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So you want to start reading Science Fiction?

Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself…Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don’t know what they’re talking about — Ray Bradbury

Science Fiction (or SF as its often abbreviated to) is one of my favourite genres, but up until I was maybe 20-years old, I thought I didn’t like it. I suspect it’s because (like many people) I had a very particular idea in mind of what constitutes Science Fiction and that vision often felt very exclusionary. 

In my mind, SF was a genre dominated by old, white men obsessed with (space) war. It was overly technical and focused too much on the nuts and bolts of intergalactic travel and advanced weaponry. 

This—and I cannot emphasize this enough—is so far from the truth! Science Fiction as a genre is so broad that there really is something for everyone to enjoy. And yes, while there is a certain subset of angry (and vocal) old white dudes who think they own SF, there’s also an amazing and growing body of work out there by women, POC, LGBT+, and other marginalized writers. 

But isn’t Science Fiction for nerds?

Well…yeah, but it’s not just for nerds. Science Fiction is for everyone and there is so much more to it than a bunch of space wizards shooting lasers at each other (although there’s plenty of that too and believe me, it can be a lot of fun).

To understand what I mean, let’s get some of the basics out of the way:

What exactly is “Science Fiction”?

Oh boy.

Listen, there’s no easy way to define SF… so let’s turn to our old pal Wikipedia to do it for us:

Science fiction (sometimes called Sci-Fi or SF) is a genre of speculative fiction that has been called the “literature of ideas”. It typically deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts such as advanced science and technology, time travel, parallel universes, fictional worlds, space exploration, and extraterrestrial life. It often explores the potential consequences of scientific innovations.

 By that definition, SF covers a lot of ground (a notion that’s hotly-debated among certain circles but we won’t get into that today) Some common subgenres include:

  • Hard Science Fiction: this type of SF leans heavily into the technology aspect, think the work of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clark. It’s concerned with scientific accuracy and logic and this can sometimes (though not always) come at the expense of character development. 
  • Soft Science Fiction: this is a little harder to define. Soft SF doesn’t typically place as much emphasis on scientific accuracy as Hard SF does, but instead uses common SF tropes to examine questions of morality, sociology, anthropology etc. A good example of Soft SF can be found in the work of Ursula LeGuin, specifically her Hainish Cycle of books.
  • Cyberpunk:  juxtaposes advancements in technology with a breakdown in social order (think the movie Blade Runner). Usually features lots of androids, AI, and Cybernetics. A seminal novel in this genre is William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
  • Steampunk: Science Fiction meets old-timey steam-powered technology! Stories are often set in an alternate Victorian Britain or American Wild West but there’s a growing body of work that looks beyond the typical eurocentric trappings of the genre. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are two of the best-known works in this genre.
  • Post-Apocalyptic Fiction: as the name suggests it’s fiction set in the period after a world-altering event. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood jump to mind.
  • Dystopian Fiction: related to but not necessarily the same as Post-Apocalyptic Fiction, Dystopias usually deal with societies where personal freedoms have been curtailed in some way. Famous examples of this include 1984 by George Orwell and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

There’s also Afrofuturism, Alternate History, Space Opera, Military Sci-Fi, Biopunk, New Wave…the list goes on (and on and on and on).

The point I’m trying to make is this—there is no one type of science fiction and in your reading, you’ll probably find that many novels lie across several different subgenres. Because of this, looking for an easy entry point to the genre can be overwhelming. Luckily for you, I’m here to help.

I’ve put together the following list of books that play with some common SF concepts to help you understand what kind of science fiction books you might enjoy. Some are more firmly entrenched in the genre than others, but I hope that even the most ardent space-wizard-haters will find something they can appreciate.

Without further ado, let’s go!

You must follow me carefully. I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted — H. G. Wells, The Time Machine

Warning: A few mild spoilers ahead.

