Over the years, I’ve turned my hand to Science Fiction a number of times, with mixed results. I’ve written some stuff that seems pretty decent, and I’ve written a whole lot of turgidly dreadful nonsense. It is, then, something of a miracle to me that I have written a whole 120,000 word science fiction novel, let alone that it is going to be book one in a series (coming in August, fact fans). But littered throughout the dusty folder where failed stories go to die are an alarming amount of stories that never quite took off. I’ve been looking back over some of them and trying to work out why, and I’ve come up with 5 ways that any writer can sabotage their own Science Fiction novel.
A situation is not enough. Sure, you can start a story with a young buck pilot in their spacecraft about to go to battle, describing every detail around them in miniscule detail. But it’s probably a good idea to work out what they’re doing in that spacecraft to begin with, and why the reader should care.
Be careful of your world building. If you go and make an offhand comment about a new piece of tech, you now have to use that tech throughout the entire rest of the story. Not so much of a problem when you’re describing a new way of watching television, perhaps, but decidedly more difficult if you replace the entire transportation system with solar-powered unicorn rides.
Consider your present. My books are set one hundred years from now, so every time you have some globally epoch-shaking news event, I have to retcon my entire future history. I’m almost certain that on the day I finally release the damn thing, someone’s going to do something that invalidates all my suppositions. I’m also fairly sure that while everyone’s running around with their hair on fire and pants full of bees, I’ll be hunched over my laptop wondering how it’s going to impact chapter three of the fourth part of book two.
Stop bringing your prejudices to the page. Listen, whether you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, stop it with the endless white saviour tropes, or the backwards society endlessly marrying off young girls to old men. Or having every race of people from south of your strangely ethno-bland main race be slave-trading people with olive skin. This especially goes for when you discovered strange new worlds and new civilisations. It’s amazing how many of those seem to have the same skewed attitudes about gender and race. We all see you, we know what it says about you, and it says you’re an asshat.
It’s all about the characters, baby. There’s been some dreadful sci-fi recently, particularly in film and tv. Sure, for every Prometheus there’s an Arrival, for every Lost in Space reboot there’s an Ex Machina, but there’s a common thread amongst the terrible ones – it’s all about the characters. They’re bland, cardboard cutouts there to service a plot that’s in turn there to service the visuals. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with nice visuals, but the relationship is all skewed. It should go the other way round, from visuals to plot to character. Horror is in a real resurgence at the moment because there’s a lot of great films that have their characters at the core of the film, and a lot of the sci-fi I’ve watched and read of late seems to have forgotten that.
There you go. Ignore these five pitfalls and you’ll have a bona fide hit. At least, that’s what I’m hoping. I’m also hoping that I’ve avoided these pitfalls, because if I haven’t, well then sheesh, that’d be kind of embarrassing.
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