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More than Fame or Fortune

In the last couple of posts, I’ve encouraged writers to keep on going, and I’ve heard back from many of you who have been feeling discouraged. The markets are in turmoil still, but I’m seeing some signs that the world isn’t going to end anytime soon. The major publishers are stable. That means that they’re making money in spite of the turmoil.

What I believe that I’m seeing right now is this: the paper book markets are still dominating, and I think that is going to continue, despite the inroads that e-books are having. Why? It’s quite simple. Some 70% of the shoppers are still buying books in paper formats. Thus, the best advertisement for a book is the same that it was a hundred years ago: placement in the bookstores. Even many of the readers who are purchasing books in e-format are going to the stores, seeing what’s hot, and then discreetly ordering the title as e-books.

So the goal of making it big with paper publishers still seems to be a worthy one, though if you want to explore the self-publishing market, it is increasingly attractive.

So what motivates you to write? Is it dream of critical acclaim? Do you want to win awards? Or would you prefer to get paid in stacks of money? The last couple of emails suggested that you follow those dreams. But not all rewards for writing are so . . . easily categorized.

My goal in writing this year has been simple: “to write for the love of it, every day.” Whether I win awards or make a fortune isn’t my main focus. Enjoying my art is.

The truth is, you may not make a fortune. Some of us don’t. I had a friend, Ken Rand, who was a writing addict. He had a saying, “Many people will say that you can’t write, let no one say that you don’t.” Ken wrote a number of good stories and got published in the small press. He passed away from liver cancer. Before he died he asked me to agent a novel for him, one called Dare! I love that book. Several other New York Times bestselling authors loved it, too. We all gave it great cover quotes, but not one single agent or editor picked it up.

Personally, I think it’s not just a good novel, it’s a great novel. It reminded me of The Thornbirds or Gone With the Wind. But Ken never got the million-dollar advance that he deserved. He never made it to the top of the bestseller list—at least in his lifetime.

So what motivated him? The joy of writing. You need to find your own little fount of happiness. As one writer said to me yesterday, “There’s got to be something else to keep us going besides the dream of big success. For me, right now, it is the fact that my son came to me in tears two days ago. ‘Mom, your book made me cry! That’s never happened to me before!’ It’s the fact that he went around the house, saying in amazement, ‘Mom, you did it right!’ For now, that’s enough for me. I know my own kid’s opinion doesn’t count for anything in the publishing world, but what I’m saying is that I know I gave one person a satisfying read, a powerful emotional experience. That’s what I’m after, whether publishing big comes or not.”

Writers change the world one heart, one mind, at a time.

That should be enough to keep us going.

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

two wooden men figures amongst chess pieces

Giving Up

Sometimes it seems that your life has a theme. In the past couple of weeks I’ve heard from several authors the words “I’m thinking about giving up.”

I worry about that. No one ever won a race by giving up.

At least when it comes to writing, I’ve never been good at giving up. My parents advised me against a career in writing. I didn’t listen. Sometimes my wife has even suggested that I go find another field—even in years when I was making fantastic money.

So I found an article about authors who didn’t give up, and would like to repost much of it. It was written by Janeen Elite, and much was taken from Jack Canfield. I can think of other authors with similar stories, but this will suffice:

While many writers lament that facing a blank page is the most difficult part of writing, others will disagree and state that it is getting “that” rejection letter that really makes writing torturous. This is because “that” rejection letter can hit right where it hurts; the old ego. “That” rejection letter can make a writer doubt their own abilities, possibly may even make them rethink their dream career and even their life’s purpose.

Well, take heart dear writers and don’t give up. Just because a strange “someone” didn’t like your piece does not mean it is not good.
The following is a list of writers who also received “that” letter. Many even received it more than once, but they didn’t let that stop them and you shouldn’t either.

Margaret Mitchell received “that” letter 38 times. The book? Gone With The Wind.

This “poor” woman spent six years writing the first installment of a series of books she wanted to publish. You would think that after 9 rejections she might have thought she was wasting her time. Children all over the world are grateful that J.K. Rowling didn’t feel that way. Her Harry Potter book series has sold over 400 million copies around the globe and even as far back as 2003 the BBC news announced that Rowland was already “richer than the Queen.”

Talk about rejection! James Joyce’s Dubliners was rejected 22 times! And even after it was published, only 379 copies were sold in its first year. To make matters worse, Mr. Joyce admitted that he purchased 120 of those copies himself.

This quote from author Judy Blume pretty much says it all. “I would go to sleep at night feeling that I’d never be published. But I’d wake up in the morning convinced I would be. Each time I sent a story or book off to a publisher, I would sit down and begin something new. I was learning more with each effort. I was determined. Determination and hard work are as important as talent.” It took Ms. Blume two  years before any of her work was accepted.

Ouch! That Hurts!

It’s one thing to receive the standard rejection letter that states that a publisher is “not looking for this kind of book at this time” because then an author can at least console themselves in knowing that it is not personal and it is not their writing that is the problem.

Quite often an author can also convince themselves that maybe their book wasn’t even read very carefully by a publisher to begin with. But how would you feel if you found out that not only was your book read, but a publisher actually took the time to tell you why it was so horrendous?

The following are actual excerpts famous authors have received in their rejection letters that turn out to be so laughable in hindsight.

“The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.” The book—The Diary of Anne Frank.

“It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA” in a rejection letter regarding the book Animal Farm.

“A very bad book…” Told to Pierre Boulle about his Bridge Over River Kwai.