If you like stories bursting with character try…

1.jpgLong Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers and The Martian by Andy Weir are almost exact opposites in a way. Chambers’s work features a diverse ensemble cast of characters while Weir’s book is largely told from the perspective of one person stranded alone on Mars with diminishing odds for survival.

In another way, both these books are quite similar because they’re both excellent examples of how to create memorable characters that feel utterly real.

Long Way to a Small Angry Planet tells the story of the Wayfarer, a “tunnelling” ship that travels across the galaxy creating shortcuts between two distant points. Its motley crew is made up of different alien species who live together for long periods of time, isolated from anyone else.

When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. The ship, which has seen better days, offers her everything she could possibly want: a small, quiet spot to call home for a while, adventure in far-off corners of the galaxy, and distance from her troubled past.

But Rosemary gets more than she bargained for with the Wayfarer. The crew is a mishmash of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptillian pilot, to Kizzy and Jenks, the constantly sparring engineers who keep the ship running. Life on board is chaotic, but more or less peaceful – exactly what Rosemary wants.

Until the crew are offered the job of a lifetime: the chance to build a hyperspace tunnel to a distant planet. They’ll earn enough money to live comfortably for years… if they survive the long trip through war-torn interstellar space without endangering any of the fragile alliances that keep the galaxy peaceful.

But Rosemary isn’t the only person on board with secrets to hide, and the crew will soon discover that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.

Although there is a solid plot here, the thing that makes Long Way Down so special is the interplay between the various characters. Some beautiful relationships emerge and you’ll find yourself caring about the disembodied AI Lovey more than you thought was humanly possible.

My other pick in this category—The Martian by Andy Weir—is arguably the best-known book on this whole list, and for good reason.

When the bulk of your story centres around one person stranded somewhere all by themselves, you better be damn sure that person is someone your reader is willing to spend some time with. Luckily, Mark Watney is just that kinda guy. He’s funny and nerdy and resourceful and you’ll quickly find yourself rooting for him to survive. The Martian is such a good summer read, it’s suspenseful and entertaining to the last.

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.

Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.

After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

If you’re a fan of literary fiction fan try…

Untitled design.jpgI love a good slow-burning novel, the kind of book you can really sink into and allow the prose to wash over you. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a book that does just that. Set in a post-apocalyptic North America, this book explores what remains of humanity and culture after a disease known as the “Georgia ‘Flu” wipes out most of society.

One snowy night, a famous Hollywood actor dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theatre troupe known as the Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend and a young actress with the Travelling Symphony caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame and the beauty of the world as we know it.

Fun fact—I read this back when I worked in Toronto General Hospital, which in the book was ground zero for the disease outbreak. So that was fun…

Station Eleven is a great example of why Science Fiction can be such a contentious label since the author herself resists the classification. Maybe that’s why it makes such a great entry point for SF-skeptics out there—it’s a classic post-apocalyptic story with literary overtones that’ll appeal to fans of Margaret Atwood.

My second pick in this section is one of my SF-hating sister’s favourite books, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Hailsham seems like a pleasant English boarding school, far from the influences of the city. Its students are well tended and supported, trained in art and literature, and become just the sort of people the world wants them to be. But, curiously, they are taught nothing of the outside world and are allowed little contact with it.

Within the grounds of Hailsham, Kathy grows from schoolgirl to young woman, but it’s only when she and her friends Ruth and Tommy leave the safe grounds of the school (as they always knew they would) that they realize the full truth of what Hailsham is.

Never Let Me Go breaks through the boundaries of the literary novel. It is a gripping mystery, a beautiful love story, and also a scathing critique of human arrogance and a moral examination of how we treat the vulnerable and different in our society. In exploring the themes of memory and the impact of the past, Ishiguro takes on the idea of a possible future to create his most moving and powerful book to date.

Honestly, the less you know about this book going in, the better. It’s a beautiful and lyrical dystopian story that does what all good dystopias do—forces you to question what it truly means to be human.

