WRITING 102 - Writing Science-Fiction and Fantasy

Some Basics

Posted Aug 13, 2010
Last Updated Aug 13, 2010

!!!Absolutely Essential!!!

If you ignore everything else I say here, heed this: to develop the ability to write well, write. Write a LOT. Thinking about it isn't enough.


That said, I'm a human being, writing this off the cuff, so it may contain errors of fact (gasp!). It is certainly not holy writ, not even what I just labelled "absolutely essential." Somewhere out there are a very few inexperienced individuals who can actually write well enough to sell first drafts. But they too are likely to improve with experience. The best advice I can give you is a mixture of knowledge and informed opinion. File it in the back of your mind, and factor it into your decisions where and if it seems appropriate. Your decisions are your own.

Science Fiction, or Fantasy?

Science fiction and fantasy get lumped because (1) both involve speculative worlds that resemble the familiar universe, but in which some things are different; (2) many readers read both SF and F, which sometimes are hard to tell apart; (3) they tend to be published by the same companies; and (4) usually they're shelved together in bookstores. Be familiar with both SF and F, and have a good idea of which you most want to write, then focus on it, at least until you've had some experience.

Read a Lot of whatever genre you select, especially early on, but don't neglect other reading. SF & F authors tend to enjoy reading both history and science. Some have degrees in one or the other. It's all grist for the writer's mill. But why read a lot of SF or F? Because conventional terms and concepts have grown within SF in particular, to express certain story needs and ideas, terms and concepts very useful in communicating to readers.

Consider: In the very numerous story universes of science fiction and fantasy, there are all kinds of ways you can have things happen. But you have to communicate them with words, and make them real to the reader. "Faster than light" travel (FTL), for example, has been rationalized in various ways. You can adopt or adapt one of those ways — one set of explanations — for your story, or you can come up with something different. But that something different may require that you set it up for the reader, which can require more words — more space in the story — than you care to give it. While if you use conventional terms and stay within their bounds, you need not elaborate; your readers will know what you mean and be content with it.

Books on How to Write

There are numerous books on how to write fiction (and some on how to write SF specifically). I own at least a dozen, picked up over the years, and have read others. None are essential, and a few are misguided, but probably all can be useful. I particularly recommend two: The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner, and The Craft of Science Fiction, edited by Reginald Bretnor. Unavoidably such books (or essays in Bretnor's collection) reflect their writer's personality. For example, Orson Scott Card is more than a fine and thoughtful writer; he is passionate about his views. Naturally, in his book on writing SF, that passion is reflected in his advice and in what he considers important, and you can argue with some of it, but it's well worth reading, worth knowing his views.

One how-to book I recommend is a broad spectrum work titled How to Write What You Want & Sell What You Write, by Skip Press. It's a cornucopia of practical writerly advice, more than a little of which I've never used because I march to a different drummer…and have gotten away with it. But browsing it again recently…well, if I'd read it as a lad of 50 (20 years before it was written), and had heeded it… I like what I've done, and it suited me, but Skip Press makes points very worth thinking about. And his approach is so danged practical...and he writes so darned well, I'd have been well served to pay more attention.

Skip's is not the only useful book on the business of writing. As you go along, you'll probably want to examine some others. One you really should get is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Handbook, of which more later.

Formal Instruction

Most science fiction conventions have writers' workshops, and over twenty-eight years of attending conventions, I've participated as a critic and guide in scores of them. (More about this later too.) Some aspiring writers who submit manuscripts lack basic writing skills. If you feel you might be weak in some of those skills, consider signing up for a course in creative writing at a local college. The instructor may even tell you to take a course in English composition, first. That may be good advice, saving you time, frustration, and grief.

You may also hear about creative writing courses offered through your local Parks & Recreation Department, or some equivalent. Some of them I'm sure are well worth while. However, in one I know of, the instructor's competence was…not very sound, despite her MA in creative writing. When asked about proper manuscript format, she not only didn't know, she insisted there was no such thing. This was 20 years ago, when there was very definitely a standard format. Her ignorance reflects poorly on (1) her education, (2) her inexperience, and (3) a tendency to speak without thinking. When a publishing house buys a novel, even a very polished novel, its staff puts considerable work into converting it into a good book. Proper manuscript format grew out of the needs of copy editing, production mark-up, typesetting etc. To purchase a manuscript with seriously deficient formatting creates a lot of extra work, expense and aggravation for the folks who'll have to prepare it.

