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Do I Have to Be a Scientist to Write Science Fiction?

Is it just me, or can the science part of science fiction be pretty intimidating?

I mean, I got through high school chemistry and all that, but science has never been my best subject. I don’t spend a lot of time reading about astronomy or physics or anything seriously technical. I’m not an engineer. I’m definitely not a rocket scientist. I couldn’t even fix a car engine.

So how could I possibly write a science fiction story?

The first answer that comes to mind is by researching stuff. Of course, that idea’s immediately followed by a sense of overwhelmed panic at the sheer amount of information out there. Do I need to know how rocket ships work? What about space travel? Does that mean I need to read up on scientific theory?

Well…

If that’s your thing, that’s great – and I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. Knowing a lot about current scientific theories and technologies is a great way to add details and inside jokes to the story. And a lot of authors do base their innovations off of current theories and technology. That doesn’t meant that you have to. In fact, even if you do, that doesn’t mean that you have to go into detail about how it works.

It kind of depends on who your main character is – and what. If your main character’s a scientist/engineer/whatnot, then you’re going to have to go into a lot more detail. After all, the story is framed by the main character’s perspective, and an engineer is going to think about the technical aspect of the space travel a lot more than say a soldier, reporter, artist, deathwalker (cough), etc. who doesn’t know much about all the science behind the stuff they use.

Think about your own day-to-day life. You probably drive a car or use a train, but unless that’s your job or your hobby, you’re not going to know much about how those vehicles actually work. The same goes for your cell phone, your computer, your refrigerator – everything is so specialized today that people are lucky to know how to operate their technology, let alone know how it all works.

That’s why picking your main character can totally change how difficult writing your science fiction story will be. Describing how to use something is much easier than describing how something works, especially something that doesn’t exist yet. Because if you really knew how it worked, you’d build it, get the patent, and make ridiculous amounts of money. Instead, if a science fiction author wants to get into that level of explanation, he or she has to make it up (based on science, but still).

And that has its own dangers.

Going into too much detail on how space travel or special gadgetry works can actually kick your readers out of the story if it’s done wrong. Remember that a lot of the people who read sci fi are into science. That’s part of the draw for them. Because of that, they tend to know their stuff. If the science is too far off, it’ll kill their suspension of disbelief.

My advice? Don’t be afraid of the science and don’t feel like you have to learn everything either. So long as you pick a main character and story that suit your knowledge and researching interest, the science part of science fiction will be the least of your concerns. In other words, you’ll get to focus on the story itself. As writers, that should be our focus anyway, right? Science fiction or not.

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The Battle of the Genres

Some people get really intense about genre definitions and what genre a specific story is. I’ve heard several extremely impassioned arguments, including one about whether or not Star Wars is science fiction or fantasy (Google it, and you’ll see that my friends weren’t the only ones).

As they were arguing, I realized that there was a big problem: they had different definitions of the genre. One was using the literary definition, and the other, the common one. Unfortunately, the two definitions are not exactly the same. For example, a lot of the general public consider science fiction something with aliens, space travel, and/or fancy gadgets. For the literary community, on the other hand, sci fi is all about the technology (plot-wise), and the technology has to be “feasible” in the future.

How could they possibly agree on the genre of anything unless it does all of that?

It doesn’t help that definitions aren’t static either. As writing changes, so do the genres. Subgenres get added, and there are all kinds of mixed genre works now: romance has varieties in all the other genres, there are sci fi western, fantasy detective stories, and more. How on Earth are we supposed to narrow those books down to one genre?

And I hate to say it, but does it even matter?

As far as I can see, genres 1. help you find books at the library or bookstore and 2. help the publishers market to the right audience. If a publisher thinks that science fiction readers are going to like a book, they’re not going to let a few magical elements keep them from putting it in the sci fi section. Heck, I’ve been to bookstores where the same book is on display in 3 sections (not including new releases, large print, clearance, or hardbacks).

That’s why there doesn’t seem much point in arguing about genres – unless you like to, of course. In that case, you’re welcome to use any of these points as additional ammo for your next debate.

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A Ray Bradbury Quote: Science Fiction Is the Art of the Possible

“Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.” – Ray Bradbury

Ideas change the world.

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When Complications Go Too Far: The Lazy Reader Issue

As I was getting distracted on Facebook instead of doing what I got on FB to do (again), I clicked on yet another post about Disney character remakes as this or that. It’s kind of old hat now, but I enjoy seeing them – if it doesn’t take too much time or energy.

That’s the problem. See, as soon as the page loads, I could see the hideous markings of a slideshow. That means that instead of scrolling down a page of amusing images, I would have to click on each blasted “next” area to view each image one-by-one. And that means that each image would have to load individually.

Which takes forever.

I’ll be honest. If I click on a link that takes me to a slideshow, I almost always close the window unless there’s an option(that I can find) to view the page as a list. The same is true for a lot of videos. If I was only mildly interested, I don’t bother to watch because it takes longer than a quick glance at an article (like I was expecting).

Uh-huh. What does that have to do with writing?

Well, many of today’s readers (and almost all of tomorrow’s readers) spend their time online. They’re just as impatient as I am, and the harder it is to read something (the more buttons they have to click), the less likely they are to do it.

That goes for novels, too. There are a lot of fun complications that writers like to throw into our books. Complications add difference. They make us feel unique and creative, and it’s easy for us to get excited about one and go overboard. Unfortunately, those same complications are almost certainly going to make us lose some readers.

Here are a few examples of complications that can make readers decide that your book is too difficult and not worth the trouble:

  • A ton of characters introduced very quickly
  • Strange/unfamiliar names
  • Exceptionally long books (such as the 1,000 page epic fantasy)
  • Intricate and difficult plots
  • Convoluted prose (such as showing off your sentence variety)
  • Lots of longs words

A lot of readers out there are probably going, “but I read books like that all the time!” So do I. But I’m not the average reader, and I know that. I like epic fantasy and science fiction – genres that are known for strange names, long books, convoluted plots, and long/scientific words. But the intricate ones are not my lazy reading. That’s the kind of reading that makes the reader infer more, make connections, and remember those connections 10 chapters later. I’m not always in the mood to do that, so I completely understand why some people are never in the mood to do that.

You’re not losing the die-hard readers. You’re losing the casual readers. You’re losing the people who were interested enough for some quick, lazy reading but didn’t want to put too much effort into it.

That’s not always a bad thing. If you’re writing in a specific genre, you may not care if people who don’t usually read that genre like the book. If you’re trying to appeal to a broader audience, however, it’s more important. And even in a genre like epic fantasy, it’s possible to go too far. If you make it so complicated that a die-hard reader puts it down, you have a problem.

My point is that you need to know. You need to be aware that putting all of those characters in the first chapter is going to turn off some readers. Know that intricate sentences will throw some people off.

Recognize that some people are going to close the window when they realize it’s a slideshow.

If you know, and you still decide to do it, then that’s a risk you’re choosing to take. You’re going in with your eyes open, and if you don’t expand your fan base with that book, you’re not going to be shocked and disappointed. On the other hand, if you do something that complicates your writing but don’t realize the effect it might have on readership, you might be in for a rude shock. Worse, you may not know what the problem is – what to target in your edits.

I don’t know about you, but, personally, I’d much rather know I’m taking a risk before I take it. Finding out after you’ve failed is too cruel.