceptual environment.

The physical environment is just the location – in this case, a science lab. It tells you a few things about the kind of place it is, and the sort of things that can happen there.

The social environment is defined by the interactions between the people involved. Their friendships, romances, kinships; the workplace hierarchy; all the interpersonal relationships.

The conceptual environment arises from who the people are and what they do. It tends to dictate what is acceptable where the physical environment dictates what is possible. Acceptability arises both from the physical environment (in the form of best-practice, health and safety, rules and regulations) and from the social environment (morality, ethics, taboos, politics, etc).

The story framework also includes the necessary “set-up” to make the story happen at all.

Totaled Framework

Put as plainly as possible, the framework for Totaled is as follows:

  • neuroscientists need donor brains for their experiments
  • one of the scientists is himself killed (“totaled”) in an accident
  • his brain ends up in the lab
  • can he find a way to communicate with his colleagues before his brain finally dies?

Developing from the framework

The next step from the framework is developing the story around it. At this stage, you have to start thinking about characters, and about events and incidents.

Part of Kary’s process was to talk to her editor at this stage, in order to develop and mature her ideas for the story. If your aim is to write an award-winning story, then you can’t afford to skip this stage.

You need to find someone to talk to about your story idea, and especially, to develop the characters and events of the story into a complete, coherent whole.

The End

This is also the stage where you will need to start thinking about the ending.

You can’t get very far in writing a short story if you don’t know how it’s going to end. In fact:

I’m here to tell you: you can’t “pants” an award-winning short story.

The ending ideally should depend both on the high concept and on the human experience – but the human experience is the more important of the two.

Totaled ends with the death of the brain in the jar. I won’t spoil the ending for you by telling you if the desire is fulfilled or not. What matters in your story is that you take that decision.

The Middle

Once you’ve chosen your ending, building the rest of the story is a matter of finding a path from the start to the ending that enables you to explore the questions and implications of your guiding ideas.

I think if you read Totaled you’ll see how Kary achieves this through a combination of memory and incident with some “attempts” made by the brain-in-a-jar to communicate, all the while showing the progressive deterioration of the brain’s condition, and therefore sense of personhood.

Discussing this with an editor can help you to find your key symbols for your story, as well as to identify potential difficulties and find solutions to them.

In SF, one of the most common difficulties arises from a high concept that is too complex, and results in your having to keep inventing more imaginary science, which distracts from the main point of the story.

Key symbols are important to reinforcing the power and focus of your story, but there’s no way I can teach you about symbolism outside of a complete writing course.

Completing your Award-Winning SF Short

As I said before, Kary is already a skilled and accomplished writer. So when it comes to drafting and re-drafting, once she knows she has a strong idea, it’s largely a matter of putting it on the page.

But Kary doesn’t underestimate the value of getting other people to read and comment on her work before finalizing it and submitting it to competitions.

It doesn’t matter how experienced or inexperienced you are, readers, editors, other writers, will be able to help you to make your work as good as it can be.

Kary is also aware that as a fiction writer, she still has a great deal to learn, and is always looking out for new people to learn from, and new ways of improving her writing.

When will your writing be good enough for an award?

It might already be.

Seriously. You can’t really know without submitting it.

Having said that, you probably have a pretty good idea of how experienced you are, and reasonably good idea of how your work compares to others. If you’ve read Totaled or Poseidon’s Eyes, you’ve probably compared your work to Kary’s.

If you want to win an award for an SF Short Story

Find out as much as you can about each competition you want to enter. Look at the kind of story that wins. Find out whatever you can about the judges – what they write, and what they like to read.

Don’t write your one great story and submit it everywhere.

Do write a different story for each competition; use this lesson to develop your ideas and your stories; write with the intent of writing an award-winning story.

If on top of that, you do everything you can to raise the overall standard of your writing, then you will, sooner or later, start to find yourself shortlisted.

The difference between short and long

It surely goes without saying, that writing an Award-Winning Short Story is fundamentally different from writing a successful full length novel.

When writing in the short form, every word counts; you have to agonize over every detail, you have to make sure that everything you describe, every character, every incident, every item, harmonizes with the overall theme, to ensure that the story has maximum impact from a limited number of words.

A full-length novel, because it is longer, can be broader in scope; there is more room for rambling, for tangents. The author can be more indulgent of the space taken up by descriptions of beautiful landscapes or discussions with fascinating secondary characters. And of course, you can write more words faster, because you don’t have to agonize over every word.


Short Stories are shorter

That’s the difference. If it seems like there’s something else, then it just means that you’re being lazy when you write in the longer form.

So many writers say to me “I haven’t tried the short form yet; I’m not sure I’m ready for it.” I have bad, or possibly good, news for you:

If you can’t write a short story, then you can’t write a long one.


Many writers recognize that for a short story to work well, it has to focus on a central idea. The problem is that they think that the reason for this is to ensure that the story stays short. It isn’t.

It’s because every story has to focus on a central idea.

Every story has to have a theme. If you don’t know what the theme of your novel is, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have one. Many writers discover their theme as they write. But if you do that, you’re going to have to go back and rewrite the parts you wrote before you discovered the theme, otherwise it will show.

I understand the fear that having a central idea will somehow limit the scope of the book, and thereby prevent your imagination from really being free to discover and invent.

Fortunately, your imagination doesn’t work that way. It’s a tool for solving problems, so the more you limit it, the more it will discover and invent.

The True Advantage of the Longer Form

A short story can reveal, expose or direct attention to a central idea.

A full-length novel can explore the idea in detail. It can examine the consequences. It can look at how the idea influences other ideas.

It can explore the way that the idea provokes and creates human behavior. Much SF is all about the way the transmission of ideas through culture, forms human society.

However, your attitude to your words, your sentences, your paragraphs, your chapters, your symbols, your motifs, your theme: should be identical in both the short and the long form.

Full length is not an excuse to be lazy or self-indulgent.

It is an opportunity to be thorough.

This is part 1 of a 3-part series on how to write first-class stories in the genre of science fiction:

Part 1 – [You Are Here] – How to Write Award-Winning Science Fiction
Part 2How To Decide What You’re Writing
Part 3 – The Fiction of Genre and What It’s Really For

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