Writing Tips

Every Detail in Science Fiction and Fantasy Doesn’t Need to Make Sense

This is probably an unpopular opinion–and perhaps a less-than-stellar writing tip–but every detail in science fiction and fantasy doesn’t need to make sense. I’m talking about characters, world building, traditions, landscapes, magic systems, etc. Granted, of course most of your story needs to. Like 95% of it and certainly the most essential parts. But every little detail doesn’t require an origin story or explanation. 

I’ve been writing science fiction and fantasy (SFF) for over a decade now and reading it for much longer. Over the years, I’ve noticed a trend in word counts escalating, and while I love large books as much as the next SFF reader, it’s often unnecessary. 

You can have a fantastic, vibrant magical world without dedicating 700 pages to it. 

The way I write SFF might be a little different than others, but I tend to focus on my point of view (POV) character and plot before I flesh out my world. I mean, of course I know the basics of my magic system, but I don’t get into the nitty gritty until I know exactly what’s needed for the actual story to take place. In fact, I tend to write my first draft without much of my world figured out, not only to see what literally happens but also to get to know my POV character. It’s important to understand what your POV character would truly know. Yes, even about their own culture or circumstances. 

Look at your own world. 

Do you know why daylight savings started off the top of your head? Where wedding traditions stemmed from? How the border of your state or country was decided? What about why your neighbor is rude one day and sweet the next? 

No one knows everything, even if they love random fact-checking. 

Your science fiction or fantasy novel needs to make sense just enough for the story to suspend disbelief. Yes, some readers’ standards are going to be higher than others. But you’re not writing to satisfy every reader out there. You are writing the best story that you can. Sometimes that means cutting back and focusing on the elements that are most important. In fact, I’d love to see more SFF that is as quick and light as a cozy mystery. I want to flip through a SFF book in one afternoon and be blown away. And I know it’s possible. 

Look at The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells or Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor (both published by TOR.) 

We need shorter, quicker SFF. Not only for fun, but for accessibility, too. Not everyone can undertake a 700-page novel. Not everyone wants to. 

Allowing space for shorter, quicker SFF stories may also allow publishers to take more risks on genre mash-ups. Bigger books are more costly to print and shelve. With shorter books, we could experiment and see if readers would love that quiet fantasy that takes place in a fairy’s coffee shop. That coming-of-age story about a tech geek that invents a pet robot and then loses it. A fun rom-com in space. Graphic novels are already doing this. Check out Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and The Tea Dragon Society by Kay O’Neill. I desperately want more novels like these. 

Science fiction and fantasy doesn’t have to be dark. (Perhaps another post for another day.) It doesn’t have to be 700 pages either. Readers deserve variety in tone, length, and more. In order to achieve this, we need to remove the pressure of explaining every little detail in our stories. Readers and authors alike need to be open-minded to exploring novels with lighter structures. If we do that, I think we’ll see new genres emerge. 

The possibilities are truly endless. 

~SAT 

Miscellaneous

Writing Science Fiction with Science Resources

Science fiction, by definition, has science weaved within the story, but as a science fiction writer, I often get asked where my inspiration comes from. Where do I learn about science? Do I have a science background? How does one get started when pursuing science fiction? All great questions!

There are many ways to find inspiration when tackling science fiction. First and foremost, you’re going to want to figure out whether you’re writing hard sci-fi or soft sci-fi. As the name suggests, hard science fiction typically requires more rigorous research; the science has to make sense and have strict, believable rules, whereas soft science fiction is a bit more lenient. After that, you’re going to want to study sub-genres, such as space opera—like Star Wars (though you could make the argument Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction)—or cli-fi (climate-centered science fiction, such as The Day After Tomorrow).

Decisions aside, science will come into play, so where do you start?

Many get science fiction inspiration from, well, reading and watching science fiction. And that’s totally valid. But aside from reading the latest science fiction books, or watching that hit near-future TV show, there are more resources out there—and you’re going to want to expand your knowledge if you want your story to stand out from what’s already out there.

Magazines & Newsletters

I’m lucky enough to work in a library, but I’m especially lucky that my library provides free magazines. Subscriptions can get expensive; even the online versions can cost money. But I can pile up a collection of science journals and magazines on my desk every month for free. (Here is my plug, asking you—yes, you—to go get a library card.) I love flipping through magazines like Wired, Scientific American, and Discover, not to mention magazines covering topics I’m not so great at, i.e. fashion. (I mean, clothes have to exist in the future too, right? But I digress.)

If you don’t have access to magazines, there’s always the online sphere. One of my favorites is Futurism. Articles cover quick, trending topics, as well as some obscure, bizarre news. You will absolutely feel inspired by all the weird, possible, amazing tech out in the world. And who knows? Maybe you’ll dream up your own.  

