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Developing and explaining new ideas

1. You don’t have to be entirely original.

There are plenty of very good, best-selling stories out there that employ the familiar tropes of SF that have been with us since the real flowering of the genre in the first part of the 20th century.

You may decide that you simply want to write a story with a SF trapping – a story that could be set in the ancient world, the medieval period or modern day given the alteration of a few names and a few bits of technology. There is nothing wrong with this. Such stories have sold and can be great fun.

However, some would find this unsatisfying to write and some unsatisfying to read. If you decide your ambition is to write something more than a Western with ray guns instead of six guns, you still don’t need to be utterly original.

If we think of stories such as The Time Traveller’s Wife, this uses a well-worn SF trope – that of time travel – but puts two interesting spins on it. The time traveller cannot completely control his travelling – sometimes it just happens to him. The story is also not told from his point of view but from that of his lover. We are concerned not with the technology itself but with its impact – crucially its emotional impact. The whole narrative drive is provided by the character’s accommodation with this unreliable time travel and their attempts to make their relationship survive.

Science fiction – it’s been said with some justification – is a literature of catastrophe. If everything were going fine, there would be little to write about.

Its central question of course is ‘What if…?’ I would add a second to follow however you choose to complete that sentence: ‘And what if that went wrong?’ How it goes wrong, and how your characters respond to it going wrong is, of course, up to you.

If you have to choose between two ideas, choose the one that causes the biggest problems for your characters. This doesn’t mean a story with two alien nasties in it is better than a story with one. Focus on the story that causes the biggest dilemma for your characters.

2. Science fiction differs from other genres in that there is nothing that can be taken for granted about the world you are describing.

You are not rooted to present day reality so everything – from transportation to personal relationships – is up for grabs and potentially needs to be explained.

This can be daunting but you don’t need to know everything about your new universe before you can begin.

Writers are all different. Some need a detailed map of where they are going, some are happy to fly blind.

However much a planner you are by inclination, there comes a point where you have to stop drawing the map and actually begin the journey.

Part of the fun of writing is to let the work develop organically. You will feel how much is the same and what has changed between the real world and your invented one as you go.

You don’t know what sort of food they eat on Alpha Centurai? Don’t worry – just write up until that point and decide then. Or don’t decide then. Write past that point and fill it in later. Make friends with the letters XXXX. The flow of your writing is more important than any tiny detail.

Trust yourself, though. If a small detail seems fascinating or important to you, explore it.

Don’t be afraid to deviate from your plan. If the food on Alpha Centauri raises interesting problems for your protagonist, explore them. The deviation may prove more interesting than the original story. If it doesn’t, you always have the delete button on your side. Or the deviation might even make another story entirely. There’s no pressure on you to produce perfection – or anything near it – immediately. Have fun. If something feels right, go with it.

3. There are two broad sorts of technological advancement you will detail in your SF story – the fundamental change and the incidental colour.

Do not get snagged up in the latter. It’s important and has its place but we don’t need pages and pages of it. The only things you need to describe are those that impact on the protagonist, preferably in an emotional way.

4. Rather than tell the reader about your technology, offer them clues, show them your characters interacting with it.

Try to do this from the character’s point of view. If something is commonplace in your character’s world, it would be wrong to have them describe its function in detail.

A beast mentioned by name on page one, perhaps with a description of its gait or size, can be revealed more fully on page 10, 20 or even not at all. The reader of SF is curious about your world and enjoys the thrill of discovery and, to an extent, of invention. The reader will fill in the gaps like the eye fills in gaps in a cleverly constructed optical illusion, if you present those gaps well enough.

The reader will enjoy having questions raised about how your characters can telepathically communicate with each other. You don’t need to explain how that works until it becomes important to your protagonist and in a way that inspires an emotional response. Perhaps she has the bio-hardware removed as a punishment and becomes one of only a few non-telepathic people on a telepathic planet. Perhaps – as in Iain M Banks’ Feersum Enjin, disconnection from a pseudo-telepathic grid is actually a privilege.

If you really want to explain something, have it go wrong. I know far more about the workings of old cars and computers than I have ever wanted to know simply because I’ve had to fix so many of them.

5. We want to know how the future feels.

When you are describing a future city or spaceship or society, you are not looking to provide a workshop manual or a guidebook. Detail has its place and some SF stories thrive on it, but if you want your work to appeal more widely than to a tech-obsessed audience, you are going to have to let us know what the future feels like. You don’t need to know – immediately – why the sky above the space port has such an odd colour, you don’t even have to agree whether the description means the sky was a flat blue or a fuzzy grey, all you need is the kick in the guts delivered by the description that it was the colour of television tuned to a dead channel. You know you are not entering a utopia.

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