If you like fiction that tackles the big questions try…

4.jpgThe Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut are probably two of the most important books I’ve ever read. Though they cover very different subject matters, both will leave you questioning fundamental aspects of the human experience.

The Left Hand of Darkness forms part of LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle of novels, each of which is set on a different planet during a time when intergalactic civilizations are making contact with each other and setting up diplomatic relations for the first time. Each book in the cycle tends to focus on a different sociological or anthropological concern, e.g. The Telling explores religious and political conflict, The Dispossessed centres around two types of society—one founded on capitalism and one on anarchism, and The Left Hand of Darkness, well…

A lone human ambassador is sent to the icebound planet of Winter, a world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants’ gender is fluid. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the strange, intriguing culture he encounters…

Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.

The Left Hand of Darkness is an extremely important book in the history of SF. It’s considered one of the first feminist SF texts and though it hasn’t been without its share of controversy, no one can deny it sparked conversation around established and outdated ideas of gender and sex.

Though Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five also tackles weighty subjects—the futility of war and whether or not free will exists—it goes about it in a very different way.

Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous World War II firebombing of Dresden, the novel is the result of what Vonnegut describes as a twenty-three-year struggle to write a book about what he himself witnessed as an American prisoner of war. It combines science fiction, autobiography, humor, historical fiction, and satire in an account of the life of Billy Pilgrim, a barber’s son turned draftee turned optometrist turned alien abductee. Billy, like Vonnegut, experiences the destruction of Dresden as a POW, and, as with Vonnegut, it is the defining moment of his life. Unlike the author, he also experiences time travel, or coming “unstuck in time.” Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.

It’s irreverent and surreal and is the kind of book that even your biggest book-snob friend can get on board with because besides being funny, it’s also deeply profound. Reading it made me want to go out and get “so it goes” tattooed somewhere on my person and as a giant needle-phobe that’s saying something. I’m legitimately jealous of anyone who gets to read this masterpiece for the first time.

*****

So there you have it—my picks for gateway books to allow the genre-curious out there to dip their little toes into the Science Fiction pool.

Whether you’re totally new to SF or an old hand, I hope this post has given you some food for thought and let me know what SF books you would recommend to a newbie!

 

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How to push past a first draft (or, how I finally managed to write a book!)

Ok, confession. The title above is slightly misleading. When I say I managed to write a book I don’t mean that I am publishing said book or that it’s in any state to be read by other humans. I mean that, after years and years of trying and several failed attempts, for the first time in my life I have a completed draft of a book that contains a definite beginning, middle, and end. Quality notwithstanding, if someone stumbled upon it tomorrow they would recognize it as being recognizably book-shaped. That might not sound like much but for me, it’s a huge accomplishment.

My problems started early

Like basically every aspiring author who ever lived, I started writing from an early age, typing up stories “inspired by” (read: plagiarized from) my favourite books on my mother’s typewriter. I would fold them up, and place them in sealed envelopes that I would never again read but would instead destroy several months later in a fit of artistic despair (I particularly regret destroying a series of Babysitter Club fan-fics I wrote when I was 10).

When I was 11 or 12, I managed to write a “novel” (I say novel, but it was probably 12 typewritten pages long). I was reading a lot of WWII stories (think Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian and The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier) so naturally what resulted was a very melodramatic story called War of the Heart about a Nazi fighter pilot who got lost in a storm and crashed into a field in Ireland and was later discovered by a 12 year old girl. That novel was another casualty of my need to destroy everything I ever created so I no longer have a copy but I’m pretty sure it was resolved by the girl telling her parents and the fighter pilot being sent to prison. A thrilling tale indeed.

This pattern of creation and destruction continued until my early 20s when I decided that I was going to take writing seriously for once and finally write a damn novel. I had not one, but two English degrees under my belt and a whole bucketful of ideas. Surely it would be a breeze.

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.

