Pros: Solid info, examples, details, amusing stories, covers everything
Cons: There’s a whole chapter on cons! Oh, you mean bad bits, not conventions…
Rating: 5 out of 5
First posted 2/9/2001
This book is full of practical, solid advice. It provides alternate ways of doing things, covers everything I can imagine, maintains a fabulous air of rationality and good sense, and it does it with the help of some very funny stories. There’s no way I could tell you about every wonderful thing that this book covers without reproducing half of the book here. So I’ll give you a rough idea of the range of topics, and mention a few of the highlights. (Warning: long review ahead! Go get a snack!)
Part 1: Becoming a SF Writer
This section starts oddly with what happens once you’ve gotten there: accepting your Hugo Award. It talks about what publishing Science fiction used to be like, and a bit about what it’s like now. It’s at once sobering and hopeful. It doesn’t get you worked up with a lot of false hopes, yet doesn’t leave you depressed and suicidal either.
It discusses the value of reading in the field you want to write in, and debunks popular myths and legends about writing. Then it covers the varieties of science fiction, as well as fantasy, including “dark fantasy” or horror. It briefly touches on fans and conventions – what they’re really like, what you can expect, and how to handle your fans (the good and the bad).
Finally it wraps up with a few words on writer’s workshops. Perhaps most helpfully here, it provides suggestions for finding good workshops, making sure a workshop will work for you, and making a workshop work. I’ve been pretty unimpressed by most workshops I’ve seen so far, yet this section convinces me that it can be done right.
Part 2: Secrets of the Sci-Fi Masters
Part 2 starts off with ideas. How do you get them? How do you turn them into stories? The authors’ ideas are neither so common sensical that they’re redundant, nor so unusual that you won’t be able to make use of them. It covers how you can make outlines work for you if you have trouble using them. It discusses the importance (or not) of having “new” ideas for your stories, and of knowing your subject. It’ll also point out some of the mistakes and problems that knowing your subject can push you into. It discusses the “idea library” – lots of books and magazines to inspire you. (I’m happy to report that I have a great start on mine.) Next it goes into writing as a project and job. Yes, it covers the usual “you have to make time for it” idea that every other article trots out, but it also provides useful suggestions for how to go about this.
There’s a chapter on the short story, followed by a chapter on the novel. There’s a discussion on the differences between writing novels and writing stories – invaluable wisdom for the writer who’s having trouble transitioning from one to the other. There’s even information on world-building, the difference between backstory and story, and the pros and cons of inconsistency. There’s a discussion on science – how much to use, how much not to use, how to use it. You’ll find out how to help your reader suspend disbelief.
Then you’ll find the “Time-Honored Expositional Tricks.” It goes over the good and bad methods SF authors have used to convey information in their stories, including the dreaded “infodump.” Thankfully, instead of simply trotting out the old “show don’t tell” cliche, it provides practical structuring suggestions, as well as examples of those suggestions. The authors also cover characters in SF. This seemed the least well-developed section of this book, but that’s hardly a condemnation. It’s still much more useful than many other articles I’ve read, and covers something that almost no one else covers: characters in the context of science fiction.
Part 3: Publishing Your Work
This blissfully covers the basics, like how to make your manuscript and cover letter look professional. It even provides the word count formula that editors use! That’s right – the one your word processor gives you has little to do with what your editor wants to see. Best of all, it gives you the reasons behind why you should do each of the things you should do. Now when you think, “hmm, but Palatino looks so much nicer than Courier font,” you’ll know exactly why you should stick with Courier.
One of the invaluable aspects of this part of the book is the insider’s perspective. This isn’t just a couple of writers writing from their experiences submitting things. This is a couple of writers who’ve talked to lots of editors and networked with everyone. They tell you what editors like, don’t like, and dread. I thought I had a pretty good handle on the things I should and shouldn’t do when submitting stories, but I learned a thing or two here.
Next this part of the book goes into short story markets, contests and anthologies. This is followed by a section on publishing your novel: myths and legends of publishing, how to approach a publisher professionally, and so on. There’s an entire section on the work-for-hire novel: gaming novels, Star Trek novels, Buffy the Vampire Slayer novels, and so on. Doctorow and Schroeder go into the pros and cons of this type of writing, contract details, legalities, and a few practical notes. A brief aside: It’s something of a truism in the writing industry that “literary” authors like to look down on genre authors; mystery authors look down on SF authors; SF authors look down on horror authors; and everyone looks down on RPG or work-for-hire-novel authors. This book is refreshingly free of any such bias, and I applaud the authors for this.
Part 4: Marketing and Self-Promotion
This is another area in which this book shines. It gives practical advice on self-promotion, without doing either of the following:
- Pushing you to self-promote to the exclusion of doing the writing you got into this for.
- Pushing you to engage in shady self-promotion practices.
I know of respected trade journals that push self-promotion practices that border on illegal. They’ll tell you that if you don’t do them you’re being an idiot, and you’ll never sell your work, and where’s the point in writing if you don’t sell every possible copy of your book? I’m deliriously happy to see these authors take a much more reasonable and responsible view of self-promotion. You’ll find all sorts of tips in here on readings and signings, conventions, cards and fliers, press releases, interviews, reviews, and book launches. The book even covers web sites, newsgroups and netiquette, mailing lists and awards.
Part 5: The Professional Writer
This section covers agents, electronic rights and publishing, contracts, taxes, and writers’ associations. You’ll find out about the role of an agent – what they can help you do, what they can’t help you do, when you’ll need one and when you won’t. The electronic publishing chapter very honestly states that the industry is changing all the time, and will have changed yet more by the time you read this book. It does give you a good overview of the issues involved so you can keep abreast of things yourself.
The contracts chapter is very valuable, and talks about rights, royalties, negotiation, and administrivia. The taxes section actually gives a pretty good overview of the sorts of forms you have to fill out, the hobbiest/professional writer dilemma, and the kinds of deductions you can take.
The section on writers’ associations names a few of the major genre organizations and details what those associations can do for you. My only negative here is that it would have been nice if they’d covered a couple of the major non-genre associations.
Here you’ll find model contracts(!), listings of major publishers and agents, a listing of good online resources, and a “further reading” list.
I don’t believe that you’ll find a better book on writing or getting published anywhere if you’re into genre writing. Even if you write mainstream material you could still learn a heck of a lot from this book. It has inspired me to want to sit down and write, and that’s the best praise of all.