Tag Archives: science fiction

On being a science fiction writer

Last night, as we spent the evening in the family room with a fire going in the fireplace, Kelly put on the HBO show, “Talking Funny.” I’d never heard of it until I saw it. It’s a 50 minute show with four of the greatest modern comedians talking shop: Jerry Seinfeld, Louis CK, Chris Rock and Ricky Gervais. It was a very funny and very entertaining show, and you really did get into the creative minds of stand up comics.

But something Jerry Seinfeld said about being a stand up comic really stuck with me. They were talking about the first time they ever went out. Did they bomb, were they a hit? Jerry said he bombed the first time he went on stage but that it absolutely didn’t matter. He said (I’m paraphrasing), “All I ever wanted to be was one of those guys. I wasn’t in it for the success or the money. I just wanted to be one of those guys. The minute I got out on stage and did my routine, I was one of those guys and that’s all that mattered to me.”

It really resonated with me because that is exactly how I feel about being a science fiction writer. Growing up reading Isaac Asimov and Barry Malzberg and Robert Silverberg and Cyril Kornbluth and Robert J. Sawyer and Connie Willis and Joe Haldeman and C. L. Moore and Nancy Kress and Robert Reed and Harlan Ellison (the list goes and and on) all I ever wanted to do was be one of those guys–that is, do what they do. Tell the kind of stories that I loved to read. And the minute I got out on the stage–or as it is in our case, made my first professional sale and my story was in front of a paying audience–I was one of those guys. I’d done it.

I had–as I’m sure many SF/F/H writers had–a creative writing professor who recognized some small amount of talent in me and proceeded to lecture me on how I was wasting my talent writing science fiction. “Why do you want to write science fiction?” he’d ask me. As a junior in college I never had a particularly good answer for him. How I wish I could go back and say to him simply, “Because I want to be one of those guys,” and then walk away, leaving him to wonder what the heck it was I meant.

The best thing about being a science fiction writer

I did some fiction writing yesterday, something I’ve been avoiding because I just felt like it hasn’t been going well lately. Early in the day I received a form-letter rejection from a place where I’d previously sold a story. “Ouch!” I thought, and my initial reaction was that the story was so bad that it wasn’t worth even comment. But I liked the story and indeed, later in the day, one of the editors took the time to follow up and send me some detailed comments on why they felt the story did not work. The comments made complete sense and I realized that the story was good, but that it did have some problems. While the story has pretty much circulated everywhere I can think to send it, I can certainly learn from those helpful comments.

So thanks to that editor who took the time to provide them to me. You know who you are and it was above and beyond the call.

Later in the day I had a long chat about writing with the eminently popular, and fabulous science fiction writer Juliette Wade. Our conversation inspired me to get back to my novelette which has been giving me endless amounts of trouble. Like a batter in a hitting slump, nothing I do seems to work at the moment, and yesterday, Juliette acted as a kind of hitting coach, and just by discussing our stories, I began to feel like giving it another try.

So last night I started a new scene in “Rescue” to replace an older scene that was just bleh. The new scene is not done by I got through 800 words of it before the Little Man was awakened by the last vestiges of Kelly’s morning sickness and I had to console him back to sleep. I’m pleased with the direction the scene is going. I put it in there as a way of introducing some necessary back story without the “Well, you know Bob…” gimmickry we’ve become all to familiar with. In second draft I think the scene will be a lot better, and I’m looking forward to wrapping it up tonight–I know just how it will end and it also ties in very nicely with the first scene in the story. So overall, I am pleased.

I’d like to work my way back into writing fiction every day–something I haven’t been doing much of lately. This was a good first step and I have Juliette to thank for her valuable coaching–which she probably doesn’t even realize she was giving. I’ll tell you: the best thing in the world about being a professional science fiction writer is being able to call other science fiction writers friends.

A review of C. M. Kornbluth by Mark Rich

I posted this review on Goodreads, LibraryThing and Amazon as always, but I thought it was an important enough book to post it here to:

A wonderful romp through Golden Age fandom!

What a terrific book! I’ve long been an admirer of Cyril Kornbluth’s fiction, having read His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C.M. Kornbluth in the past. And I’ve also learned bits and pieces of Kornbluth’s life through both Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl’s autobiographies. But this book gets into the details and does so in a remarkably impressive way. The book is as much about the development of science fiction from its Golden Age through the late 1950s, and a fascinating development it is.