But that's not what happens to the seriously non-standard, unless the first page is drop-dead brilliant, or has an idea that captivates the marketing office. What does happen is that somewhere on the first few pages (or in the first paragraph), the assigned editorial assistant will wince, put it in the self-addressed stamped envelope you enclosed, and mail it back to you with a rejection slip. Or if you didn't enclose an SASE, will toss it in the recycling bin. Neither, I trust, is what you'd hoped for. And even if your story is brilliant, if they don't read it, they'll never know. And they're unlikely to read something in a format that's going to create problems and extra work. There are too many others waiting to be read.

Incidentally, regarding format, for many years there was a pretty much standard format, with standard font types, for submitting manuscripts. No longer. Now you'd best visit the publisher's website; which should tell you what format they want. They may want it as an email attachment, or insist on the old format sent by priority mail, or... Tom Clancy could send one written in pencil on butcher paper and it would probably be welcomed, but Tom Clancy is scrupulously professional in every respect, and wouldn't play a stupid game like that. (Well, conceivably to an old pal as a practical joke, but not as a serious submission.)

Some 15 or 20 years ago, I phoned a college English department and spoke to the chairperson of the creative writing faculty, volunteering to speak to their students on writing for the market. I was told very politely, even apologetically, that they weren't interested in "writing for the market." That they taught their students to write "literature." 
Okay; that defines the limits of what they're undertaking, but a single guest lecture on the real world might broaden their prospects for publication.

Nonetheless, if you're a hopeful amateur, a year of creative writing, at that or some similar college, would probably improve your skills importantly. Even drastically. Just be aware that there are things they may not teach you, and you may be exposed to some artsy prejudices. The basic criterion is not how artsy you may be. It's a package: the story you have to tell, how well you tell it, and (let me whisper this) the formatting that greets the editorial assistant when she/he sees the first page.

It's best if it says "I am business-like," not "aren't I cute?"
 Stories can be cute, but your presentation should be professional.

Live-In Workshops

There are nationally known live-in creative writing workshops you can apply to. In the more prestigious, you have to show evidence of actual talent before you're accepted. To serve as instructors, they invite gurus (in a good sense of the word) with a record of commercial and artistic success. The thrust is to produce writing that is both commercially viable and artistically strong. If accepted, you attend for two tightly-scheduled weeks or so, are lodged and take your meals on the premises, get tough assignments, are rigorously critiqued daily and critique others, and get close personal attention from the gurus.

There are or were two such workshops I'm specifically aware of: Clarion East in Michigan, and Clarion West, I believe in the Seattle area. I suppose there are others, and there may be scams as well, so if you're looking for an intensive, live-in workshop experience, do a little research first. Such intensive workshops — any workshops in fact — can have a flip side: I've heard of workshops that got out of hand, with thoughtless or arrogant participants verbally beating up on other participants. That can kill a workshop. The resident gurus have the elevation, authority, and responsibility to quash bullying. If they don't deal with it, respond honestly and don’t be dismayed.
Ask for a refund.
The point of the whole thing is growth, not arrogance or insult.

On the other hand, a good attitude and a certain thickness of skin are necessary, because the perceived flaws in your work should and will be pointed out — ruthlessly if that's what it takes, and that can be uncomfortable.

One-Shot Workshops

Workshops are commonly offered free of charge at science fiction conventions, guided by professional authors. Each workshop is a one-shot deal about two hours long or occasionally longer. To participate, get in touch with the convention a few months in advance. Ask them to send you the necessary information, then follow instructions. They'll ask you to send a sample of your writing to the person in charge, who will pass it on to the pros who'll do the critiques. Then you'll get together at the convention and they'll go over your piece with you.

Tell Google to find science fiction conventions, or have it give you the website of one you know about. If they have a workshop, they'll say so.