“The book is not publishable,” regarding the novel Who Killed Virginia Wolfe?

“…too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling” told to Dr. Seuss, about his book And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.

“This is a work of almost-genius—genius in the power of its expression—almost in the sense of its enormous bitterness. I wish there were an audience for a book of this kind. But there isn’t. It won’t sell.” told to Ayn Rand about her book The Fountainhead.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull will never make it as a paperback” the book written by Richard Bach ended up selling more than 8 million copies.

“… she is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer whose every sentence, paragraph and scene cries for the hand of a pro. She wastes endless pages on utter trivia, writes wide-eyed romantic scenes … hauls out every terrible show biz cliché in all the books, lets every good scene fall apart in endless talk and allows her book to ramble aimlessly …” The author was Jacqueline Susann and the book was Valley of the Dolls.

“An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would ‘take’… I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book’.” This was written about The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Here is another wonderful critique Mr. Wells received about The Time Machine, “It is not interesting enough for the general reader and not thorough enough for the scientific reader.”

“This will set publishing back 25 years,” written about The Deer Park by Norman Mailer

“We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” Written about Carrie by Stephen King.

“Do you realize, young woman, that you’re the first American writer ever to poke fun at sex.” Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos.

“I haven’t really the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say… Apparently the author intends it to be funny—possibly even satire—but it is really not funny on any intellectual level … From your long publishing experience you will know that it is less disastrous to turn down a work of genius than to turn down talented mediocrities.” The author was Joseph Heller—the book was Catch-22.

“It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.” Was in the rejection letter that Ernest Hemingway received regarding his novel The Torrents of Spring.

“An absurd and uninteresting fantasy,” regarding Lord of the Flies.

And probably one of the all-time greatest ironic rejections is:

“You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character,” told to F. Scott Fitzgerald

As you can tell from the quotes written above, some publishers just don’t have a clue. So start saving those rejection letters. Who knows? Maybe one day you can show them off when your book hits the best-seller list?

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

stack of blocks balanced

Questions of Balance

I’m currently judging the Writers of the Future Contest for the third quarter. After my first pass, I was able to narrow the field down to just 228 possible finalists. These are all stories that started well, from people who knew how to write.

As I delve into these stories further, I have to be pretty critical. After all, I need to narrow the finalists down to just 8. Sometimes I find pieces that are beautifully written but have a particular weakness, a blind spot that the author has, and so I get nicely written stories that, unfortunately, just miss by a hair’s breadth. I want to examine some of those pieces today.

I had two stories where the authors had a wonderful ear for dialog but lacked visuals. For example, in one tale, where a young man lives in a desert town, there are only half a dozen inhabitants. We learn their names, but don’t get physical descriptions of the characters. The same happens in another tale set in a 15th Century cyberpunk vista. I love both the stories and will probably put them through as finalists, but I worry that the authors could have added just a tad more detail.

Of course, there were other good stories where almost all of what I had was dialog, long exchanges where all I had were name tags as identifiers—no external descriptions at all, no internal thoughts, no sense of setting. It’s fairly common for writing instructors to say, “It’s good to have these kinds of exchanges once in a while.” The teachers are right. It’s okay to have those—if we know who the characters are and understand the back story enough so that we can visualize what is happening without having the proper beats in the conversation. When overdone, such tales sound more like radio dramas.

In other stories, I have plenty of physical description, but very little audio. Now we’re into silent movies. The author may spend four pages describing things, but have no conversations.

Now, I’ve had stories told from a single point of view where having a dialog is almost impossible, and I’ve published at least one. In that case, it was a tale told by an astronaut who is skydiving over Jupiter. Great tale, told as well as it could be done.

But if you have a character who has no dialog within the first four pages of your story, and yet that character has the capacity for human interaction, the chances are good that you’ve got a problem.

Most of the time, the author is engaged in what I call “hesitation.” He or she begins narrating backstory in the hopes of finding a good place to start. Normally, such tales need to have the first few pages cut, since the author finds a good opening eventually.

But sometimes the author is just a very “internal” person—someone who thinks much more than he or she speaks or acts. So the tale ends up being an internal story of personal discovery. That’s not a bad thing, but such tales tend to be much weaker than stories where the characters actually do or say surprising things.

So when you write your tale, take a look at it in chunks of two or three pages. Is it all dialogue? Is it all internal? Is it all narration? Is it description of sights with no smells?

If so, you may have a problem with balance.

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

man looking at bulletin board

Avoid Hesitation

When you sit down to write a story or the opening to a scene, you’re presented with a problem: how to begin? As a contest judge, I see too many tales that don’t work—right from the very first sentence.

The most common problem that I see arises from “hesitation.” You as an author haven’t figured out how to start your story. You haven’t brainstormed a scene yet, so you just begin writing in the hopes that it will turn into something. Perhaps you’ll tell me about the character, “Gunther Harlan was ten years old.” Maybe you’ll start with a setting: “The day began as any other day.” Or perhaps you’ll start with a conflict. “Gunther sat on a rock, panting from exhaustion. How did I ever get into this mess? he wondered.”

Starting a tale with any one of those three elements is okay, but if you spend two pages telling your reader about Gunther, or inventing the setting, or if you have Gunther wondering how he got into trouble, you’re wasting the reader’s time.

Most often, when I see this hesitant beginning, it’s obvious to me that you’re “ramping-up.” I suspect that the real story will start a few pages in, but if I’m judging the story for a contest, I will have to reject the story long before I find the real beginning, the place where your character and conflict and the action all merge so that the story comes to life.