When you can’t even finish the first draft

I want to jump into the stuff that might actually be helpful so I’m going to make a long story short. I didn’t finish a novel in my 20s and I truly believe that the reason it took me 10+ years to finally do it comes down to two simple things—crippling self-doubt and a need to make everything perfect. 

crippling-self-doubt-impostor-syndrome-recent-creative-accomplishments-fear-of-not-27358022
Basically

It worked like this: I would get an idea for a book and cheerfully start writing it. I would hit maybe 15-20,000 words when suddenly, I would realize how far I have to go—probably 50-70,000 more words. That’s a lot of writing. I would be hit by a crushing wave of despair and doubt. Did I have it in me to write that much? Was the idea good enough to sustain interest for that long?

I would then go back and reread what I’d written, tweaking a few words here and there (“I’ll just work on this chapter a bit more”) until eventually, I got caught in a cycle of reworking the same chapters over and over, never moving on and never satisfied with what was on the page.

I think that we can all agree that this is not the most effective way to write a book.

The worst part is that I’m actually an editor too. I’ve coached several people through early drafts of their work and whenever they got stuck I would always give the same advice: keep going, you can’t fix a blank page.

Sick and tired of being a hypocrite, I decided to finally heed my own advice.

Step 1: Drafting

You’ve probably all heard that there are two types of writers—plotters and pantsers. According to The Write Practice:

Simply put, a plotter is someone who plans out their novel before they write it. A pantser is someone who, “flies by the seat of their pants,” meaning they don’t plan out anything, or plan very little. Some people, like me, call themselves “plantsers,” which means they’re in a little of both.

As you might have guessed, for years I was a pantser. I would think of an idea, open a Word or Google doc and simply…go.

Typically, I knew what the start of the story was and roughly where I wanted to end, but the middle? That was a mystery to be unveiled as I went along.

This method worked for me…until it didn’t. As I said above, I would invariably hit the 1/4 mark of a novel and realize that it had completely fallen off the rails and I had no idea how to course-correct.

I knew I needed a guide, but chafed at the idea of a strict outline—I still liked learning about my world and my characters as I went. In the end, I decided to find a happy medium and try the plantsing approach. Here’s what I did:

I knew I wanted to write a scary story for children like the books I devoured as a youngster so I spent some time with a good old-fashioned pen and paper brainstorming some ideas. The premise came to me pretty quickly. In fact, here’s the original “pitch” I wrote (it’s changed quite a bit since then but this will give you a rough idea of what it’s about):

It’s almost Samhain and the walls between worlds grow thin. That means one thing – the trooping fairies have come to town. All the children of Clonbridge know three things: If you hear the music of the sídhe, block your ears, if you hear a scratching at your window, do not look out, and once the sun has dipped below the horizon, do not go outside. Cat knows this better than most—she has inherited her grandmother’s gift of the sight—but when her baby brother is stolen away she knows she only has one chance to save him because, when dawn breaks on November 1st, he’ll be lost forever.

From there, I started to ask myself questions:

  • How did I want the story to start?
  • How did I want it to end?
  • How would Cat’s brother be stolen away (i.e. what was the inciting incident)?
  • Why does she go after him alone?
  • What are some obstacles she might encounter along the way?

Once I had answers to these questions, I began to list out all the major events and things that need to happen (e.g. how Cat discovers her brother has been swapped for a changeling) and all of the important information a reader needs to know (e.g. that Cat’s mother is a single, working mother and her granny takes care of her most of the time).  When I was relatively sure I had a comprehensive list, I began to order them into scenes and chapters.

I now had a roadmap that I could consult. It still had plenty of gaps to allow for random creative flourishes and bouts of inspiration but it gave me a direction to work towards.

Step 2: The Vomit Draft

With a plan in place, I set about writing my very first draft. For this, I employed the vomit-draft (sometimes called the zero-draft) approach.