Regarding "free of charge": there may be a small fee for photocopying, and for mailing the copies to the pros. In the Inland Northwest there is RadCon at Pasco WA in February, MisCon at Missoula MT in May, and SpoCon at Spokane WA at the end of July. In the coastal Northwest, conventions are numerous, among them NorwesCon in Seattle in April, and VikingCon at Western Washington University, in — August I believe; along with OryCon in Portland, RustyCon in the Seattle area, and in some years V-Con in VanCouver, Canada. (Those are just the ones I've been to occasionally.) Their websites should link you to whoever's in charge of their writers workshop.

As for the pros — most are kindly souls, but frank. Even non-abrasive critiques can smart, but they can also alert you to the areas you need to work on, and provide tips on how to handle them. Actually handling them, of course, is up to you. You're quite free to continue making the same tired old deadly errors, if you insist.

Let me add that "if it works, it works," regardless of writerly lore to the contrary, but the flip-side is, "if it doesn't work, it doesn't work." You have to make it work!

Bootstrap Groups

There are innumerable bootstrap writers groups that get together monthly, biweekly, or even weekly, to read and critique each others' manuscripts. The blind leading the blind? Sometimes. But if the group subscribes to, say Writers Digest, and if there are members who attend workshops, your writing will very likely improve, perhaps dramatically. So ask around. Bookstores often know of such groups.

When you hear of a group that sounds promising, find out if you can sit in on a session as a guest. Do the critiques make sense? Do they beat up on some designated victim? The Spokane group I belonged to for 15 years, didn't stand for sadistic or insulting critiques. On the other hand, oooing and aaahing, or simply not commenting on weaknesses, strengthens bad habits. If the critiques are frank, make sense, and are not bullying, consider asking to join.

There are also groups whose only purpose is to puff up the leader. I know of one led by an individual with no visible talent, who forbade comment by anyone but himself, and was a fount of erroneous "knowledge." If that's the sort of company you crave, have at it. But if you want to improve your skills, I recommend you avoid groups like that.

Workshops on the Web

I've had no experience with workshops on the web, but I'll bet there are some good ones. Snoop around and visit some.

Reference Books

Learning more about writing and marketing is always a good idea. The library is a good place to start, and you'll find books you'd like to own. It's well to familiarize yourself with the current issue of the annual Novel & Short Story Writer's Market. I also suggest you own The American Heritage College Dictionary, with its many usage notes; Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (a study of the nuances of meaning to help you choose the most appropriate of several synonyms); and Roget's Thesaurus as a finder of lost words. Being old, and beset by senior monents, I use my thesaurus a lot. There are various versions of "Roget's" thesaurus, and I've owned and tossed most of them. For me, HarperCollins' 5th edition, edited by Robert L. Chapman, is the best and most inclusive. I recommend the hardcover; mine gets a lot of use. 
(There is also a 6th edition I haven't explored.)

A good book on English composition might be useful, and for some writers a necessity. Strunk & White's for example, and the excellent but less well-known Style, by Joseph Williams, published by the University of Chicago Press. I recommend owning both. You might be surprised at how useful they are. And simply reading them isn't enough. Apply them suckers!

Eventually you'll also want a good encyclopedia. Wikipedia is good, and Google. And while employed as a copy editor, I found The University of Chicago's A Manual of Style indispensible, with its detailed index. Over the years, you might add a few basic science textbooks. I also find the Oxford English Dictionary (bought second hand in 1985, for $99) very useful for its historical insights. Mine is in two huge microcopied volumes read with a large reading glass (photo-shrunk down from twelve volumes, I believe).

Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, and The American Medical Association Family Medical Guide are very useful. I also have shelves of biographies, history, atlases, and miscellaneous other references.

Another very useful publication is the SFWA Handbook mentioned earlier. Check the SFWA website for how to buy a copy. 
If you are unfamiliar with book contracts and are invited to sign one, read it carefully, in conjunction with what the SFWA Handbook says about them. (There have been several editions over the years.)

You might even want to read Chapter 4, "The Book Publishing Contract," in Kirsch's Handbook of Publishing Law. That's not a SFWA product, but at $22 it's a bargain.