The book is well referenced and many of the notes are just as interesting as the text itself. The cast of characters includes many of the big players of the Golden Age of science fiction. There are even fascinating glimpses of the early careers of writers such as [author:Robert Silverberg] and [author:Harlan Ellison]. But the focus of the book is on the life and career of Cyril Kornbluth. The analysis of his fiction is detailed and insightful, giving a complete picture of the development of a remarkable writer.

Much of the information comes from interviews with the people involved, or correspondence between the people involved. At times, it felt a little intrusive reading some of what must have been private mail. It is nevertheless fascinating and revealing.

The book does not paint a pretty picture of Frederik Pohl, which came as a surprise to me, considering their collaboration history as well as what Pohl had to say about Kornbluth in his memoir. In a similar vain, I was surprised with the portait painted of H. L. Gold. Despite complaints by authors who worked with Gold (including Isaac Asimov), he was a brilliant editor, if not the kindest of personalities.

This is clearly an important book for the history of science fiction and an outstanding biography of one of the Golden Age of science fiction’s brightest lights. I highly recommend it to those inside the genre, and to those outside the genre who wonder what it is like to be an insider.

A review of C. M. Kornbluth by Mark Rich (4-stars)

I posted this review on Goodreads, LibraryThing and Amazon as always, but I thought it was an important enough book to post it here to:

A wonderful romp through Golden Age fandom!

What a terrific book! I’ve long been an admirer of Cyril Kornbluth’s fiction, having read His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C.M. Kornbluth in the past. And I’ve also learned bits and pieces of Kornbluth’s life through both Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl’s autobiographies. But this book gets into the details and does so in a remarkably impressive way. The book is as much about the development of science fiction from its Golden Age through the late 1950s, and a fascinating development it is.

The book is well referenced and many of the notes are just as interesting as the text itself. The cast of characters includes many of the big players of the Golden Age of science fiction. There are even fascinating glimpses of the early careers of writers such as [author:Robert Silverberg] and [author:Harlan Ellison]. But the focus of the book is on the life and career of Cyril Kornbluth. The analysis of his fiction is detailed and insightful, giving a complete picture of the development of a remarkable writer.

Much of the information comes from interviews with the people involved, or correspondence between the people involved. At times, it felt a little intrusive reading some of what must have been private mail. It is nevertheless fascinating and revealing.

The book does not paint a pretty picture of Frederik Pohl, which came as a surprise to me, considering their collaboration history as well as what Pohl had to say about Kornbluth in his memoir. In a similar vain, I was surprised with the portait painted of H. L. Gold. Despite complaints by authors who worked with Gold (including Isaac Asimov), he was a brilliant editor, if not the kindest of personalities.

This is clearly an important book for the history of science fiction and an outstanding biography of one of the Golden Age of science fiction’s brightest lights. I highly recommend it to those inside the genre, and to those outside the genre who wonder what it is like to be an insider.

Originally published at Jamie’s Blog. Please leave any comments there.

Where do you get those ideas?

At some point, every science fiction writer gets asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”  I got asked the question this past weekend and I thought I’d answer it here.  This is a question that has been answered and blogged about by writers, perhaps more often than any other.  But it is also different for each writer.  What works for me, may not work for others, but it may give some insight for other new writers, like myself, and therefore prove helpful.  So, where do I get my ideas?

The very general answer is: anywhere.  I think this is true for most writers.  As a writer, and in particular, a science fiction or fantasy writer, we look for ideas in everything we see and do.  I find that my mind is always on the lookout for ideas, even when this might prove inconvenient, as when your wife is asking you to do some chore, or you are in a meeting with your coworkers.  Someone will say something, and that will trigger a chain of thought that usually begins, “I wonder what would happen if…?”  Many of these ideas are fleeting and a large number of them are cast away.  But some of them stick in my mind, sometimes for a very long time, and it is those ideas, the ones that feel most compelling, that tend to make their way into my stories.  So, just as Isaac Asimov once said, I think and think and think and think and that’s how I get many of my ideas.

Thinking is good, but for me, at least, there has to be some raw material that feeds the thinking process.  I get this raw material from a number of places, but perhaps most frequently from these four:  (1) the news; (2) science fiction stories; (3) science magazines, (4) flashes or images

Often time I will watch the news (or back when I lived in L.A., listen to the news on the radio) and hear a story that piques my curiosity in some way that starts the thinking process and gets me wondering, “what would happen if…?”  The germ for the idea of my first published story, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer,” came about in this way.  I was driving into work listening to the news on the radio and the Osgood File came on.  In this particular episode, Charles Osgood recited Walt Whitman’s poem, “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”.  I’d never heard the poem before, but I loved it.  While the poem is about a romance with the stars, my mind jumped to a romance with an astronomer, and a small alteration to the title of the poem gave me a title for the story.

