It Came from Outer Space: How to Write Science-Fiction, Horror & Fantasy
By Michael McCarty
(Reprinted from Byline Magazine)
When I was a kid, I thought science-fiction writers actually lived on other planets and sent their stories to Earth via spaceships. Now that I’m a little older and wiser, I know for a fact you don’t have to leave this planet to get published in the science-fiction, horror or fantasy genres.
Although these stories deal with the fantastic and the far-out, the techniques for successful fiction are down to earth. Here are some guidelines that work in more than seven solar systems.
Almost no rules exist for writing science-fiction, horror, and fantasy. The subject matter is as expansive as your imagination. However, some topics have become outdated.
Legendary Frederik Pohl once told me, “There are several kinds of science-fiction you can’t write anymore. You can’t write about the first intelligent robot, the first trip to the moon or the first nuclear war, because they’ve all happened.”
Beginning writers tend to rehash several clichéd ideas: Adam-and-Eve type stories, the last-man-on-Earth against renegade mutations, and Twilight Zone-type tales (I love the series, but too many writers have penned poor imitations).
Some of the hot trends in science-fiction right now are alternate histories, social science-fiction, humorous science-fiction, cyberpunk (computer networks and human/computer combinations), and steampunk (a sub-genre of alternate-history science-fiction in which Victorian characters have access to modern technology). If you keep your stories fresh and original, you can travel far.
Too many novice writers get buried in plot. Sure, plot is important, but so are characters, setting and atmosphere – the overall effect is most important in horror. The best way to think about plots is this: Imagine your story as a fresh corpse (if you write horror, that shouldn’t be too difficult!). When you put it in its plot, you don’t want to bury it too shallow or too deep.
Readers require skill in the telling. The most fascinating plots or story devices crumble if the story is not related with skill, with a craft subtle enough and sophisticated enough to make us care about the characters, to make us feel what they feel and transport us to their world.
These genres require a high level of craft and care, because they so often deal in matters beyond the ordinary, concepts at the very edge of credibility.
Aliens and Other Monsters
With horror, fantasy and science-fiction, you can literally create your own monster. Be it a reanimated corpse with twelve brains, a talking tree, a three-centuries-old vampire, a mischievous troll, an alien from a distant galaxy – the possibilities are infinite.
The key is to imagine a monster that readers will believe is real. Use dimension and depth in the characterization of the creature. Build the groundwork for fear by revealing bits and pieces of the beast. Create suspense step-by-step, without overloading the audience with too many details.
Your own life, especially your childhood, is fertile ground for material and inspiration. Margi Washburn, the editor of the late, great Plots Magazine, noted, “Horror writers need look no further than their own backyard to find subject matter: the misery of the ghetto-child, the degradation of women, the shame of the homeless, the unspeakable isolation of a nursing home.
“There’s real horror in loneliness and rage, in twisted love and jealousy, in the rampant greed that threatens to rot us from within. Much of today’s horror is about these dark stains on our souls, the cancers of our minds.”
Do You Believe in Magic?
Magic is one of the key elements of fantasy – but even magical powers must have their limitations.
Books by Terry Brooks, Neil Gaiman, Robert Jordan, Terry Pratchett and Anne McCaffrey deal with this element skillfully. If the characters have restricted abilities or difficulties with his or her special powers, this creates even more “magic” for the readers.
Nobody wants to read about a perfect world. Perfect is boring. Life is more interesting when things go awry, even with magic.
Big Bangs – Beginnings and Endings
The best way to grab the reader’s interest immediately is to plant the hook and drag them into the story. This is also the best way to rise to the top of any slush pile. Start with a bang of a beginning, something compelling, disturbing or even outrageous.
Likewise, the conclusion should leave a lasting impression on the reader. Endings must pack as much punch as their beginnings.
Look at H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. The prose was pretty over-the-top, but he sure knew how to start and end his breathless tales: with wild cautions at the beginning and horrific, surprising finales.
Vampire writer Michael Romkey offers this advice: “There’s a big temptation to sit around and drink beers and pretend you’re a writer. But to be a writer, you’ve got to write. My best advice is to make some kind of desperate plunge and write your book. Go hog wild and do it.”
Bram Stoker Award-winner Bentley Little shares this wisdom: “Stay true to yourself. People always say, ‘write what you know.’ But I think it’s more important to write what you love. A good writer is a good writer no matter what genre you write.”
Science-fiction writer Dan Simmons notes: “Dr. Johnson gave the best advice for writers (and readers) more than two centuries ago: ‘Clear your mind of cant.’ Cant consist of pious platitudes (or their cynical counterpoints), the technical jargon of a group, the insider prattle of a cult, and the consensus-babble of any age. Cant is political correctness and formulaic crap churned out by Hollywood and bestsellers. Cant is Christian fiction and feminist fiction and Toni Morrison fiction and Marxist fiction and any other ‘ist’ fiction. 99 percent of everything we read and hear is cant and so is most of the junk turned out by beginning writers. Clear your mind of cant.”
Genre giant Dean Koontz has this to say: “I tell every young writer to find the material about which he or she can become passionate, work hard at using the language as well as he/she can use it – and to persevere. Throughout my career, until recently I was continually told that my books would never hit big, that I couldn’t mix genres the way I did, that my stories were too eccentric, that my vocabulary was too large and therefore limited the potential size of my audience, that even the very subtle spiritual elements in my work were too prominent and would bore or flat-out offend modern readers, that readers didn’t want stories with as much thematic freight as mine carried…blah, blah, blah. I was even told these things, relentlessly – after I’d seen my books rise to the No. 1 slot on bestseller lists. What every young writer has to realize is that if he or she is doing something truly fresh, it will not immediately be supported, will not win big ad budgets, will not be understood. You must keep an open mind to criticism if it’s about technical matters – that is, about grammar and syntax, about logic holes and clear story problems – but must diplomatically reject all criticism that relates to style, intent, theme. If you have clear and passionate purpose in your writing, something to say and a determination to say it in a way unique to you, if you can explain to yourself exactly why you are doing what you’re doing in the way you are doing it – then you have to stand fast and politely resist all attempts to change you. At the end of the day, if you write with conviction and passion, then the world will come around to your stories. If you bend too much to the will of others, you’ll be reduced to blandness, to vanilla fiction, and no one will care. It also helps to sell your soul to Lucifer.”
To reach for the stars, you don’t have to go any further than your word processor. But when you get there, bring a thorough knowledge of your field and be prepared for the hard work required to make your journey a success.
Dean Koontz, Frederik Pohl and Bentley Little along with 32 other writers and filmmakers are interviewed in MODERN MYTHMAKERS: 35 INTERVIEWS WITH HORROR AND SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS AND FILMMAKERS
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