And finally, you'd do well to get a book on writing a book proposal. I own How to Write a Book Proposal, by Michael Larsen. Larsen, an agent, is quite didactic, but he is also very experienced.

Some writers would consider my reference library deficient, but it's served me well.

Breaking into the Market

(Getting Your Foot in the Door)

Few large mainstream publishers accept unagented manuscripts, but the situation is happier in SF & F, where my non-science experience has been. You can wrap up your SF or fantasy book proposal, along with a synopsis and sample chapters (guiding on the publisher's instructions), enclose a brief, matter-of-fact covering letter and an SASE, and mail them to the appropriate editor at, say Damfyn Books. (The current Writer's Market, or Damfyn's website, will give you the address, and some tips on what Damfyn wants.) I believe that so far only three major SF&F book publishers: Del Ray, Dutton, and Warner Aspect, have stopped considering unagented manuscripts. All the SF and F magazines are open to unagented submissions, so many doors remain open to newcomers. 
It's possible, however, that some other SF and F book publishers will follow the examples of Del Ray etc. Which brings us to the subject of—

Literary Agents

A genuine literary agent can get your manuscript considered at publishers who won't even open a one-page query letter from an unagented writer. 
I'm talking about genuine agents, who make their money by making money for their writers.

What do literary agents do, and why?

Let's look at it from a publishers viewpoint. Publishers don't get paid on the basis of how many manuscripts they evaluate at some expense. Their profits depend on the sale of books; millions of individual books. A publisher accepting unagented manuscripts might receive 1,500 novels a year and publish 50 of them. So to publishers, agents provide a filter that greatly reduces the number of unsuitable manuscripts they'd otherwise need to spend time on (and that meanwhile take up space).

Also, consider that an agent who sends a publisher sub-par manuscripts, or manuscripts clearly inappropriate to the publisher's book line, may lose credibility and influence there. Bad for the agent, bad for his writers.

To authors, on the other hand, an agent is someone who gets their authors' manuscripts considered by acquisitions editors at publishing houses. Your agent may also suggest writing projects to you. In general your agent is interested in seeing you successful, because the more money you make, the bigger are her 15% commissions. Makes sense, eh? Beyond all that, an agent does the negotiating, checks the contract clauses, and explores foreign and subsidiary rights — things the writer may feel uncomfortable with or inadequate to. Besides, if the senior editor at Splendid Books gets irritated, it's normally with the agent, not the author. And a senior editor is probably less apt to pressure an agent, especially the agent who also represents author Big-Name Gotbucks, whose work the publisher lusts after. (Actually most editors are polite within reason.)

The problem with getting a real agent is — getting a real agent. They want clients whose books will make money for them, if not immediately, then in the near future. They have families and landlords and retirement portfolios to feed. Meanwhile, when a newbie author is taken on, the account may be assigned to an assistant or junior partner. Some agents get more money for their clients than others do. They're better negotiators or gamesmen, and on top of that, attract big-name authors.

Some agents specialize in SF&F. They tend to develop a sense of what individual editors like, how to talk to them, and who is looking for what. Also they're usually well qualified to judge the saleability of your manuscript, and are reluctant to send out something they doubt they can sell. They will not represent a story they think may embarrass them professionally. They can't afford to; their reputation is important to their success.

There are directories of reputable agents: agents who make their money by getting money for their writers, not from their writers, and harvesting their 15% commission. At least two of those directories are of associations of ethical agents. A good list tells you the kinds of books each agency says it's willing to handle. Tell your web browser to take you to literary agents or authors' representatives, and get a sense of the scene.

The surest way to get an agent is when you get a call from the editor at Admirable Stories magazine, saying he wants to serialize your novel. Tell him great; you'll have your agent get in touch with him promptly! Then call a reputable agent right away and tell him what just happened. The odds are, he'll take you on. It helps to have one already in mind.

This scenario, of course, requires producinging a saleable manuscript. Which means write, write, write! Then get your work critiqued if you can, whip it into shape, mail it off to a publisher — and begin writing the next one, because you'll probably have to wait months, perhaps a year or more, to hear back on the first. A publisher's reading stack (called "the slush pile") is large.


