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How to become a science fiction writer

Hello, my name is Ed, and I’m a science fiction writer.

I’m the author of four young adult fantasy and science fiction titles, Soulworm, The Dark Unicorn, Andy Nebula: Interstellar Rock Star, and Spirit Singer (all available at Book & Brier Patch as paperbacks; Spirit Singer is also available as an e-book from Awe-Struck E-Books).

Yes, I make far more money writing non-fiction than I do writing science fiction. But that doesn’t matter. In my heart, I’m first and foremost a science fiction writer.

How did I become one? The same way you can become one–through three deceptively simple steps, the first of which is, “Read.”

Read, read, read. Then read some more. And (it should go without saying) read science fiction.

All literature is a dialogue with what has been written before. This is particularly true in SF. (Quick aside: some people call it SF, some call it sci-fi, some call it speculative fiction or spec-fic. I prefer SF.) If you do not read what has been and is being written in the SF field, then you are almost certainly going to write stories that have already been told.

And no, watching Star Trek and Star Wars isn’t going to do it. There’s a world of difference between written SF and media SF. Star Wars is current, cutting-edge science fiction–if you’re writing in 1932, which those of us without time machines are not.

The second step is, “Write.” Write, write, write. The write some more. And (it should again go without saying) write SF. Polish it as much as you like, show it to your friends, and then swallow hard and take the third step: “Submit.”

Sounds like what alien invaders are always telling Earthlings they must do in bad science fiction films, doesn’t it? But in this case you’re not submitting to bug-eyed monsters, but to editors. (A fine distinction, I admit.)

This is the scary bit. What if your story is rejected?

Well, it probably will be. You either develop the necessary thick skin to continue submitting your stories, or you give up.

The competition is fierce. Many people who read SF and fantasy are immediately struck by the desire to write SF and fantasy, unlike, say, people who read Tolstoy, who are seldom immediately moved to start writing immensely long novels about suffering Russians. As a result, every magazine that publishes short SF is swamped with submissions. That means you have to be heads and antennae above everyone else.

Submit where? The top three U.S. print magazines remain the same: Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. In Canada, the best-known SF magazine is probably On Spec; others are Challenging Destiny and the French-language Solaris.

But thanks to the advent of lower-cost printing options and the World Wide Web, there are dozens of lesser-known print and online markets, some paying professional rates (usually defined three cents a word U.S. or better– very few people are getting rich writing short SF) some paying semi-professional rates, some paying nothing at all. The best guide to all SF and fantasy markets I’ve come across is Ralan’s Webstravaganza.

Other sites to check out if you’re interested in writing SF are Locus Online, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and SF Canada (for which I’m webmaster).

There’s one other thing you should be warned of if you have your heart set on being an SF writer: at some point, someone is going to ask you, “Why do you write that stuff?”

Many (though certainly not all) “serious,” “literary” writers, editors and critics look down on science fiction as something childish and inferior. SF readers and writers are used to being condescended to, ignored, or even insulted, but they don’t like it, which has led to a corresponding backlash among some SF fans and writers against the mainstream.

Personally, I believe there is good writing to be found even in the literary genre, as there is in every genre. I believe equally strongly there is bad writing to be found in every genre. As SF writer Theodore Sturgeon famously put it, “Sure, ninety percent of science fiction is crud. That’s because ninety percent of everything is crud.”

I’ve never felt I was lowering myself to write SF and fantasy. Quite the contrary; writing fiction strictly about the here and now, or the recent past, seems incredibly limiting to me. SF and fantasy allow my imagination free rein; any time in the past, the present or the distant future and any place in this universe or any other are available to me as settings; creatures both human and non-human are at my beck and call; and there is no idea so outré that it cannot be couched in SF terms and turned into a story.

The best SF appeals to the sense of wonder. Wonder is what I hope to evoke in my readers. You can evoke it in your, too, if you become a SF writer.

How do you do it?

Read. Write. Submit. It’s that easy…and that hard.

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