How SF Books are Written

The esteemed Charles Stross (esteemed by me, at least; I regret he does not return my feeling for him) has an interesting and honest description of how his SFF novel evolved, interesting in particular because of the take on genre-crossing. His describes FAMILY TRADE books as ‘Science Fiction in Fantasy drag’; his take on the difference in genres is that fantasy is nostalgic and comforting, whereas SF is revolutionary.

There are in his piece nuggets of numbered wisdom for any would-be writer to ponder.

Rule 1: Don’t steal from living authors, their ecological niche in the publishing jungle is already occupied. (Alternatively: nobody needs another Robert Jordan.)

Rule 2: Steal from the best. (There’s no point stealing from the worst.)

Rule 3: If you steal an entire outfit from one writer’s wardrobe, people will mock you for being imitative. So steal from at least two, and mix thoroughly.

Rule 4: When choosing the themes to pilfer, only pick ones that you, personally, find interesting — if you pick something boring you’ll only have yourself to blame if it’s successful and you end up chained to the desk to write more of it for the next decade.

Rule 5: However much you’re stealing, make sure it doesn’t look stolen. Genre publishing is a beauty show, and originality wins prizes (but not too much originality).

Read the entry here.

My own contribution to the Strossian Rules of Enlightened Pilfering would be: Steal from outside your genre, preferably from great and ancient works, because the mere act of translating it into the tropes and expectations of the genre will force you to reconsider the implication, first, of the subject matter pilfered, and second, of the genre itself. Example: Virgil took the Homeric tragic epic ILIAD and turned it into a tale of Roman triumphalism in the AENEID. Milton then took the same tropes and inverted them in PARADISE LOST, a story not of triumph but loss, where the hero most fitting the pagan notions of grandeur and courage is none other than Lucifer, the grand outwardly only, but inwardly wretched villain.

Indeed, I believe in the back of one of the Dungeon Master guides by Gary Gygax, there is a chart to allow you to develop a science fiction novel idea. I will try to reproduce it here, from memory:

1. Edward Gibbon
2. Dante
3. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
4. Edgar Rice Burroughs
5. Sax Rohmer
6. HP Lovecraft
7. Robert H. Heinlein
8. Olaf Stapledon
9. H.G. Wells
10. A.E. van Vogt
11. Mallory
12. Ian Fleming

Roll 1d12 twice on this table and combine the authors. Its easy! You then roll a d4 for the theme and treatment (1=follow slavishly; 2=reverse the expectations; 3= treat more realistically than the original author; 4=treat less realistically.) Roll a 6d3 for the number of characters, and 1d4 for the ending (1=happy; 2= tragic; 3= ambiguous; 4= Don’t end it, write a sequel.)

For example, if you roll a 6 and a 12, you have to write a spy story in a background of supernatural horror, James Bond versus Cthulhu, which is, of course DECLARE by Tim Powers.

But if you roll a 6 and a 3, then you have to write a mystery story in a background of supernatural horror, Sherlock Holmes versus Cthulhu, which is, of course, AN EVIL GUEST by Gene Wolfe.

Isaac Asimov threw a 1 and a 9, so he had to write a story about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in the context of an H.G. Wellsian scientifically planned state: which of course was FOUNDATION and its sequels.

For my own book, THE GOLDEN AGE, I rolled a 8 and a 10. Olaf Stapledon wrote LAST AND FIRST MEN, a tale of the utopian far future, and A.E. Van Vogt wrote WORLD OF NULL-A, a yarn about an amnesiacal superhuman being shadowed by sinister enemies. So I had to write a story about a superhuman amnesiac shadowed by sinister enemies in a far future utopia. A paradox, is it not? I had to come up with a good idea to satisfy the requirements of the die roll.

But fortunately, Roger Zelazny’s formula for how to get story ideas is just as helpful as the Gygax chart. What Mr. Zelazny did was put milk and cookies on his back doorstep, and in the morning the cookies would be gone, and a pile of story ideas would be sitting there. That is what I did, but the story ideas did not come.

I then remembered Harlan Ellison’s famous quip: when asked, where do you get your ideas? he answered sarcastically, “Schenectady!” — or was it sarcasm!?!

I was able to hitch-hike to Schenectady, which is not far from the Science Fiction Writer’s of America’s guild mansion, and, disguised as a deodand, I stalked Harlan Ellison until I found him crouched on the porch of Roger Zelazny’s house, eating the milk and cookies. I was able to stun Mr. Ellison with a shovel, and, rifling through the pockets of the greasy trenchcoat he wore, found half a dozen story ideas written in a spiderwebs on Indian leaf. One was about some clown in a world controlled by schedules; the other was about some dude with no mouth trapped by an all powerful computer. Just junk, really. No one could write anything good from that.

Unfortunately, Harlan was packing a skull-gun, and he managed to lift the trapdoor in his toupee and blow off my left leg before I could roll him into the shallow grave I had prepared. Fortunately, this is the fake leg I use to pass among human beings without comment: it is hollow, and I used it to keep my Chiliagon, my Destiny Prognostication Engine, and my spare sock puppet of Robert Heinlein inside. During the moment when I reverted to my hideous True Form, he seemed stunned, and I began to slither away clutching the story ideas in a secondary dorsal mouth. But more unfortunately, when I glanced over my shoulder-hump, he had reverted to HIS even more hideous and more true form, which scalded and stunned me. When I came blearily to consciousness again three days later, I was in a Tijuana jail cell, nude, drenched with cheap booze, facing charges of transporting donkeys across state lines for immoral purposes, and with the word LOLA tattooed in neon across my buttocks. Let my sad story serve as a warning to others not to frell with Harlan Ellison!

And, yes, all science fiction authors have a true form, which we keep in a tesseract warehouse buried beneath the SWFA mansion. Fantasy authors too, but their true forms are more lacy and delicate, and some have wings. This is why critics talk about writers “being true to form” or “returning to form.” Your true form is unleashed when you walk the Pattern of Amber, which is kept beneath the SWFA mansion in the basement next to where the “failed” Kwizach Haderach are chained. You have to have sold three short stories to a nationally recognized magazine or anthology, or sold a novel, to qualify to walk the Pattern, and be careful not to carry any electrically conductive items in your pockets.

My next roll, I rolled two tens, so I had to write a sequel to A.E. van Vogt. But I was out of ideas! Since I knew I could not defeat Harlan of Eddore, I got up my shovel, put on my trench coat, and when hunting for John Hemry, whom I had lulled into thinking me his friend. My manservant Max and I managed to trap him in a dead end alley in Hoboken, where he was far from any of his poles of power. I used my prongs to absorb enough of his vital essence — over 30 quatloos — to finish that novel in record time. He managed to shift into an alternate frame and therefore to elude me, and is now hiding under the name Jack Campbell, no doubt quaking in terror.

Myself, I would have finished the novel I am working on over two years ago, except that the dread and dreaded John Scalzi came upon me unawares while I was in the graveyard at midnight, while I was cranched, with my extract-gathering organs not only unwrapped but dangling open, when he came upon my in a dazzling series of eerie hops, burbling, coat tails flapping, and used his prongs to devastating effect, absorbing my last few horded drops of vital essence so he could complete THE LAST COLONY in 2008. See how it works?

We Science Fiction writers retain a remarkable amount of amity and good will, all things considered.