Up till now I've used adjectives like genuine and reputable in writing about agents. But some are more appropriately called barracudas. Let me put it this way: In general, magazines have to sell ad space to stay financially afloat. So you can see ads by "agents" who are "looking for talented new authors." (Generally translates to chumming for suckers.) For a fee, they say, they'll read your manuscript, and if it's good, they'll represent it for you. The reading fee may come to several hundred bucks, or perhaps only thirty or forty. I have a well-heeled friend who sent a manuscript to one of them, with a check for $200, to see what would happen. He showed me what they sent him: an analysis that was not only worthless, but poorly written! My friend laughed and went on writing. (His niche, incidentally, is audio books, marketed especially through truckstops. He'd already sold a dozen or so.)

Other such "agents" are more nearly piranhas; they operate in groups. Your so-called "agent" replies that your novel is promising, but needs some help, and suggests you send it to Reinholdt Rottweiler, a "highly regarded book doctor" who'll fix it up for you. (For a healthy fee.) Actually, Reini is his cousin, and a graduate of Sing Sing University Penitentiary. They'll string you along as far as your money and gullibility allow. If you stay the course, they may even arrange a subsidy contract for you, which you could have done on your own at less cost. (More about subsidy publishing a little farther on.)

The above is not to say that anyone who charges a reading fee is a crook. A competent critique or editing job requires skill, time, an informed and refined eye for details, and (believe me) nervous energy. But a phony won't provide a competent job, so it's important to be skeptical.

Small Presses

When an outfit like Colossal Books replies that your novel isn't right for them, that may simply mean that its apparent market is too small to interest them. Or that yours is "soft SF," and they're working on an image in "hard" SF. Or that unknown to you, the editor had decided to use it, only to have it vetoed by Marketing. 
Trust me; such things happen.

If your story's been the rounds, or when you get fed up with waiting, there are the small presses, which are publishers with fewer resources. There are quite a lot of them, many not listed in Writer's Market, so you may need to do some research to locate them. They have limited distribution, but they put out some good books. My impression is, you're not likely to get an advance payment from a small SF or fantasy publisher.

You will, of course, bone up on contracts before you sign one.

The New Publishing

By "new publishing" I mean electronic publishing and POD (print on demand) publishing. If you are Stephen King, these can be quite lucrative.

The advantage in electronic publishing is, operating costs are relatively low. The problem with electronic publishing is, sales are also generally low. The low sales problem will change as digital readers become sufficiently inexpensive. While print-on-demand can be a boon to small press publishing as the industry adjusts.

POD has advantages over electronic publishing. The product looks like most any other trade paperback, and you can read it on a bus or in the park without a still rather expensive electronic reader. Also it doesn't require big print runs, thus avoiding or minimizing warehousing costs, and reducing the sometimes deadly "cover returns" as well.

Here's how "cover returns" work: In conventional publishing, if sales are poor, the retailer can rip off and return the covers of the unsold books to the publisher for full refunds. (Some POD publishers also accept cover returns.) Sixty percent or more of a 15,000-book shipment may easily bounce in this way, which makes publishers weep bitter tears! Today a sell-through of 70% is considered very good. Eventually, though, sales taper off. Your book may still be generating some sales, but not enough to reorder, nor to reprint for the orders that come in. So off come the covers! Ouch!

However (surprise! surprise!), POD has its own problems. A publisher's web site can produce direct sales to readers, but for major sales, a publisher needs to get books into bookstores. And bookstores have computerized systems (for accounting, inventory, reordering, distributor liaison — just about everything), systems designed to interface with those of the big distributors. Thus stores and distributors tend to be unhappy about interfacing with new small publishers, which are often poorly organized and inexperienced.

Besides which, some POD houses don't accept booksellers' cover returns. And of course, some booksellers assume that the (to them) poor business practices of some POD publishers are shared by the others. POD is a new system finding its way. In a few more years...but that's not now. So if you're thinking of going POD, move with care. I did, with a collection of short fiction published years previously. So far I've liked doing business with Regal Crest Books, which has been successful with its romances, especially its homosexual romances (which I have not written). 
(Niche markets can be profitable.)