New writers trying to break into the science fiction field often feel that their ideas have to be completely original, but ask any seasoned science fiction professional and they will tell you that original ideas are almost unheard of.  New spins on old ideas, however, can be very useful.  And so in my reading of science fiction stories, I occasionally get an idea that is based on something I read.  Sometimes, it challenges the notions in the story; other times, it extends them.  Perhaps just about every professional writer has attempted to write a story in defense or opposition of Tom Godwin’s famous story, “The Cold Equations”.  I wrote a story of my own in reaction to Godwin’s, one called, “Wake Me When We Get There” which I used to illustrate the phases of loss in a person doomed aboard a malfunctioning spacecraft.

More often than not, these day, I get my raw material from the science magazines that I read.  I have subscribed to SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN for close to 15 years now.  And I’ve been a subscriber to NEW SCIENTIST for almost a year.  SCIAM is monthly, while NEW SCIENTIST is weekly, making it hard to keep up sometimes (the photo above shows my current backlog of science magazines, that I am diligently working my way through).  I read these magazines cover-to-cover, letters and all.  Not only am I educating myself on all areas of science and technology, but I find a wealth of story ideas within the pages.  Still, you have to be able to identify the real nuggets.  I try to find one good story idea in each issue of a magazine.  Often times there are two or three useful ideas–ideas that can help to better explain a technology that I use in a story–but that don’t form the basis of the story itself.  But one good idea per magazine means roughly 64 good idea each year.

With 64 good ideas each year, am I producing 64 stories each year?  Of course not.  For one thing, I work fairly slowly at this stage of the game.  While I wish I were as prolific as Isaac Asimov, I’m not.  In the past I’ve been lucky to produce two or three stories each year.  This year I’m aiming for 10-12.  Having a lot of ideas to choose from is helpful to me, however, in several ways.

First, I can’t write a story based on one good idea.  I have found that my best stories require the merging of at least two good ideas.  In “Learned Astronomer” I had the idea for the title, and the romance with an astronomer, but I needed something more.  A few years earlier, I’d read an article in ANALOG about how one would go about finding a starship.  Many s.f. ideas focus on “first contact” with aliens.  Using the science of the article as a basis, I wondered, “what would happen if we discovered a starship going from star A to star B?”  Clearly the ship would be so far away, it wouldn’t be aware of us.  Furthermore, we don’t yet have the technology to talk to it.  Finally, at a distance of hundreds of light years, what we are seeing now took place hundreds of years ago.  There would be nothing we could do, but we would know someone else was out there.  I merged this idea with the romance with the astronomer and the two ideas formed the basis of “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer”.

Second, some ideas take a long time to develop.  I might have a list of 50 or 60 ideas, and I might be eager to work on one or two of them.  But I sometimes struggle, and usually that tells me that I’m either not yet ready to write the story, or I don’t yet have the ability I need to properly tell the story.  It is, therefore, good to have other ideas to turn to.  This year, at least, it has helped me keep writing, and avoid getting stuck on any one story or idea.

Last, but not least, I occasionally get ideas from an image I see either in the real world or in my mind.  The idea for my second published story, “The Last Science Fiction Writer“, came from something I saw in a Baker’s Square restaurant in North Hollywood.  There was a sad old man in a wrinkled, periwinkle suit, sitting all alone, scribbling all over his napkins in microscopic print.  That was the germ for the narrator of my story.

So, where do you get your crazy ideas?

Originally published at From the Desk of Jamie Todd Rubin. You can comment here or there.

Short science fiction and short fiction editors

[Friends who don’t care about s.f., skip this post and get five minutes of your life back.]

I’m halfway through Gardner Dozois’ The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction and I’ve made an interesting discovery.  First, some background:

  1. Short fiction is my favorite form, whether reading or writing.
  2. I read s.f. because I love it, because I am a fan first and a writer second.  Some friends (and fellow writers) have warned me that becoming a professional writer (albeit only one professional sale) can spoil the reading.  So far that hasn’t happened to me.
  3. When I read short fiction these days, I feel like I am learning my craft from a hundred different teachers, all showing me what to do or what not to do.  I may not like a particular writer’s story or approach and so I try and learn from that, just as I try to learn from a writer that I think hits a home run.
  4. I am fairly well-read when it comes to short fiction from the 1940s, 1950s, and certain writers from the 1970s.  The gaping holes have been the 1980s and 1990s.  I’ve been spending my time back in the 40s and 50s and haven’t had time for the 80s and 90s.

