A Silly Robot’s Guide to Writing Sci Fi: Part 2 – Planning

I’ll admit it:

I am most definitely a ‘pantster’.

However, that doesn’t always work to my advantage. More often than not, I find myself stuck at some critical juncture in the story. That’s the point where I think, “…hmm…should have planned a little more…”

When I do plan, even just a little, I find that my story moves along smoothly; not to mention ‘stuck’ becomes ‘mildly inconvenienced’. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but planning can seriously up your game on a project. Especially if you’re a Science Fiction writer.

1. Do Your Research

I covered this in a previous post. Researching takes a long time, but in the end it’s worth it. You learn a lot, and it helps you grow as a writer and expert. Remember that there are several aspects of research, and skimping on any of them will hurt your plan.

Particularly in Sci Fi, research will deal with complex scientific systems and budding scientific discoveries. If you plan out how you reveal certain aspects of what you have researched, moving the story along becomes easy. The science can be a major part of the plot, or just a device to make it work.

Whatever you use it for, do the research.

And while you research, keep a log of story ideas. Whether it’s written or on your phone or computer. If you don’t keep track of your ideas, they will leave you and return to the ether.

Research must be recorded.

2. Plan the Ending First

If you have ever written anything, you know that ending a story is the hardest part. I recommend planning how you are going to end a story before you ever begin it.

But Will, that’s crazy!

Is it?

The stories that I have the most trouble with are the ones that I don’t know how to end.

If you’re like most of us who write, you will inevitably be sitting somewhere. Let’s say Whataburger. Or for those of you who aren’t fortunate enough to live in a state with Whataburger, let’s say…ugh…McDonald’s.

And while you’re sitting there enjoying your juicy…

Ok, you know what? I can’t do it. You’re at Whataburger. You’re vacationing in Texas.

And while you’re sitting there enjoying your juicy Patty Melt and gimongous drink (cause you can and it’s always 100 degrees down here. Dec. 18th when I’m writing this and the high temp was 86 today) you get a killer idea for a story.

Your main man is going to do that super awesome thing that puts him in all of these larger than life situations, and at the end of it all…

At the end of it all…

CRAP what happens at the end of the story?

So you jot down your idea (in your handy dandy notebook or iphone or whatever) and when you sit down to write, think about how you want it to end. Happy ending? Sad ending? Open ending? Knowing how the story ends is just as important as the story itself.

But Will, it’s the journey not the destination that really matters!

Well, you can spout Eastern philosophy all you want, but that doesn’t change the fact that all of your reviews are going to say,

“The ending was kind of disappointing. That’s why I only gave it 2 stars.”

3. Character Development

This is going to sound like redundant rhetoric, but character development can make or break your story. I write mostly short fiction, and character development is much more important than story development. The story sort of develops on its own with my characters. (I said sort of. No angry comments.)

This doesn’t mean you have to spend three pages describing Clark Kent’s background, but it does mean you have to reveal his character.

So put him in a situation that does just that.

Character development does not have to be boring. If done well, it can be the driving force in a story. So before you start writing the story, write your character. This deosn’t have to be extensive, but you should have some sort of grasp on your character’s personality. Hero or anti-hero? Shy or charismatic? Strong or weak?

I like to use the analogy of Kirk and Picard.

Yes, I’m that big of a nerd.

Kirk flies by the seat of his pants, and is a metaphor for Humanism and Hedonism. He wants to shoot first and ask questions later. He only plays by the rules when he has to, and all other times he throws the book out the window. Or the airlock rather. You can’t throw stuff out of windows on the Enterprise.

Picard is more reserved; he weighs every option and holds regular meetings for input. He is calm and calculated, without being as stoic as Mr. Spock. He rarely acts without hours of reflection and considerations, all while sipping his Earl Grey and eating scones.

But we don’t have to read that in a paragraph. Here’s what to do:

Have three Romulan Warbirds decloak in front of the Enterprise and let’s see who does what!

4. Outline

Which brings us to our final point.

Having an outline of your story will help keep everything in order, plus it will allow you room to move. What I mean by that is you don’t have to stick to the outline strictly. There will be plenty of room to veer in and out of the defined lines. I.e. the Enterprise is confronted by three decloaked Warbirds and the resolution is a tachyon burst to disrupt their warp engines. However, I did not say how the tachyon burst would be initiated. Perhaps Mr. Data initiates it from the tractor beam dish, or maybe Geordi creates it from the Enterprise’s own warp field.

