Writing Speculative Fiction Is Hard Work

My novel manuscript is with those who’ve kindly agreed to be its first readers. A potential publisher is taking a look at my poetry collection manuscript. So, for the first time in a long while, I have gone back to my first, and perhaps best, love: writing short stories.

It won’t be news to anyone who has followed this blog that I like to have a couple of projects on the go at once, but I don’t usually work on a couple of short stories at the same time. At the moment, though, I’m alternating between writing two stories. One’s long(ish), one’s short(ish). One’s light-hearted, one’s more severe. One’s science fiction, one’s literary/mainstream fiction.

And I’m here to tell you that the science fiction story is a lot harder to write than the mainstream story. This doesn’t mean that the science fiction story is better, or worse, or more valid, that the mainstream story. Both might be good – or both might be dreadful. But it’s certainly harder work to write.

Why? It’s because so much more has to be packed into the SF story – which is, admittedly, the shorter one – to make it work. A story set in the world with which most of its readership is familiar doesn’t have to spend a lot of time in scene-setting, in finding ways to make the world in which it is set clear to the reader without overburdening that self-same reader with exposition.

There are only so many words to go around in a short story, and the more that are spent cuing the reader in to what distinguishes the world of the story from the world they are familiar with, the less there are to delineate character and advance the action.

This won’t be news to speculative fiction writers, of course, but it may be to writers and readers of literary fiction. One of the criticisms often advanced of SF is that it suffers from poor characterisation. To the extent to which that is true, it may simply be because only the very finest writers of SF – the Ursula Le Guins, the Gene Wolfes – can show the reader a new or changed world, keep the story moving, and create memorable characters at the same time.

A Day In The Life Of An Easily Distracted Writer

9.00am: Yay, writing day*, my favourite day of the week.

9.15am: Put load of washing on. Almost out of shirts.

9.30am: Check emails, Twitter – in other words, do those things I keep telling myself I won’t do until I have written my first 1000 words of the day. Still, pleased to see reply from Sydney Padua responding to my previous humorous sally to her re Charles Babbage. Unwisely, devote time to thinking of a yet more humorous riposte. Check Facebook page for Fantastic Voyages: Writing Speculative Fiction. Only two weeks to go!

10.00am: So. Last week, I outlined the final eight chapters of my novel. Now to commence the actual writing, starting with Chapter 17. It’s a new beginning of sorts, with my protagonist and his comrades admitting defeat and moving on, leaving shattered hopes and shattered lives behind. (Never let me write a blurb.)

10.15am: Oh, so that’s what “bounding main” means. Wikipedia rocks!

10.20am: Close down, abjure, put behind me all distracting technologies.

10.30am: Check mail (the physical, in-a-letterbox kind). Nothing.

11.00am: Pleased with how this is going. Stretching out in long passage of descriptive prose.

11.30am: Check mail. Big moment! My contributor’s copy of The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories has arrived. Cool! It’s a large book. Skim introduction by Paula Morris – looks good. Check contributor’s note. The Walt Whitman-like epic I provided has been trimmed down a bit, producing interesting floaty effect. Still, cool! Set aside to be read later (two books for review to read first).

12.25am: 850 words written. Check Twitter. Yes, I know that’s not 1000 words, but I have reached the end of a scene. Surely that counts for something.

12.30am: It starts hailing. Bad weather from the south, as foreshadowed by Art And My Life, has arrived. Should have hung washing out earlier. Make tentative start on next scene.

1.00pm: Hail has cleared. Time to hang out washing, then have lunch.

1.10pm: Outside conditions surprisingly pleasant. Discuss plot of novel with cat.

1.30pm: Arrive back inside singing theme from Teletubbies: “Tinky Winky, Dipsy, La La, Po”. Have had idea for the blog post I should have written last night.

1.50pm: Must remember to eat lunch when actually ready. Now cold.

2.15pm: 90 minutes till son returns from school. Time to get on with it.

2.35pm: Megan Fox.

2.40pm: Coffee.

2.45pm: Making good progress. Hard to write a dialogue-heavy scene, this far into the novel, in a way that keeps it fresh. Though both the medium and the tone are different, Buffy the Vampire Slayer does this very, very well. Two key principles I have learned from looking at how dialogue is handled in Buffy: serious dialogue can still have a humorous edge, and let the least trustworthy character in the scene be the most truthful. Only problem is, neither of these apply to what I am writing. Cursed mimesis!

3.25pm: 1500 word mark passed. Had been hoping to write 2000 today. Do have some inkling of why I fell short.

3.40pm: Reached end of the second scene. Total of 1777 words today. Will gnaw on thoughts of next scene over next few days. I know what the fourth and final scene of the chapter is, but right now, have no detailed idea of what will happen in the third scene. I know what emotional tone I want it to have, however. Time for backups.

3.50pm: Front door opens: son arriving home from school. Time to find out how his day was, get him fed, check if he has homework, check the washing (and, OK, fair point, put out the rest of the socks), publish this blog post, reply to emails, and cook dinner.

*There are other days on which I write, but Thursdays are the one day of the week I dedicate to writing. Yes, you heard me. Dedicate!

2008 Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing

I received the following email yesterday from the Royal Society. The inaugural Manhire Prize competition was held in 2007, and you can read the fiction and non-fiction winners online.

This year’s topic is evolution. The Royal Society says:

We encourage you to enter the 2008 Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing. The theme for 2008 is evolution, in honour of Charles Darwin.

Next year is the 150th anniversary of his birth, and the 200th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. But it was on 1 July 1858, the joint Wallace-Darwin paper was read to the Linnaean Society, and was thus launched to the science community.

The topic you are asked to respond to is:

“The Universe makes rather an indifferent parent, I’m afraid,” said Dickens’ kindly Mr Jarndyce. Humans have evolved to understand and intervene in the unsentimental processes of nature. With some unfortunate and unintended consequences. Back to nature or on to the future?

Remember, there are fiction and non fiction categories, prizes of $2500 for each, and the winning entries will be published in the New Zealand Listener. Entries close 15 August, 2008. For full details see the Listener just out, or go to

If you have any enquiries, call Glenda Lewis, 04 470 5758, or email glenda.lewis (at) rsnz.org