As with small publishers in general, with POD houses there's the matter of cover-art quality. Conventional publishers may pay $5,000 for the cover art on a first novel, and $7,500 after you've had some success, a cost that hopefully will be covered by book sales. But a POD novel may sell fewer than a hundred copies. Say yours sells 500 copies; then a $5,000 cover illustration would cost $10 per book sold. 
Except, of course, it won't get a $5,000 cover. But imaginative and skillfully used graphic technology can produce some nicely respectable cover art for considerably less.

Inevitably, some POD publishers are barracudas with contracts from hell. They aim at owning every book you'll ever write, on shameful terms, before you ever write them. 
But take heart! The aforementioned SFWA handbooks, and Kirsch's Handbook of Publishing Law, provide guidelines for navigating those waters.

Not surprisingly, some POD outfits are subsidy publishers.

Subsidy Presses

Subsidy presses are publishers who publish books at the author's expense. There's nothing wrong with doing this if you can afford it, but if you've written a science fiction or fantasy novel, consider making a serious try at getting it published by someone who'll pay you.

Some very worthwhile books that did not at first appeal to commercial publishers were initially published by a subsidy publisher, or even self published.

Self Publishing

Self publishing is not simply an economical form of subsidy publishing. There are important behind-the-scenes differences; see


To self publish, you learn the ropes and do as much of the work as you want and can do yourself, or hire it done. It's an excellent way to publish your family history, your memoirs, a book about your home town, or the story of your mortar company in Iraq, and there's no reason you can't self publish that sword and sorcery epic you've been working on. Statistically the odds are strongly against making money with it, but you may be someone who likes bucking the odds. 
Or simply wants to see it as a book.

And now for those helpful guidelines I mentioned earlier:

The Bulletin of the Science Fiction

& Fantasy Writers of America

The quarterly SFWA Bulletin is a valuable source of articles about writing SF&F — about the writing process, publishing, agents, laws, contracts, and current markets for stories long and short. And more. I recommend it. You may be able to examine back issues in your city library. Back issues may also be available from the Bulletin office. Check the SFWA website for how to buy a copy.

I hope you've found this section on publishing helpful. Now back to actual writing, beginning with a reminder: if you've made up your mind to write, then write as much and as regularly as your circumstances permit.


This section expands on what I wrote about prologs in Writing 101. Success in writing is not a function of abiding by the rules. Or of ignoring them. It's a matter of pleasing readers. However, rules often reflect reality, however partially and imperfectly, so be aware of them. Just don't mistake them for universal laws. One such rule, often asserted by writing instructors, is "never use a prolog; anything you might want to put in a prolog is better woven into the story."

Why, then, do so many successful authors use prologs?

One of my novels, The Lantern of God, would make very limited sense if the reader didn't know its backstory (its fictional history) — thousands of years before Chapter One. And the characters in the story don't know it. Thus I opened with a prolog: five poignant pages to provide that context, giving the story much more meaning, while snagging the reader emotionally. And no one has ever complained to me about it.

Another, more contemporary novel, The General's President, doesn't seem to be science fiction at all, until one gets well into it. At that point I realized this would create a problem for some SF readers, and for Marketing, so I wrote a brief prolog treating the story as historical from the viewpoint of a future culture, which gave it an SF feeling right up front. The information could hardly have been communicated by referring to it in the text. And at any rate, while subtlety can be useful, so can directness, and the virtue of either derives solely from its effectiveness in advancing and enhancing the story.

Effective mystery, including enigma, can hook a reader, glue him to a story with what's this? for instance, or what does this mean? Sometimes a prolog can be an excellent place to do this. (You will, of course, clarify the mystery later.) A prolog can also establish a pole — a figurative terminal with an emotional charge at odds with what follows — creating tension.

The post-apocalyptic Lizard War was written in the first person, with a young point-of-view character named Luis Raoul DenUyl. Like almost all his people, Luis is largely ignorant of the world beyond his direct experience. There are aliens in the story who know what's going on, but they aren't telling, and we don't have access to their minds. After a while I twigged that this would create a problem for readers, so I wrote a prolog providing the needed information enigmatically, mainly from sources outside of the action. It created mystery right up front, and a whole 'nother dimension to the novel (which remained in print for 15 years after the first printing).

