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Ninth Day Intro
Where are all the great modern science thrillers?
How to clone a nightmare
SO YOU'D LIKE TO WRITE A GREAT SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL
by Leonard Crane, author of Ninth Day of Creation
When the urge to do so settled upon me it was fairly all consuming. I wanted to write a great science fiction novel. Or at least a damn good one. As to whether I succeeded in the end I'll let others be the judge. Ninth Day of Creation took me three years to complete, ended up being 662 pages in length, and is (alas) possibly one of the least read books of its genre. I mention this last point because, as difficult as it is, the writing turns out to be the easy part. If you take away only one idea from this guide, it should be this: If you're going to invest your time writing a science fiction novel, before you even write that first sentence, think carefully about how you will market the book when the time comes. Believe me, this single preparation may save you much time and anguish later on!
Can Just Anyone Do It?
So, can just anyone write a great work of science fiction? No, of course they can't--just like not everyone can take a car engine apart and put it back together. It will depend a good deal on your life experience to this point. It will also depend on the measures of ingenuity and determination you can muster for the project. And get into the habit of thinking about the book that way: as a long term project. Because I can guarantee three things right off the bat. The writing will not be quick, it will not be fun, and it will not be easy. Especially if you will be subjecting your story to the constraints of hard science fiction--the genre I will be discussing here--where the laws of physics, biology, and chemistry play a critical role in determining where your plot can and cannot go. Think of Crichton's Jurassic Park and Benford's Timescape for the kinds of novels I have in mind, both of which are outstanding examples of the genre. You can still write wonderful science fiction without adhering so closely to the known laws of nature. I have very much liked some of the Philip K. Dick stories I've encountered. But that's not the kind of sci-fi I'll be discussing here.
Requirements For Writing Great Science Fiction
An extraordinary premise is vitally important to your book. It is also very hard to come up with one. Dinosaurs from DNA. Thus Jurassic Park in three deceptively simple words. In the late eighties Michael Crichton was able to take a fringe science (extracting genetic sequence from insects preserved in amber) and extrapolate the idea into an unforgettable theme park adventure enjoyed by millions of readers. Writing talent alone could not have done this. You should practice distilling your premise before you put pen to paper. It will sharpen your sense of what the book is about, and make it easy for others (agents, editors) to glean the book's potential without actually having to read it!
Character conflict, while not at all unique to the science fiction genre, is critical to sustaining your storyline. For this you could not do much better than to read chapter two of James Frey's How To Write A Damn Good Novel. I strongly recommend that you read the rest of the book as well. Just remember that you'll need to create at least some likable characters before dishing out the conflict between them. Otherwise the reader will not invest emotionally in your story, and for all the strife you've unleashed they will have little incentive to finish the book.
A talent for writing is also clearly required. Although this can often be obtained through the sheer practice of writing, it is more likely that you are a complete newcomer to the field and you will have to rely more on natural ability. Why? Because the experienced writer will not tackle the hard science fiction genre with any gusto. It is too demanding. You need to possess a certain amount of wide-eyed naivete to believe that you can handle the format. In that regard Jurassic Park is something of an anomaly, in that one of Crichton's best efforts comes later, rather than earlier, in his career. My advice: make sure you read as many good examples of the genre as you can, absorb the story-telling methods, and once you have that first draft in hand, rewrite, rewrite, and then rewrite some more.
Finally, if you happen to possess a Ph.D. in one of the hard sciences, you'll find this doesn't hurt you one bit. You will be accessing scientific literature on a regular basis, and you'll discover that you get good mileage from the ability to sort the chaff from the supporting evidence for your story ideas (whether it be the initiation of global winter due to a spontaneous reversal of magnetic north and south, or the discovery of a new form of life beneath the Martian polar icecaps). You don't need to know the specifics of a field in order to plunge into a story in which it plays a central role. You can learn as you go. Ninth Day of Creation is about biotechnology misadventure in the era of genome projects. I learned what I needed to learn merely by reading good non-fiction books on the subject, and by tracking references in biology science journals. On the other hand, reading and assimilating the information I found in technical papers on low frequency active sonar (about which I needed to know something to present anti-submarine warfare scenarios in the near future) would have been difficult had I not received some background training in physics. Some material simply isn't available in popular formats, and you'll have to dig for it.
Story length. Keep this on the short side, rather than make it long. Do not repeat the mistake I made of writing to the "natural length" of the tale. This may work out OK if you are an established writer with a publisher already waiting for the manuscript. But anything longer than 350 pages will dramatically reduce the chance that anyone in the publishing industry reads your masterpiece.
Story credibility. It's OK to go with an incredible premise. But get this into the story as early as possible. Once the larger idea has been swallowed whole, the reader will have less difficulty accepting what follows from it. If a hostile alien species will be dropping out of the sky to take over the capital cities of Earth, better it happen on page 7 than page 107. H.G. Wells in The War of the Worlds demonstrates the idea nicely using the first paragraph of the first page of his story to launch his incredible premise:
"No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own... No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable... Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us."
Which brings me to the last point I want to make. An editor will know whether or not your book is worth reading in full simply by determining the quality of the first five pages. So make these the best five pages in your book. Then make the rest of the book worthy of those first five pages.
Leonard Crane is a novelist who has explored the coming age of virotechnology in his science thriller Ninth Day of Creation.
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