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March 2, 2013

The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova

Ben Bova: The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells
Craftsmanship can be taught, and it is the one area where new writers consistently fall short. In most cases it is simple lack of craftsmanship that prevents a writer from leaving the slushpile. Like a carpenter who has never learned to drive nails straight, writers who have not learned craftsmanship will get nothing but pain for their efforts. That is why I have written this book: to help new writers learn a few things about the craftsmanship that goes into successful stories.
Not only does Ben Bova have a long list of book credits to his name, he was the editor of Analog and Omni, and he used to read all the manuscript submissions. The whole slush pile. As he says above, most of those manuscripts failed, not because of deficient ideas or bad artistly, but through faults in their basic mechanics.

The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells is a short, to-the-point book that lays out the basics of crafting a good science fiction story. After a short introduction, the book has four sections: character, background, conflict, and plot. Each section has a chapter on theory, a full short story, and a chapter on practical considerations, with reference to the sample story. A final section discusses special considerations for novels.

Is research the key to good science fiction?

The book has some good points about research. How can you write what you know when you’re writing speculative fiction? Research. You find an astronaut and get him to coauthor the book. You move to New Mexico for a while. You spend serious time at the library. Bova suggests you keep a book of notes on plot, character sketches, background and setting, and everything else you have to keep straight.

That’s so much work on research alone, but maybe that’s what it takes. Dune is a great book because Frank Herbert built a detailed background of ecology,* politics, economics, and religion for his story. But books with poorly thought-out backgrounds are flat and uninteresting; their stories don’t ring true. Maybe, to make something great, you have to take the approach of doing as much work as possible.

* Although Dune is perhaps not the best example of good speculative science. For starters, it’s hard to think of a plausible way for sandworms to travel through sand.

Update: See also Christina Vasilevski’s review.

Reviewed from a library copy of the book.