As an author, it’s your job to create an opening that works, to get beyond that hesitation. If you find yourself spilling ideas onto paper in the opening of your tale, for example, if you’re brainstorming your character until the story takes off, that is all right. But when your story does take off, it’s your job to cut out all of the garbage.

This is true whether you’re writing a short story, a screenplay, or a novel. One piece of advice that you will hear from professional writers over and over again is, “When I finish my novel, that’s when I know what the story is truly about. So the first thing that I do is go back and throw away the opening, then rewrite it, with the ending in mind.”

Why do all of that work? Because with a novel, you typically don’t find your characters’ voices until you’ve written about them for fifty or sixty pages. You may not know how they think, their habitual ticks, or what they will do. So you need to let them solidify in your imagination.

So when you finish a tale, return to your opening and revise it.

As you rewrite your openings, you also need to pay close attention to what I call the treatment of your story. If you’re looking to win awards or contests, it isn’t enough to write a “journeyman-style” story, where you’re describing things as if you were a reporter. You need to bring your own art into it. You need to bring in the details that add life to the story. You need to spend some time considering the poetry in your language, adding richness to your descriptions, paying attention to the beats in your dialog, considering what metaphors to choose in order to make your tale more evocative and memorable than someone else’s treatment of the tale.

Mike Resnick addressing winners at the Writers of the Future Workshop 2017

Mike Resnick addressing winners at the Writers of the Future Workshop 2017

I listened to Mike Resnick talk to a group of new writers. Mike has won more Hugo and Nebula Awards for his short fiction than any other writer. He said that he spends about 80% of his time on a short story just crafting those first two pages, while the rest of the story takes another 20% of his time.

This means that he gets to know his characters, understand his conflicts and themes, all before he gets to page three. “If you don’t have a great opening,” Mike said, “one that hooks the reader in on several different levels, then you’ve got nothing. People will never read the story at all if they don’t love it from the start.”
 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

Dr. Yoji Kondo talking to the writer winners at the Writers of the Future Workshop, 2006

On Writing Science Fiction by Dr. Yoji Kondo

Robert A. Heinlein preferred to call science fiction speculative fiction. It is a good name and has the advantage of encompassing fantasy that is not always easily discernible from science fiction. It may also be argued that all fiction is speculative in one sense or another. Be that as it may, the term science fiction is likely to stay with us for the foreseeable future. Let me then try to define it in some rational fashion.

Science fiction must be based on science and technology as we understand it here and now. To be more accurate, a science fiction story is usually based on some form of speculative extrapolation from our present scientific knowledge. There is a great deal that we do not know about the universe; hence, we have plenty of room for speculation.

I am aware that some scientists believe that we already know as much about the physical world as we ever will. Many scientists in the nineteenth century felt that way too. One famous “philosopher” of science of the last century commented that all the important laws of nature had been discovered and that the remaining task for the scientists of the future would be to push the decimal place a step further. That sort of thinking is clearly wrong-headed in view of our current state of ignorance.

To make matters more interesting, some aspects of our present scientific knowledge are not too well established either. In popular publications, as well as in professional ones, firmly established scientific knowledge and borderline ideas are often presented with equal emphasis. This can make it difficult to tell the two types apart.

Nevertheless, if you are a serious science fiction writer, you must make efforts to learn the difference. That task is not always easy, even for professional scientists. If you take occasional missteps as a writer, be consoled that it is a hazard also shared by professional scientists.

All in all, as a writer you have unlimited opportunities for speculation—with the whole universe as your playground. You don’t need to ignore well-tested scientific principles and write defective non-science fiction.

So, if you want your story to be science fiction, here are the basic guidelines that good science fiction stories should abide by:

Do not violate firmly established laws (knowledge) of science. Let me give an example. Recently, two novels were published about a little black hole orbiting around Earth. The first book, which was written by a professor of astronomy at the University of Texas, was honest-to-goodness science fiction, but the latter was definitely not. The author of the latter book gave the semi-major axis and the period for the black hole’s orbit; the two figures were inconsistent with well-tested laws of celestial mechanics that have been known since the seventeenth century. The second book wasn’t even fantasy—it was simply in error. Had its author asked a typical student of astronomy at a nearby university, he would have been able to get that part of the science right.

If your story requires you to contravene some well-established law of science, you must provide plausible scientific explanations for it. Actually, this process works in real-life scientific research too. Scientists often develop theories that, under certain circumstances, contravene conventional wisdom. For example, the Michelson-Morley experiment refuted the hypothetical existence of ether as a medium for the propagation of light; this discovery moved Einstein to develop his special theory of relativity.

You can speculate as much as you like in the gray area of science. The use of hyperspace for traveling between stars would fall under this category. We do not know how hyperspace might work or even if it exists. Hence, it is fair game.

Your speculations need not be limited to “hard” science, such as physics, biology, or astronomy. Good science fiction has been written based on “soft” science, such as sociology, cultural anthropology, economics, politics, and so on. Consider such novels as 1984 and Animal Farm. These are first-rate science fiction novels by any standard. However, we must be aware that the laws tend to be even less tractable in soft science.

But you might ask, “What about stories that are full of technobabble?” Does mere use of technical jargon, such as “blaster” and “hyperspace drive,” qualify a story as science fiction? Not always. Many stories that look like science fiction are merely adventure tales dressed up to look like science fiction. These are called “space operas,” and they are not very different from adventure stories of bygone years (such as the “Captain Horatio Hornblower” tales). The only difference is that the hero in a space opera uses a ray gun (instead of a pistol) and may travel between stars in a space cruiser (rather than in a ship that sails over the ocean).

