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Writing science fiction and fantasy


So you want to write fantasy or science fiction?

You are in good company, as many of the writers who come to WritersServices are writing fantasy, with science fiction as a less popular choice.

Science fiction was an important category during much of the twentieth century, with a growing cult audience, until it was overtaken by fantasy. It’s often seen as more cerebral, a way of trying out new ideas of the future or other worlds. These days there’s a relatively small demand for new science fiction writing, and you have to have a distinctive voice and something interesting to say to stand much chance of getting published.

Fantasy has also been around for a while but used to be much less popular, with the exception of major names such as Tolkien and C S Lewis, whose own audiences have been hugely enlarged in recent years by the successful filming of their already bestselling novels. In the last few years there has also been a great boom in fantasy publishing, but the genre has cooled somewhat because of over-production and a lot of me-to publishing, and, if you want to get published, it’s important to be writing something different.

Fantasy has variously been seen as serving a specifically female market, a younger market, sometimes a young adult one, and is generally seen as less sophisticated than science fiction, although the success of Star Trek and the Star Wars films shows that SF also has a younger market.

Fantasy sells very much on author, so it’s the big authors in the category that you should read and treat as role models. However it’s important to read analytically and then to go away and come up with your own ideas. Slavish imitation may be very flattering to the big names of the genre, but it will only induce a yawn in publishers, who will feel that they’ve seen it all before – but done better.

As with any genre you are trying to write in, it’s essential to research and read around the category before plunging in. Sample the successful authors and look at who has published them, so you’ll know which publishers to target. In both London and New York there are only a few publishers’ lists devoted to fantasy and SF, so it’s important to have a clear idea of what they’re publishing, so you’re able to deduce what they might be looking for. Also, bear in mind that a number of smaller independent publishers have sprung up in recent years, publishing work that has less immediate generic appeal, but which is popular with the hardcore SF and fantasy readers.

Similarly, many agents do not handle these genres, and many are allergic to them, with no understanding of or interest in these categories. It’s essential to find the right agent to submit to. Check this out in a writers’ reference book or go to our agents listings and use the Search facility to find a list of agents dealing with fantasy and science fiction.

You will find that, particularly in fantasy, there are a number of sub-categories, each of which has its own fans, so Stephenie Meyer and Anne Rice appeal to the vampire novel readers, Terry Pratchett and Terry Brooks have created their own fantasy worlds, and Peter F Hamilton is for fans of space opera. Some of the most successful modern fantasy novels still tend to be multi-volume adventures: check out the writing of Steven Erikson and George R R Martin. ‘Urban fantasy’ is currently a hot favourite, as exemplified by the work of Laurell K. Hamilton, Liz Williams, and Charlaine Harris. Romantic fantasy and SF are also gaining popularity, with emphasis on the romance rather than the fantasy and science fiction. Catherine Asaro is a popular writer who crosses the boundary between SF and romance.

Science fiction more usually favours single-volume works (although individual novels can be set in the same universe, as with Iain M. Banks’s Culture series). These vary from futurist utopias (Banks, Ursula Le Guin) to near-future dystopias (Ken McLeod, Octavia Butler). Other writers to check out would include Stephen Baxter, Charles Stross, Greg Bear and (for SF with a very technical scientific edge) Greg Egan. Many writers nowadays like to blur the distinctions between the genres, for instance, M John Harrison, Justina Robson, and China Mieville.

One essential for writing either science fiction or fantasy is to be able fully to imagine and flesh out your invented world. It has to convince the reader and be internally consistent. This is a big challenge and worth thinking hard about before you start writing, as it’s where many unpublished manuscripts fail to make the grade. In contrast to writing historical novels, for instance, writers in these genres do not need to do research as such (although many writers carry out extremely detailed research before creating their own worlds), but you do need to put the work into making your imagined world convincing and its settings detailed and consistent.

Fantasy is very plot-driven, which is another way of saying that it’s important to have a fully-fleshed - and preferably exciting - plot, but you also need, as for all other kinds of fiction, to develop convincing characters. Don’t think that because you have set your novel in this interesting other world, it doesn’t need to obey all the usual rules of writing popular fiction.

Amazon has good listings of Science Fiction and Fantasy on its UK and US sites, but there are also a number of specialist bookshops:

The SF Site

Then there's the Science Fiction Writers of America, a useful site for writers/

Our review of Lisa Tuttle's excellent book, Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Other articles in this series:

Writing Crime Fiction

Writing Romance

Writing Non-Fiction

Writing Historical Fiction

Writing Memoir and Autobiography

© Chris HolifieldManaging director of WritersServices; spent working life in publishing,employed by everything from global corporations to start-ups; track record includes: editorial director of Sphere Books, publishing director of The Bodley Head, publishing director for start-up of upmarket book club, The Softback Preview, editorial director of Britain’s biggest book club group, BCA, and, most recently, deputy MD and publisher of Cassell & Co. She is also currently the Director of the Poetry Book Society; During all of this time aware of problems faced by writers, as publishing changed from idiosyncratic cottage industry, 'occupation for gentlemen', into corporate business of today. Writers encountered increasing difficulty in getting books edited or published. Authors create the books which are the raw material for the whole business. She believes it is time to bring them back to centre stage. 2008