Or Kirk just fires three photon torpedoes and the phaser array, all while Scotty boosts the warp engines and they outrun the danger.

Either way works. But they all fit the outline.

All in all, planning can make a mediocre Sci Fi story into something that grabs the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go. And who knows? Maybe it will lead to a cherished cult classic in the vein of Asimov and Dick? Use these ideas, mix and match, or ignore them altogether.

But keep writing!

A Silly Robots Guide to Writing Sci Fi (Part 1): Research

Note: This is from a guest post on writehacked.com, you can see the original post here.

Over at sillyrobots.wordpress.com we have a saying:

Well not really, but I like to think we do…or something like that.

Anyway…I’m a writer like most of you. I write mostly science fiction short stories, but I have written a crappy novel as well. It’s fun, but also a lot of work. There’s the planning and the writing and the editing and all that stuff.

But before all of that is my favorite part:

And everybody said, “UGH!”
How can research be fun?!
I’m so glad you asked.
When I was in college, I spent several afternoons in a lab watching particles settle, measuring differences in mass after reactions, and reading journal articles detailing what other people had discovered.

But now I write Sci Fi so I don’t do that anymore. What I do…do…is read and watch a LOT of Science Fiction. I had a pretty good head start on this research thing, due to my avid fanboy status for most of my life, but jumping in is not that hard.

1. Watching Sci Fi

This may sound silly, but if you can’t visualize anything fantastical how will it get to the paper? Watching Science Fiction is a good way to see things, and understand how to describe your own ideas.

Let’s start with Battlestar Galactica. There are Vipers, Battlestars, Basestars, and Raiders just to name a few space vehicles. All of them do different things and have a different look. They draw on strengths of their operators, and strike different emotions into all who survey them.

If you have a universe whose inhabitants are at war and reliant on spacecraft, Galactica is a great place to get a feel for different vehicles.

Or maybe you need to understand how an ensemble cast will interact on a ship for long periods of time. Star Trek, Firefly, and again Battlestar Galactica could be helpful. (I swear I’m not a Galactica fan boy, it just keeps coming up.)

What about individual characters in Sci Fi? The Movie “Moon” starring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey (and pretty much only Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey) is a great example of individual problems in a Science Fiction setting. Likewise, “Equilibrium” starring Christian Bale examines an individual crisis in the midst of dystopian bliss.

All of these things can translate into your brain and thus into your story. But it may take several hours of watching fantastic television. Such a task. Sigh.

2. Reading Sci Fi

No brainer for authors right?

What you read in the genre will define your voice in the genre. I tend to move my stories along with dialogue. Much like the giant box of comic books in my house. John Scalzi gives credit to Robert Heinlein for his writing style in the credits of his book ‘Old Man’s War’.

So who is your hero? Or heroes? Heroines?

You won’t know until you read.

Reading authors in other genres helps too; I’m sure Jules Verne had little to go on in the way of Sci Fi when he was writing. I enjoyed Nick’s novel, which is one of a few thrillers I’ve read in the past year, and I read several other non-fiction books as well.

Comic books are also an unsung resource for Sci Fi research. Many of the writers have written longer forms of fiction, and their voice comes through in both mediums. Joss Whedon is a writer who is very good at moving in between several forms of writing and keeping a similar voice.
Just remember that the more you read, the more you realize how others write. That will lead you down a path to finding your own voice.

3. Actual Scientific Research

Ok so I lied.

I do sometimes do actual scientific research. I try to read everything I can about robotics, flight, stealth technology, and other sciency wiencey things. I recently read an article about storing information within DNA. When I was in college I wrote several papers on urban agriculture, giving me a good idea of how people would garden on a space ship. I also enjoy watching NOVA and other science information programs like it.

Well there you have it. Just a few things that I do when researching for writing Sci Fi. Try them out and see if you get any results. I’ll be honest, step 1 is my favorite. My week consists of many hours of ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ right now. I read a quote one time (and I can’t find it again!) that said something to the effect of “…if you cut a science fiction fan you will find a science fiction writer…” I hold that to be true. I have never met someone who was a fan that did not have at least one idea for a story. So if I’m a huge fan, maybe I’ll have lots of ideas for stories.

And maybe you will too.

“Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. …Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Ray Bradbury