We are in murky waters here. It is not always easy to make a clear distinction between authentic science fiction stories and space operas, since expressions that sound like technobabble turn up in all sorts of science fiction. The real issue is whether the story contains genuine scientific elements—not whether one finds certain types of neologisms in the story.

A discerning reader could perhaps tell the difference between the two kinds of fiction, even if the writer is not sure.

In the final analysis, it may not be important to you whether your story is space opera or genuine science fiction. The most important thing about any fiction— be it science fiction, fantasy, or any other genre—is that the story be entertaining and emotionally engrossing to both the reader and the writer.

This article was originally published in Writers of the Future Volume 14 and is being republished here.

 


Dr. Yoji Kondo

Dr. Yoji Kondo

Yoji Kondo was a master of many arts. Among other things, he was a fifth-degree black belt in judo and a sixth-degree black belt in aikido and taught a martial arts class in Columbia for twenty years.

He had a Ph.D. in astrophysics and headed the astrophysics laboratory at the Johnson Space Center during the Apollo and Skylab Missions. For fifteen years, he was director of the NASA International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) satellite observatory.

His research interests encompassed everything from interacting binary stars, the local interstellar medium, and active galactic nuclei to relativistic astrophysics. He published over three hundred scientific papers and was the editor of eleven scientific volumes, including “Examining the Big Bang.”

Among the professional honors he received were the Federal Design Achievement Award, which was issued in conjunction with the US Presidential Award for Design Excellence in IUE; the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and the National Space Club Science Award.

And by the way, he also wrote science fiction. Using the pseudonym Eric Kotani, he published several novels: five with John Maddox Roberts—Act of God, The Island Worlds, Between the Stars, Delta Pavonis and a Star Trek Voyager book entitled Death of a Neutron Star and one with Robert MacBride Allen entitled Supernova. He also edited Requiem: New Collected Works of Robert A. Heinlein and Tributes to the Grand Master, which became a national bestseller.

He became a Writers of the Future judge in 1998 but had been involved in the contest since 1989, when he served as a panelist at a WOTF-sponsored symposium at the United Nations.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle at a book signing

Building Plausible Futures by Jerry Pournelle

The first thing you must do is decide whether you want to build a plausible future. Many writers don’t. Some write fantasy and have no interest in building futures with sharp edges and rivets. Some, like Harlan Ellison, don’t exactly write fantasy but are successful largely because what they write is implausible. Others aren’t interested in futures at all.

Then there are writers like Frank Herbert. Dune convinces you that the implausible is real. Frank simply evaded most of the tough questions: computer and space science are dismissed with handwaving and religious mumbo-jumbo. He made a fortune with Dune and if you can write like Frank Herbert you don’t need advice from me.

This essay is about classical science fiction stories, the kind that built and even defined the genre during the Golden Age when John W. Campbell, Jr. was editor of Astounding. Those stories generally presented a future that seemed real and plausible; a future in which science, engineering, technology, and the social structures were self-consistent; a future the reader could believe in, at least until he had finished the story. The best of these stories taught the reader something about science and technology, and held up under real-world scrutiny.

Building those futures was never easy, but it was a lot easier in the old days than it is now.

Things were a lot simpler then, and more predictable. Space travel was inevitable even if most people didn’t believe it. All you needed was the courage to accept your own analyses.

For example, Robert Heinlein’s “Requiem” and “The Man Who Sold The Moon” are about a businessman whose ambition is to go to the Moon, and who uses business techniques to get a Moon colony started. Today those stories may be dated, but we can still read them. In their time, they were the epitome of hard-science science fiction,

Heinlein used a simple technique: he took everyday familiar objects and events, projected them into the future, and subtly modified them. One of the most famous lines in science fiction: “The door dilated.” In this one line from Beyond This Horizon, Heinlein takes us into the future.

A dilating door would still be the future to us. “Requiem,” though, begins at a county fair. In Heinlein’s time the barnstormer pilot, or the aeronaut, really did go to county fairs and offer to take passengers for short rides for a fee. Most readers would be familiar with that. In “Requiem,” fair-goers have the opportunity to fly in a privately owned, obsolete, and nearly unsafe rocket ship.

“Requiem” was written in 1939, long before the real space program became a government monopoly. More importantly, though, it was written before the skies were crowded with aircraft; before lawyers dominated the world; before the Environmental Protection Agency; before OSHA and Medicare and the busybody government put a stop to risky entertainment like barnstorming, whether in biplanes or rocket ships—and before TV put an end to county fairs as a standard medium of entertainment. The central theme of “Requiem” could make a good story today, but every one of the details, both technical and social, would be different. In its day, though, “Requiem” was as fine an example of projecting a plausible future as we have. Those who want to learn how to build plausible futures could do a lot worse than study early Heinlein’s ability to link technological and social changes and weave them into a seamless whole.

Technological Projection

Technology projection isn’t particularly easy, but the science fiction writer doesn’t have to do it. We don’t need to predict the real future; we’re only interested in a plausible future.

Even in the real world of professional technology projections, some things are easier than others. For example, you can have a lot more confidence that some development will happen sometime in the next thirty years than you have in predicting when. It’s usually easier to project twenty to thirty years ahead than it is five.

Before you can project technology, you need some understanding of what technology is. You needn’t be a scientist or engineer, and in fact, scientists and engineers often don’t understand the nature of technological development. Technology as a phenomenon is easier to understand than most of its components.