In another first-person novel, The Scroll of Man, the prolog provided not only needed perspective, but irony and playfulness. I don't know why it worked, but I received more comments — pleased comments — on the prolog than on anything else in the story.
Seemingly, whatever its purpose, a prolog needs to be interesting or otherwise entertaining. Whatever: if it works, it works, and if it doesn't…

So then, why do some (most?) teachers forbid prologs? Perhaps in his or her student days, some respected professor had voiced it; perhaps impelled by students using poor prologs. (Mentors make mistakes too.) I've critiqued workshop manuscripts that began with "prologs" that were really Chapter One, or a preface, or introduction. As I use the term, a prolog lies outside of, and generally preliminary to, the story, setting it up. But written within the story universe, not from an external, explanatory vantage as is usual with a preface or foreword.

Prologs are certainly not required, and often I don't use one. But when your story will benefit from a prolog, write one.


To me, the first draft is what I have when I've finally written the complete story. By that time, some chapters will have been worked over four or five times, but the whole thing is the "first draft.” It used to take me three to five months; today, though, some (most?) publishers prefer longer novels, and at my age (born 1926) I write more slowly, loaf more, and sleep more.

By the time I’ve finished that first draft, I know the whole story quite well. Then I write the "second draft," a matter of smoothing, connecting, and improving balance, sometimes deleting pieces and adjusting sequencing. All while getting a more nuanced grasp of the ideas, characters, and story situations. (My stories commonly explore ideas, which typically evolve and ripen during the writing process.) The second draft is finished when I've rewritten the entire first draft. Unless substantial research is needed, I usually finish it in three or four weeks. It (or rarely the first) then gets read by two or more pros with whom I trade critiques. Sometimes I also have subject matter specialists read them, or part of them.

Then, while I wait for their responses, I work on some other project. (Critiquers are usually fairly quick on the turn-arounds, but they have their own priorities — deadlines, emergencies etc.) When I have their comments, I produce a third draft, which may take a couple of weeks. This is an especially fun draft, a matter of further refining, till it says what I want it to say at that time. Usually it's the third draft I send to the publisher, where they decide whether to accept it. This may take awhile — they are busy folk — and occasionally there’s some back and forth on it.

When I’ve heard back from the editor, I write the fourth and final draft. First I edit it on paper, then write the changes into the computer, and re-edit it on the screen. You may decide to edit it on paper and on the screen. I catch things reading on paper that I’d miss on the screen, and vice versa.) It takes about two intensive weeks to prepare that final draft.

Also, during rewriting, I often read aloud. Again I catch things I might otherwise miss, especially problems of flow.

A few months (or sometimes only weeks) later I receive the type-set page proofs. I proof them against my final draft, for glitches (which can be missed by proof readers less familiar with the story than I am), plus whatever line editing the editor has done. (Some houses send the edited manuscript; I always got the edited manuscripts when writing technical publications. But for fiction I’m content with just the page proofs.)

Page proofs are not a last chance to rewrite, except to avoid embarrassment. If there is something you feel must be rewritten, consult with your editor first, out of courtesy if nothing else.

Page proofs are also for catching the editor's misreadings. (Did I lead him astray? Did she actually fix something, or just change it?). If an editor’s change is not okay, I still misled her, and it’s my responsibility to fix it. Besides, it’s my name on the cover. Meanwhile I’m always grateful for the editing. Invariably the editor catches things I’d missed.

The page proofs will come with a deadline, based on the date the book is scheduled for printing. And the printing schedule is based on the schedule for shipping the books to distributors. So if you’re late, the process goes on without your in-put; there is little slack there. And if you’re scheduled for major surgery, or the wedding of your daughter in Singapore — or if you simply hate doing page proofs — let your editor know in advance.

And that's it — end of Writing 102. Vaya con Dios!

Creative Writing

Creative Writing Tips from Sci-Fi author John Dalmas.

  2. WRITING 102 - Writing Science-Fiction and Fantasy

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