What is a “vomit draft” you ask? Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. You sort of…vomit out words. The idea here is to just get the story down on the page. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done.

As I said above, you can’t edit a blank page and, for me, having something—anything— to work with is far easier than getting the story out of my brain in the first place.

The key to making this work is to not look back over what you’ve written until the draft is complete. Seriously, don’t do it. The minute you look at the word-soup you’ve created your inner-editor will rear her ugly head and want to start tinkering (“I’ll just fix up this one little bit…”). You must silence this voice by any means necessary.

I managed to quell my inner-editor in two ways:

  1. I gave myself a deadline: last year I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time. Knowing I only had 30 days to write 50,000 words was extremely motivating for me. I really, really wanted to win and managed to bust out some epic wordcount days near the end.
  2. I summarized what I had just written: at the end of each writing session, I would summarize everything that just happened in my story. This way I could quickly remind myself of what I had already written without having to read back over the draft itself.

Step 3: Making it all make sense

I won’t lie, this step was daunting. Once the vomit-draft was finished I had a big pile of something that wasn’t quite a draft and wasn’t quite an outline but something mushy and in-between.

The first thing I did was pour myself a cup of tea (read: a glass of wine) and read through my summary, not my actual draft (it was too awful and I knew I would be disheartened). While I was happy with the story in general, I realized that I needed to add a few new scenes to up the tension and make some character changes. I also identified a few plot holes that needed filling in.

Then, I reworked my vomit-draft summary into an expanded and improved outline.

Now I knew with more certainty where I was going, I opened a new Scrivener file (more on my thoughts on Scrivener at a later date) and began work on my second draft.

For me, the key to getting through this draft was to take things one step at a time. I didn’t copy and paste everything over at once. Instead, I copied over one chapter at a time and worked through that, rewriting and tweaking as necessary. As I worked through the second draft and the story began to take on a more recognizable shape, I realized that there were other narrative and structural issues I needed to address. Instead of going back and fixing them in this draft, I decided to make note of them for next time—I had enough work to do adding in whole new scenes and creating brand new characters and I knew that if I went back at this point I would fall back into the endless self-editing loop.

By the end of the second draft I had two things: 1) a proper draft to work with and 2) a list of changes for next time.

Step 4: Polish, polish, polish

Now we reach the messy step. It’s the step I’m in now, the one that technically has no real end in sight.

I’ve written a third draft, using pretty much the same technique as I did for the second draft (one chapter at a time, rewrite/delete/write new scenes, make notes for next time). The difference is that now I feel like I have a really solid base to work from. I decided that for my next round of edits, I need to switch it up a little and make notes by hand. So, for the first time since I was 12 years old, I printed out a full copy of my novel.

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Title redacted because it’s a working title and I don’t know if I love it or hate it yet. Also, look carefully and you’ll spot my writing buddies—Quoth the Raven, Gnick the Gnome, and norse god Loki.

And that’s where I’m at now! The plan is to read through the novel, handwrite some notes, and prepare for draft 4.

What’s next?

That’s the question isn’t it? How do you know when it’s time to let go and let other people read and critique your work?

To be honest, I haven’t fully figured it out yet. I suspect that, for me, it’ll be after draft 5 (which will hopefully be more of a copy edit than a full revision), but that’s the sort of thing that every writer has to figure out for themselves. I’ll let you know when I get there.

TL;DR

So there you have it, how I finally pushed past the first draft and actually wrote a (workable draft of a) novel.

I hope this was helpful for some of you who might be struggling through the same kind of thing. Please keep in mind though that there is no right way to write a book. This was just the method that happened to work for me this one time.

If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this giant ramble it’s this—don’t be afraid to switch it up. If your method isn’t working for you then try something new. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even good, it just has to be finished. Revising brings its own difficulties but if you have the raw material to work with you can always make something better.

Are you working on a novel? How did you push through your first draft? I’d love to hear from you!