I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by YA sci-fi author Belinda Crawford. Coincidentally, I just started reading my first sci-fi book (yes, of all time) and am really enjoying it, so when I connected with Belinda, I wanted to know more. The thought of writing sci-fi had always seemed really intriguing...and kinda scary, so, I asked Belinda if she would share some tips on how to write science fiction. Enjoy!
Science And Other Scary Words: On Writing Science Fiction
Here’s a little secret, there’s not a lot of difference between writing science fiction and writing any other genre. Sure, there are some new words (wormhole, nanotech, mecha, thingy-ma-bob, dohickey) and a proliferation of acronyms to learn (AI, FTL, OMG, WTF) but that whole bit where you write a great story with interesting characters…That doesn't change.
It’s all about the worldbuilding
What makes a story sci-fi is not the narrative, but the world it’s set in. In general, sci-fi is any story where science enables extraordinary things to happen, much the same as magic does in fantasy. Usually it’s set in the future (or at the very least, the author’s future—A Princess of Mars was set in 1912 and written prior) and features advanced technology, such as spaceships, robots and lightsabers. There are some notable exceptions, such as the steampunk and superhero subgenres, but for the most part, the above remains true.
The key to creating a great world is making it believable, which can be daunting if you’re just getting started in sci-fi and/or aren't the kind of person who reads Scientific American.
The Science in Science Fiction
A lot of people have the misconception sci-fi must be scientifically accurate, which can be a barrier for readers and writers alike. The truth is, just because the genre has science in the name, doesn’t mean you have to include any in the narrative.
There’s a spectrum to the scientific accuracy of sci-fi, often referred to as its ‘hardness’. It starts with science fantasy, which doesn’t worry about the scientific details (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), progresses to soft sci-fi, which worries just a little (Dune), and makes its way to hard sci-fi, which worries a lot (2001: A Space Odyssey).
The ‘hardness’ of a work of sci-fi is directly proportional to it’s scientific accuracy, and one of the first things you need to consider when writing sci-fi is where you want to fit on that scale.
What Sort of Sci-fi Should You Write?
First decide what sort of story you want to tell. If you want to tell a story about space knights who roam the galaxy kicking butt and dispensing justice with glowy swords and mental powers (The Lost King), science fantasy is probably your gig. If you want to explore how planets could be terraformed for human habitation (Red Mars) then hard sci-fi might be for you.
Second, look at your bookshelf. What sort of books do you like to read? What is it about those books that you enjoy? Is it powered armour (Armored), living spaceships (Warhorse), ecological apocalypse (The Windup Girl) or alien invasion (Battlefield Earth)? Is it none of them or several of them? Whatever it is, that's what you should write.
Third, ask yourself how much you like science and research. If you really, really want to write a detailed, realistic story about a man stranded on a hostile alien planet (The Martian), but the thought of cracking open a book or seeking advice from experts makes you want to throw up, you have a problem. That’s not to say that the softer end of the spectrum doesn’t also require research, but it (and when I say ‘it’, I mean the readership) is more forgiving.
You don’t need to be a science buff, professor or nerd to write sci-fi, even hard sci-fi, but you do need to be prepared to get your hands dirty and ask for help when you need it.
So, how do you research things like faster-than-light travel, honking-big robots and astrophysics?
Google and Wikipedia are excellent first steps. Depending upon how close to the ‘soft’ end of science scale your story is, it may be all you need. If you want something more in-depth you’ll need to hunt down academic websites, books, journals or an actual expert.
Your local library, or an online one, should be your next step, and don't forget to ask the librarian if you need help. Often, if you need the advice of an expert, you can email the author of a particular book or journal article. You’ll be surprised how often people are willing to help, and quite flattered to be asked. You can also try talking to your local doctor, vet, car mechanic or any other professional whose expertise fits with what you’re trying to research.
For topics you're unlikely to find in a research book, such as cyborgs or Godzilla-sized monsters, consider TV Tropes–a website that categorises and discusses all sorts of weird and wonderful things–read other sci-fi books to see how they deal with it, or delve deep into Internet discussion boards.
Do It Your Way
Writing sci-fi is just like writing any other genre. There is no right or wrong way to do it and you don't need to be a super-duper library person, nerd or PhD of Future Sh— err, Stuff. All you need are a few characters, an interesting story and a little bit of the future, sprinkled with just as much research as you need to write a great book. How you go about doing that is up to you.
A Few More Resources
- Curiosity.com isn’t that good for in-depth research, but it’s full of fun little facts to expand your mind and inspire you.
- If you have a specific question (like ‘Could superpowers be scientifically possible?’) Quora is the place to find an answer, or at least a discussion.
- The Worldbuilding Stackexchange is great for discussions about worldbuilding topics, like ‘Would the human body support living on planets with a greater gravity than Earth?’.
- Listopia on Goodreads is your resource for finding books in specific genres or about certain topics.
- The Tools section on this site has a handy-dandy faster-than-light travel calculator, among other things.
Wow! These are great resources and book recommendations, Belinda, especially for someone like me who doesn't know a thing about the sci-fi literary world. That faster-than-light travel calculator is quite nifty by the way. Maybe writing sci-fi isn't so scary after all. :) Thanks so much for sharing.
Physics makes Belinda’s brain hurt, while quadratics cause her eyes to cross and any mention of probability equations will have her running for the door. Nonetheless, she loves watching documentaries about the natural world, biology, space, history and technology (Megafactories is one of her favourite TV shows). Oh, and she writes science fiction.
Hero is the first book in The Hero Rebellion, a science fiction trilogy about a girl with a plan to get a life. There are alien steeds, AIs, illegal street racing and a conspiracy to change the world. The second book, Riven, will hit shelves on September 25 this year.
You can keep in touch with Belinda, or just pick her brains about sci-fi, via her website, Facebook or by sending her an email (she loves email).