Podcasts & Audiobooks

There are some awesome science podcasts out there, and most of them are free. Some also have Patreons where they offer additional content. My favorite is Flash Forward, a podcast that explores future tech as if it already existed. They start with a “play” in the time of the tech, and then talk to experts about all the nitty gritty details that go into it. An episode I recently enjoyed was CRIME: Moon Court. There’s also the Ologies podcast, a comedic science podcast that explores all the different “-ologists” of the world. Did you know there are experts in procrastination for instance? Listen to this episode of Volitional Psychology, and maybe you’ll find ways to stop procrastinating on your scientific research. 😉  

Similar to podcasts, there are always nonfiction audiobooks. Last year, I enjoyed Astrophysics for People on the Go by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs: A New History of Their Lost World by Steve Brusatte. Two starkly different topics. And yet, I learned so much—all while doing the laundry and dishes.

Channel your inner three-year-old: Ask why, why, why, why

Let’s pretend for a minute that audiobooks, magazines, and podcasts don’t exist. Do you know what you still have? The world! Science is happening all around you every day. I mean, how does your coffee pot heat up? How do those lights at work know when to turn on when you enter the building? Why do those clouds look purple and bumpy today?

Ask yourself why and how about anything and everything—and then, look it up. Read everything you can on it. Or dream up your own world’s explanation.

Science is often found in the little everyday things all around you.

Discover truths. Discover possibilities. Discover the future.

Discover science.

~SAT

P.S. Sandra Proudman and I started a new weekly hashtag on Twitter called #LiftABookUp. We announce themes on Tuesday and spend Wednesdays lifting up books we love. I hope you’ll join us to chat about science fiction books on March 11! Find Sandra Proudman @SandraProudman and I’m @AuthorSAT

You might also notice that I have a new headshot. I recently chopped off seven inches of hair. (YES, SEVEN INCHES.) So, I figured it was time. I managed to get my favorites in the pic: coffee, cats, and world domination (for cats).

If you’re new around here, I post a new article on the first Saturday of every month. Let me know what you want to hear about next in the comments below, then check back in on April 4. If I choose your idea, you get credit!

Writing Tips

World Building: Where to Start, What to Consider, & How to End

I mainly write science fiction and fantasy, and both of those genres tend to come with heavy world building. A few of you have asked me where I begin. How do I start? How do I know when to write? When does world building end? Well, if you read my editing tips series, then you probably know my answer to most of this.

I don’t think it’s that important to have your world building down in your first draft or while you’re outlining. Why? Because you don’t know everything your world needs yet in order to tell your story. All that matters is having your world building down by the end of your drafts. That being said, I tend to spend more time on initial world building than I do with character profiles or plot outlines. Why? Because my world will affect my characters directly—and that tends to be when I start writing.

That’s right. I begin most of my stories with a scene or an idea, and then I world build…and I keep building until the world affects my characters directly. Then I start to write.

So how do I build my worlds?

Extra tip: World build together. Try to explain your world to a friend. If they ask questions you can’t answer, find an answer.

Well, let’s start with the foundation.

Think of the basics. Where are we? What is the climate? Is it temperate, freezing, humid, etc.? What are the seasons like and which season/s is your story taking place in? How does this location relate to the locations around it?

My favorite place to start is clothes. Why? Because clothes tell us about societal structures—like income class, careers, etc.—and also about the land/weather patterns. Are they wearing cotton? If so, where does the cotton come from? Who collects the cotton and uses that cotton to create clothes? How much does it cost, and who would wear it? Example: Throughout history, the upper-class generally wore clothes from far away to emphasize how rich they were; those clothes were expensive because of how far the materials had to travel (and how expensive the upkeep was.)

The next element I consider the most is water. Why? Because water is essential for life, including animal life, which means you’re looking at how people eat, clean up, make medicine, etc. Not to mention that water, like rivers and lakes, have been used as natural borders for a long, long time (along with mountains). So where does the water come from? How were borders decided? Start thinking about other natural materials on your land. What materials are used to make buildings, for instance?

Now time: What year is it, and how does that year in particular define your character/s? I tell new writers to at least understand their main characters and their family structure for three generations back. This information doesn’t have to go into your book, of course, but knowing where your protagonist came from, including how their parents raised them and why, will help you shape their family unit and beliefs. This brings me to my last two topics: Religion and language.

  • With religion, personally, I think the most important part of a person’s religion can be summed up in their burial practices. Start there. Most of the time, burial practices relate to how that person sees life, death, and how both their life and their death is connected to the land. This includes if your characters don’t have a religion at all.
  • When I am building a language, I focus on two elements first: How do people curse and how do people say I love you. Why? Because humans are built on emotion, and hate/love are the two strongest emotions and the biggest umbrellas of emotion out there. By finding out how they express those emotions, both as a culture and as an individual, you can start to shape everything in between.

Please keep in mind that this information—like where materials come from—doesn’t have to be explicitly stated in your book. In fact, I can’t recall a time where I talked about where water came from in most of my books. But it can help to know the simple, basic elements of your world. They are your foundation, after all. And the stronger your foundation, the stronger the rest of your world building will be. In fact, I only covered where I begin. I didn’t even get into magic systems, for instance. (Another favorite topic of mine.)

Build and keep building. Don’t be afraid if you feel intimidated, and don’t get frustrated when your world contradicts itself or doesn’t make sense at all. You have all the time in the world to…well, build your world. Take your time. Take notes. And enjoy the journey of discovering a brand-new place that your characters—and you—will call home.

~SAT