The first principle is that technology goes by “S” curves. When a new scientific or engineering principle is discovered, things go pretty slow for a while. It takes a lot of effort to make small changes. An example would be aircraft speeds and ranges from the time of the Wright brothers until after World War I.

Then a breakthrough is made. The curve shoots upward. Aircraft speed and performance made astonishing gains just before and during World War II. After that we reached the “sound barrier” and the gains came much more slowly. We had reached the top of the “S.” That, in turn, became the base of a new “S.”

Computer power went the same way. Early science fiction had a dismal record of predicting what computers would be like and what they could do. The best SF writers based their future computers on things they knew: fire control computers for warships, and primitive IBM machines. Real world computer technology crawled along so slowly that it was plausible to have stories in which humans could take the place of a damaged or destroyed computer, or even out-perform one.

Then came the breakthroughs, and most of those stories were made instantly obsolete. Even after the breakthrough, when writers were frantically trying to revise their thinking, the sheer speed of real-world advances made most of their stories obsolete within a year of publication.

We are now in the sharp upward slope of the computer technology “S curve: computing power doubles every year while component prices fall. Eventually, we will reach the top of that curve. Meanwhile, plausible stories require that future societies not only have advanced computer technology but that the technology be widespread through the culture. The notion of the computer as hulking giant hidden in a basement and attended by high priests simply can’t hold any longer: everyone has computers now, and will in any plausible future.

The second principle is that technology is interdependent. Advances in one sector influence all the others. New molecular chemistry techniques led to micro-miniaturization which led to the computer revolution. New computer techniques led to new developments in chemistry—and in nearly everything else. It is now possible to do computer simulations of medical and dental problems; economic systems; aircraft. Little remains unaffected.

In the military field miniaturization made possible onboard computers for missile guidance. This brought ICBM miss-distances down from miles to hundreds of feet in a decade. That led to increased research in silo-hardening, which led to hard-rock silo designs, and that development made it possible to conduct certain mining operations that were previously not financially feasible.

Examples of interdependence can be given without limit, and you can’t know too many of them. Burke’s Connections is worth a lot of study.

The important thing to note is that you can’t change just one thing; if you’re constructing plausible societies, you must not only project technologies but think through what effects those technologies will have on other fields—and also what they will do to the social order.

After all, the sexual revolution owes more to cheap motor cars than anything else. Before the motor car it was very difficult for young people of opposite sex to be together without adults; after the motor car, adult supervision became nearly impossible. (And for that matter, the adults had new opportunities.)

We’re now in an era of bifurcated morality: high tech people generally aren’t perceived to be motivated by religion and haven’t found another philosophical basis for faith in law and justice. Meanwhile, we have the new rise of fundamentalism, both Christian and Moslem, at precisely the moment when all knowledge is available to just about everyone. It makes for interesting times.

Tools of the Trade

In order to keep the present from overtaking your future before you have finished your story, you have to keep up with current trends. This isn’t easy. After all, I live in a world that was science fiction when I was in college. I sit at a computer console that connects me to tens of thousands of highly educated technologists; I can get the answer to nearly any question in minutes to hours. The Soviets have built the space station the US would have built in the 70’s if it weren’t for Proxmire and his ilk. Terawatt lasers of high efficiency have been developed for strategic defense. Technology pours out, and if you’re not careful you can write a story about a future invention that’s already available in your DAK mail order catalog.

The indispensable tools of the trade are High Technology magazine and the weekly Science News. These aren’t enough, but you can’t do without them. A magazine that used to be useful and isn’t now is Technology Review. Scientific American used to be indispensable; now it’s useful, but just barely. Both these magazines succumbed to the notion that politics was more important than science.

Perhaps the best of the science magazines is the British publication New Scientist. It isn’t cheap. Because of its political slant, and its British origin, it cannot and should not be the only science magazine you get.

From there you will need some specialty publications. Business trends are best tracked in The Wall Street Journal, which also follows commercially important technology trends. Fortune will do a good job of condensing and summarizing business developments. Aviation Week and Space Technology is valuable to most science fiction writers, but it’s expensive. BYTE summarizes the latest trends in consumer-available computer technology. All of these are available in the libraries.

There are also books. Writing and Selling Science Fiction by the Science Fiction Writers of America, available from Writer’s Digest Books, is one of the best. It contains my longer work on this subject, as well as essays by many other writers. Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow, edited by Reginald Bretnor, (Harper 1974) is I think out of print but well worth the trouble of finding it.

Once a writer becomes established by publishing a few stories and books, he will find ways to get on various mailing lists, such as NASA’s news briefs, and the technology announcements that pour forth from university and commercial laboratories. Indeed, the problem may be to avoid getting too many of these publications; but they’re indispensable for finding out what’s happening at the cutting edge.

A Sense of Structure

The most important prerequisite to inventing a plausible future is to have an understanding of the way the world works. That’s not easy since no one knows how the world works. On the other hand, if you don’t think you have a fairly good idea, you’ll have no framework to build your future on.

It used to be that the whole purpose of education was to give students a working knowledge of how the world works. We have since opted for “educating the whole child,” meaning that we teach people nothing. Unless you had an atypical modern education, you’ll have no choice but to teach yourself.

You learn by getting around and doing things, asking questions, and watching other people do things. Writing is never a full-time job. You’ll also have to read books. Arthur C. Clarke used to counsel writers to read at least one book and one newspaper each day. If that’s too much, make it a book a week; but you must read and read a lot.

