This is part 1 of a 3-part series on how to write first-class stories in the genre of science fiction:
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.
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.
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).
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 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 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.
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.
Put as plainly as possible, the framework for Totaled is as follows:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: