"Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy," David Gerrold

Pros: Great tips; nifty tricks; fun details; exciting linguistic material
Cons: I can’t agree with all of Gerrold’s advice; uneven coverage of some subjects
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 12/4/2002

Science fiction and fantasy are relatively new genres of writing. Many people assume they can just dive into them and do whatever they want, and don’t realize that, like any other sort of writing, it can be helpful to know what came first, what’s been done already, and what genre conventions people use (whether you want to follow or break them, you should still know). David Gerrold’s “Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy” addresses this need. It includes almost 250 pages of tradition, tips, tricks, hints, guidelines, and examples of good and bad writing in the science fiction genre. Oh, and some fantasy, too, although the book largely focuses on SF.

Credentials

Gerrold’s very first professional sale became quite famous: “The Trouble with Tribbles” episode of the original Star Trek series. If that doesn’t recommend him well enough, I don’t know what does. He didn’t stop there, however. He’s had plenty of novels published, he’s worked on lots of TV series, he teaches writing, and he’s won awards (including the Nebula and Hugo).

But plenty of very good writers suck at teaching. You should buy this particular book not because of Gerrold’s writing credits, but because of his ability to both analyze the act of writing, and communicate his discoveries with wit and style. His little “about the author” blurb in the front of the book amused me so much that I knew right from the start I’d like this book!

The reader will suspend disbelief–he won’t suspend common sense.

Topics

The book consists of a series of small, connected essays on all sorts of subjects. Because of the essays’ short length and the wide variety of subjects the book covers, Gerrold doesn’t get into a lot of depth on most things (barely more than 4 pages on point of view, most of which consists of examples). However, he does manage to touch on many interesting subjects:

Wonder, “what if?”, what makes science fiction science fiction and fantasy fantasy, what defines a story, crises and challenges, the hero, setting the stage, world-building, alien-building, believability, complications, structure, transformation, theme, style, first and last lines, punch lines, sex scenes and love scenes, simile and metaphor, adjectives and adverbs, evocation, metric prose, memes, “to be,” point of view and perspective, tense, pronouns, dialogue, discipline, practice, specificity, and more.

You’ll also find a great index at the end. The entire book (with the exception of the index, of course) possesses a lively, engaging style. Wit, humor, and personality abound, as well as clarity; the book feels more like a conversation than a set of lessons.

You can tell your whole life story in thirty seconds. It’s a question of editing.

High and Low Points

Gerrold has had the opportunity to meet, speak with, and hang out with many of the SF giants of our day. Because of this, he passes on many amusing and engaging tales of how and why various authors have done things in certain ways. We learn the tricks authors have used in the past to lend their work grace, or clarity, or quick pacing. You come away from the book with a good understanding of the vast possibilities available to you when you write, and the many different things you can play with to take control of your work.

The section on sex scenes does include explicit examples, so don’t give this book to children. Easily-embarrassed adults can skip the relevant section.

Gerrold does explain some things as inherent to the genre that I don’t think are always the case; in some places I think that his advice applies more narrowly (to certain parts of the genre) than he indicates. For example, he talks quite a bit about crisis, about piling problem on top of problem onto the hero, and always taking things a bit farther. Personally I think this style has been overdone (and in places can get rather ridiculous); I find it rather refreshing to read a book now and then that actually has something fortuitous or nice happen to the hero once in a while.

Oddly, the best part of the book for me came in the sections on memes, pronouns, and “to be”; they delve into some very interesting issues of linguistic philosophy. I hadn’t particularly considered how language shapes how we think, and the discussion on the subject opened my eyes. It seriously changed the ways in which I think about language (including such issues as gender in pronouns, how the verb “to be” affects the way in which we think about things, and so on), and Gerrold has some very interesting points to make about the power of language and how writers use it (and fail to use it).

I think some sections should have gone into more depth; others should have been left out if they were going to be covered so lightly. And as I said, I can’t agree with all of Gerrold’s advice. But this book succeeds in some very specific and delightful ways, offering things that I haven’t seen anywhere else. The linguistic philosophy bits will appeal to someone who doesn’t want to go into full-bore research and class-taking but who wants to have better control over how she uses language. You’ll find some great points in here about the distinctions between SF and fantasy that I haven’t seen elsewhere. And I particularly love the tales of advice from some of the authors whose work I’ve enjoyed.

In short, if you want to write science fiction, you should find this book and read it. If you want to write fantasy you won’t find as much here, but read it anyway. Even if you prefer other genres altogether you might find the book interesting, if just to get a feel for the amazing variety of things you can do with your words. And if you read SF and fantasy, you might like to learn a bit about the ways in which writers manipulate your reactions to their work.

Visit David Gerrold’s website


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