The books needn’t be on technology. The only way I know to project the future is to know a lot about the past. To see what impacts new technologies will have, look at what the old ones have done. It also helps to read biographies and especially autobiographies: of scientists, to be sure, but also of people like Albert Sloan and Henry Ford, movers and shakers who have turned technology into social change.

How I Got This Way

I’m told I do a reasonable job of creating plausible worlds. I like to think so, and people I respect confirm it. What I am not an expert on is teaching anyone else how to do it.

In my case I spent a lot of time in universities studying nearly everything except English literature; then more years in space science, working at the edge of technology and sometimes making technological forecasts. I also wrote research proposals for aerospace firms. The experience was invaluable; I used to tease my SF writer friends by saying that I wrote science fiction without characters or plot and got paid more per word than they did.

When I got out of the aerospace business to write full time I ended up writing a weekly column for a national newspaper. I’d answer questions like “what is a laser?”, and “what caused the Ice Ages?”, in exactly 700 words. I guarantee that three years’ experience at that will give you a broad base in the sciences, and teach you not to waste many words.

In other words, I had a fair amount of education and training, and experience, in understanding this world before I started building new ones; and I don’t know of any easy substitute for that.

Nobody ever promised it would be easy.

This article by Dr. Jerry Pournelle was originally published in Writers of the Future Volume III. Timeless advice then and now.

 


Dr. Jerry Pournelle

Dr. Jerry Pournelle

Jeffy Pournelle was that legendary figure, the Renaissance Man. It included his mastery of the épée as well as other deadly weapons, but it also covered his two Ph. D.’s, his master’s degree in statistics and systems engineering, his bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and his chairmanship of the Citizen’s Advisory Council on National Space Policy. Then, of course, there were his definitive regular columns on computers for Byte and InfoWorld. And all of that wasn’t even the half of it.

In the world of SF, his contributions included editorship of many anthologies, any number of nonfiction pieces for the SF media, the presidency of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and, of course, his stories and novels. Those he wrote alone and in collaboration with others, notably fellow Writers of the Future Contest judge Larry Niven. He was a fixture on the New York Times bestseller list, with such blockbusters as The Mote in God’s Eye, Lucifer’s Hammer, Footfall and Oath of Fealty.

Writer winners and instructors walking to the workshop.

Writers of the Future Workshop 2017 – Day 2

I came back to the Writers of the Future this year because I admire the contest itself, and because I love the idea of paying forward into an event that has enriched my life so much. I absolutely love helping these new winners. It’s a total blast. But when I look into the mirror, I’ve got to admit that my not-so-secret, not-so-hidden agenda included taking the opportunity to continue to learn from both the instructors and the winners. I mean, you can never learn too much, right?

So, you ask, how did everything go?

Let’s see…

9:00 AM today marked the beginning of the workshop itself, but in reality the learning started over breakfast when Tim Powers took advantage of an impromptu connection to give two winners some early thoughts on generating ideas and taking the time he needs to get those ideas into something great. That’s how this thing rolls, you know? A winner never knows when a World Fantasy Award winning author is going to give them some personal attention.

That led perfectly into the formal event.

“It’s a little overwhelming,” Andrew Peery told me during a break after the opening session. He meant it in a good way. Peery, from North Carolina, is the 4th quarter first prize winner. The group had just walked through the Author Services Hall of Writers and been given a presentation of past judges throughout the contest’s history. People here have asked me how things have changed in the 18 years since my last visit. One thing that’s different is that the list of judges has gotten a little longer and a little more prominent. It’s very cool to think about.

One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the purpose of the workshop.

“Our goal in this workshop is to help you train yourself to be a professional writer,” Dave Farland said in his opening remarks. He and Tim then covered several topics, focusing on things like how to develop writerly habits, how stories are structured, and how to create and use suspense. And that was just before lunch. Along the way the two of them did a little brotherly bickering about the speed with this things should be done. “If you’re here, we already know you’re good,” Dave said. “But now we want to help you think about producing that good work more quickly.” Tim, followed that up with: “My first drafts take forever and are never any good.” Then he explained why that was just fine by him. I’ve seen that before, but, yeah, it holds up on second viewing! It’s always great to see how creativity is different for two such high-caliber artists.

It was a blast listening to Finland’s Ville Merilainen (2nd place, Q3) and California’s Andrew L. Roberts (3rd Place, Q4) discuss how they could apply the lessons they learned about story structure right away. Their voices rose and fell in excitement as they talked about plot points of books they are working on. “I’m doing some of this right,” Ville said at one point, but they both fell into discussions of how they needed to work on making better use of certain ideas—specifically how their characters can solve one problem, but create several more in the future (a process I think of as try/succeed, but things get worse!).

Interestingly, Molly Elizabeth Atkins, a published finalist from St. Louis, Missouri (one of two!) found a similar lesson embedded in the unit on creating suspense. “It’s interesting to think about creating suspense by chaining problems…first one thing breaks, then another, and another, and another, and pretty soon everything just goes so wrong that the reader has to be wondering how my characters are going to get out of this.”

I need to take a short diversion to mention that I miss Algis Budrys. Dave and Tim are fantastic, of course, but my own memories of the contest are covered with A. J. I will never, ever forget the look on his face when he passed a manuscript of one of my stories back at me over breakfast and said: “Pretty good.” Of course, he had a suggestion, which made the story better and which I most certainly took. Algis was a true genius and a magnificent teacher. As the winners were reading his piece on what a story is, I could almost feel him sitting here with us.

After lunch, the group got their objects.

