I wrote about Nascence by Tobias Buckell a few months ago, and mentioned how useful it was to me. Here’s a book which, in design, is Nascence’s polar opposite but which is just as valuable.
The book is On Writing Science Fiction: The Editors Strike Back! from the editors of Asimov’s (edited by George H. Scithers, Darrell Schweitzer, and John M. Ford).
It’s an old book, about 30 years old now, but it still stands as a useful read for novice writers of speculative fiction.
In Nascence, Buckell provided his own old failed stories, and explained why they failed and what he could have done better. In On Writing Science Fiction, the editors present good stories, all of which are first sales by unestablished writers, and explain what it was that made those stories good enough to buy.
The stories are grouped into sections. The editors will introduce each section with an aspect of writing which, when well executed, distinguishes the good speculative fiction from the ordinary (Idea, Conflict, Background, etc.) and they’ll go into as much detail as they can, giving examples when possible. Next comes the story or stories that the editors feel exhibit that particular quality. Following the stories is a response by the authors to a short series of questions, and then another segment by the editors where they explain what is is that made them buy those story, and how those stories exemplify the topic of the section. Most of the sections deal with elements that carry across all genres, but they are examined with an eye towards science fiction. There’s a lot of information here, a lot of very good information, but it’s more than can be fully absorbed in one pass.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else by any of these first-time writers. I certainly didn’t know them by name at the time I read this book, so my initial assumption was that none of them went on to blockbuster careers though it would take some research to confirm. (EDIT: Of course, having thought that, I HAD to go and research it… more further down…) For the stories in this particular book, all are good. Some are excellent. It’s worth reading this book for the stories as much as it is for the writing advice, and my standout favourite is The Tryouts, by Barry B. Longyear (EDIT: With a bit of a search, it appears he won the John W. Campbell, the Hugo, and the Nebula all in the same year, so there goes my statement about these people not making something of themselves. It looks like this story formed the seed of later novels. And of course I HAD to google the rest and it looks like Steve Perry, at the very least, has also published quite a few titles).
As a side note, one author in the book defends their story and says they wished they’d kept in a part which the editor had asked them to remove. Having read both the story and the bit about what was suggested to be removed, the editor was right. Let that be a lesson to all amateurs, especially those with no or few sales. The editor is not always some monster looking to shave your story down so they can pay you less. The editor is probably not someone who is so stubborn that they can’t see how utterly brilliant you are. The editor is, in all likelihood, someone who has been entrusted with the content of the magazine or anthology (and with their money) because someone else trusts their judgement, trusts that they know what makes a story good. It doesn’t mean that the scene isn’t a good one or that the scene isn’t well written, it just means that it isn’t helping the story out, and in some cases it’s keeping it down (This author who wanted to revise back in what the editor wanted out? Not a blip on Google, unless they’ve been using a pseudonym).
The final section gave me a good chuckle, and dates the book somewhat (originally published in 1981). It’s largely about formatting, and though some of it holds true today, the complete focus on skills with a typewriter detracts from it’s helpfulness. The book is still in print today but I haven’t looked into it (I borrowed the one I read from my local library), so possibly the newer editions deal with writing in the digital age.
In the end, this is a good book for any genre writer, but it didn’t have the same immediate punch as Nascence did for me (for being a book in a similar format where complete stories are analyzed). What I learned from Buckell hits me immediately whenever I outline a story now, and whenever I edit. Maybe I only learned a handful of lessons, but I learned them well and I find it easier to keep a few major mistakes in mind and to avoid them than to keep five or ten or one hundred things in mind that need to be done right. This is the sort of book that needs to be read, and re-read, and have notes scribbled upon it, and re-read again until it becomes second nature. It’s not a fast way to learn the craft, but anybody who said learning to write was fast or easy was lying.