You know what I mean right? Tim and Dave gave a little direction on how to look at normal, everyday things to create interesting ideas, then passed out what was essentially a collection of … uh … what my wife would call “junk” to the winners. I’m talking things like a length of phone cable, and a scarred up magnifying glass. A rock. A little book-like thing with a bow on it. Yes, these are the kinds of things these winners are going to make stories out of, and I literally guarantee they will totally kick ass (Can I say that here? I think I did!)

For their object, one of the winners received a one Euro piece.

I suggested he consider it an advance. [grin] Yes, you take your achievements where you can in this business, right?

The bottom line here is that this first day was just crammed full of learning opportunities. As the winners broke for their dinner break (soon to return for portraits), they talked about being overloaded. They talked about their heads spinning, and about the reading they’ve been assigned for overnight, and the three stories they are expected to have loosely outlined by tomorrow. The 24-hour story looms ahead, and the gang seems loose and ready.

I started this by admitting I was here to continue learning as much as to help out. So, you might ask, what did I learn today?

Well. I’m a story structure nerd. I loved seeing how the winners took to analyzing movies and stories in ways that I hadn’t considered. I adored being able to connect up the conversation about suspense and structure—and having the opportunity to hear C.L. Kagmi (3rd place, Q3, from Michigan) talk about how tension works in Dracula gave me an insight I hadn’t considered before (“I knew what was going to happen to Mena, but I wanted to know how it was going to come about). Hearing Dustin Steinacker (Utah’s Q1 1st place winner), and Stephen Lawson (Q2’s 3rd place winner from Kentucky) break down story structure over lunch with previous winner Megan O’Keefe, was fantastic.

So, maybe the most important lesson I learned today (re-learned) is that when you get a whole bunch of creative people together, all you have to do is keep your eyes and ears open. The lessons come at all times and from every direction. Given the excitement with which the winners worked with each other today, I have to think they were pretty much all in agreement.

Yes, I think Dave was right in his opening comments: These winners are good, professional writers.

I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.

A ton of cool pics from today’s highlights can be seen HERE.

 


Ron Collins

Ron Collins

Guest blogger, Ron Collins.
Ron Collins was a Writers of the Future published finalist in 1998 and a prize winner in 1999. He has gone on to publish about 100 short stories in prominent magazines and anthologies. Each volume in his fantasy serial Saga of the God-Touched Mage, hit the top 10 on Amazon’s bestselling Dark Fantasy list in the US, UK, and Australia. His short story, “The White Game” was nominated for the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2016 Derringer Award. The first four books of his current SF series, Stealing the Sun, are available now.

Image of fast hands typing on a computer

Mega-Best-Selling Author Reveals Secret of Getting Started as a Writer

With over 200 million copies of his works in print, the late L. Ron Hubbard is the author of dozens of international bestsellers. Two of the most famous are Dianetics (more than 20 million copies in print) and Battlefield Earth (over two million sold). His published works include 5,000 writings and 3,000 recorded lectures.

A newspaper reporter once asked Hubbard if he had any advice for budding writers. Mr. Hubbard replied,

“Write and write and write and write. And then when you finish, write some more. It may not be original advice, but it is still quite true. You learn to write by writing. Don’t try to learn HOW to write in order to write. Just take an idea and go with it. You may find a story that pulls you along. The story takes off on its own. The main thing is to write and learn the business of writing—that tough market you have to live with.”

Hubbard’s advice is even more apt today in the Internet era than it was back in the pulp magazine days when he was a prolific story writer.

Too many people buy every content writing, copywriting, and Internet marketing course … attend every webinar and conference … and as a result spend all their time learning how to do these things — but almost no time actually doing them.

Don’t get me wrong. You can learn from instructional materials, books, and courses. But if that’s all you do, you will never develop much as a writer.

To get to the stage of a competent professional, you have to write — a lot. Even if you are lazy, the bad news is that you can’t get around this: To learn writing, you must write a lot.

To become decent at writing or most other things, you have to practice them for about a thousand hours, according to Malcolm Gladwell, Mark Ford, and me.

Let’s say you have a 9-to-5 job and can dedicate yourself to writing two hours after work each day, Monday through Friday. At 10 hours a week and 50 weeks a year, you’ll log the requisite 1,000 hours in just two years, at which time you’ll be a competent writer.

So it really doesn’t take that long to put in the time needed for becoming a good writer. The problem is, when you get home from work, you’re exhausted from your hard day and long commute. You are tired and have many other tasks and errands to do, including helping your kids with their problems, making dinner, paying bills, fixing a broken table leg, whatever.

Solution: Put in your two hours a day early in the morning when everyone else is asleep (I start at 6 a.m.) or at night when the house is calmer (my wife works way past midnight).

If you can’t do that, you must question whether writing is a priority in your life at this time.

Perhaps it is not. Nothing wrong with that. I play clarinet, but find very little time to practice. I want to play better. But it is not a priority in my life. So I probably won’t get much past my current level.

So don’t look for a clarinet CD from me anytime soon.

 


Bob Bly, guest blogger

Bob Bly, guest blogger

Bob Bly is an independent copywriter and consultant with more than 25 years of experience in business-to-business, high-tech, industrial, and direct marketing.

Man a typewriter

To Read or to Write: That is the Question

Writing Tips #11 in the Series

Close last year’s Writers of the Future anthology, put the book down for a few, and write. But… But… you need to study the past winners to see what wins the contest, right?

All writers have heard it at one point of another. To write well, first comes being well-read. However, with so many hours a day drained to work, compulsively checking social media, and socializing, sometimes the choice comes down to having only time for one of the two. To read or write? That is the question.

There is no question that reading stimulates the imagination and helps generate ideas for writing. Additionally, once a writer starts reading critically, they start to discern the difference between good writing and bad writing.

Counter-intuitively, quality writing can be more difficult to find with internet access. People can indiscriminately splash their opinions and stories across the web without the review of a beta reader much less an editor. The quality and accuracy of our language and its style has suffered because of this.

So when does reading help? Find quality. Try magazines and websites being published by the companies you wish to submit to. Without reading a story from Clarkesworld, how are you going to know what themes their editors like, what has been done, what styles tend to get published in the zine, and the topics they typically do or don’t gravitate towards? Does that market have no problem showcasing violence, but steers clear of cursing? Is it a market that says yes to gratuitous sex scenes but bringing up religious controversy is a no-no?

When planning on selling a story, think like a salesperson. Who is the reading demographic? What do they want? Does the story provide something that is a good fit for them?

Brad R. Torgersen, who won a spot in Volume 26 of “Writers of the Future” for his novelette “Exanastasis,” advises that to win, you must read. “Please read recent volumes of the contest anthology. I’d recommend vol. XX through XXV, if you can get them on-line or at your local Big Brick store. My first three entries were all Honorable Mention, but I didn’t crack Finalist until I’d begun purchasing and reading the anthology.”

So apart from reading towards the markets you wish to sell too, what do you read? It depends on the kind of reader/writer you are. Some people enjoy reading classics and suggestions others insist they ‘must read!’ to complete a checklist. Try and ferret out the books that makes your heart beat faster and quicken your blood.

Above all. Write first. Read second. The only true way to be a better writer is by actually writing, no matter how well read you are. So try and develop that critical eye, read books that excite and stimulate you, and maybe pick up a classic book every once in a while to feel accomplished.

 


Peter Wacks

Peter Wacks

Guest blogger Peter J. Wacks is a bestselling cross-genre writer. He has worked across the creative fields in gaming, television, film, comics, and most recently, when not busy editing, he spends his time writing novels and there are over 3.5 million copies of his stories in circulation.


Holly Roberds

Holly Roberds

Co-author Holly Roberds wrote a science fiction/romance trilogy before being told to scrap the lot of it. Since then, she has hunted for all information about the craft of writing, honing and evolving her skills. Roberds is currently applying all hard-won knowledge to rewriting her novels, and getting her short stories published. She is also a professional freelance article/blog writer, singer/songwriter, and never has less than five jobs at one time.


image of typed letter from author to a publisher

Self-Advocacy and Publishing

Writing Tips #10 in the Series

Once you have written that story what do you do with it? Obviously you are going to head over to the submit page for Writers of the Future, but after that, what?

If the goal is to make your mom proud, odds are you can sweet talk her into posting it on the fridge next to your fingerpaintings. However, if you want to be a professional writer, you will have to enter the scary realm of submission land.

To understand publishing, you first have to understand the different markets.

Token: You receive no money for your story, but you get your work out there
Semi-Pro: Almost a professional sale, you receive between 1 and 5.9 cents per word
Pro: A professional sale means you receive a minimum of 6 cents per word.

Sometimes it is good to publish token short stories to generate relationships with editors of anthologies, and the other authors who appear alongside you. It is a great conversation starter, and by networking you can compare notes, and possibly create critique groups out of these newfound relationships.

That being said, successful writers hold their work to the highest standard, and always keep trying.

As an artist, it is difficult to feel satisfied with your work. However, ‘getting’ your work is not only dependent on the editors with all different styles and preferences, it is absolutely dependent on your effort to put your work into their inbox. As Lemony Snicket, author of A Series of Unfortunate Events, says, “If we wait until we’re ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives.” So it is best to keep putting your work out into the universe for consideration as you continue to write and improve. Though rejection will be a part of any submission process, but you must stay positive and value your work. Otherwise, no one else will.

One method of holding your work to high standards is by only sending it out to professional markets. As soon as that rejection hits your inbox, send it right back out to another professional market. Repeat this until you have run out of appropriate professional markets (make sure you fit the guidelines of what they are looking for, or it is the instant kiss of death) then kick it to the rung below, semi-pro. Start sending your story out laterally into the semi-pro market and then to token publications until your story finds a home.

Robert Silverberg a judge of WotF and winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards says, “My temperament is not inclined toward more self-promotion than is absolutely necessary for my professional well-being.” As a writer it can be a struggle to emerge from the dark safe writing holes, but it is necessary. Though Silverberg implies he is not an aggressive self-advocate, he understands he still must do so in order to reach his publishing goals.

This absolutely includes submitting pieces to Writers of the Future contest. Make sure your writing is appropriate according to the specifications and then go for it! Even, no especially, if you have never submitted anything before. There should be no shame in being a self-advocate for yourself.

 


Peter Wacks

Peter Wacks

Guest blogger Peter J. Wacks is a bestselling cross-genre writer. He has worked across the creative fields in gaming, television, film, comics, and most recently, when not busy editing, he spends his time writing novels and there are over 3.5 million copies of his stories in circulation.


Holly Roberds

Holly Roberds

Co-author Holly Roberds wrote a science fiction/romance trilogy before being told to scrap the lot of it. Since then, she has hunted for all information about the craft of writing, honing and evolving her skills. Roberds is currently applying all hard-won knowledge to rewriting her novels, and getting her short stories published. She is also a professional freelance article/blog writer, singer/songwriter, and never has less than five jobs at one time.