My discovery:  Gardner Dozois and David G. Hartwell have very different tastes when it comes to science fiction, and my tastes tend to generally fall in the David G. Hartwell category, while my sympathies are in the Dozois category.

Prior to this book, I read David Hartwell and Kathryn Kramer’s The Hard SF Renaissance.  There is only one story shared between the two books, even though a good portion of each book is dedicated to the 1990s.  (The one story?  Greg Egan’s "Wangs Carpets.")  That was one clue.  Another clue is that the stories in the current book, many of them award-winning stories, many nominated, are a much softer science fiction than I would have imagined (some bordering on fantasy).  The focus on the stories is clearly more literary, something I would have expected in the 1960s but not quite what I expected for the 1980s and 1990s.  The stories that Garner Dozois considers the "best of the best" are good stories, but they are not necessarily the stories that I would consider the best of the best.

Now, as I said, I have done a woeful lack of reading of short s.f. in the 1980s and 1990s.  I am trying to make up for that now.  (I am slowly collecting all of the Year’s Best Science Fiction volumes, in reverse order and hope to get through them in my lifetime.)  That means that many stories that have been considered "classics" for some time now, are new to me.  Oh, I’ve heard of them, of course, I’ve just never read them.  Nancy Kress’s "Beggars in Spain" is one brilliant example of a "classic" that I recently read for the first time, and which blew me away.  Nevertheless, I find the varying tastes of short fiction editors fascinating.

I’m sure this is well-known to those of you who’ve read extensively in these years.  Stories in Hartwell’s books tend to be of a harder science nature.  That is not to say that Dozois’ books don’t contain hard s.f. or that Hartwell’s are exclusively hard s.f.  But as I said, my tastes tend more toward Hartwell’s than toward Dozois.  As editor of ASIMOV’S, Gardner won many, many best editor awards and rightly so, I imagine.  Perhaps some of my opinion is skewed by the fact that as a s.f. fan, my literary adolescence was spent in the 1940s and 1950s with Asimov and Heinlein and de Camp and Del Rey and Simak and Wiliamson and Bester and others.  I really enjoy the kind of stories that appear in Hartwell’s books, but I can also appreciate the stories that Dozois chooses.  So I got to wondering, is there anyone out there who has a kind of near-perfect amalgam of styles in story choice.

And it came to me that, yes, I think there is.

Back when scottedelman  was editing SCIENCE FICTION AGE, the stories that appeared in the magazine seemed to me (in reflection) to be a near-perfect meld of David Hartwell-esque hard-s.f. stories (Steven Baxter’s "Gossamer", Robert Reed’s "Morrow") and Gardner Dozois softer, more literary styled stories (Martha Soukup’s "In Defense of Social Contracts", shunn ‘s "Two Paths in the Forest Toulemonde")  I think that’s what made the magazine produce the highest quality short science fiction from 1993 to 2000.

Today, I almost always read stories out of ANALOG.  There are names that I look for in ASIMOV’S, I always read the editorials and Robert Silverberg’s "Reflections" column, but I often don’t read many of the stories.  I read very little out of F&SF, although my subscription is and will be current as long as the magazine is being printed.  I don’t yet have enough of a read Sheila William’s tastes to make a judgment, although I have enjoyed many of the stories that have appeared in ASIMOV’S since she took over.

I’m rambling now, I know, but I’m curious, is this Hartwell/Dozois dichotomy a "known thing" in fandom, and I’m just late to the party?  Has there every been an anthology of stories edited by both together?  Just curious.

People often wonder if short s.f. is dead or dying.  Things ebb and flow.  Like gas prices there are ups and downs.  I don’t think it’s dying.  But if I were asked what I think could be done to save short science fiction, I could do no better than suggest a hybrid of Hartwell and Dozois–in other words, a Scott Edelman.  Bring back a magazine like SCIENCE FICTION AGE and you’ve got everything you need to "save" science fiction.  (The problem is, I don’t think it would work without Scott and he’s got himself all busied up writing excellent stories rather than editing them.)

Happy Birthday ANALOG/ASTOUNDING (and a related dream)

If I am not mistaken, today is ANALOG/ASTOUNDING’s 79th birthday.  For those who don’t know, ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION is the longest continuously running science fiction magazine around.  It started up in 1930 (when my Grandpa was 10 years old!) and is still going strong today.  (In the 1960s, the name was changed to ANALOG).  It is usually considered to be the "major" science fiction magazine market.

On a related note, I have a story that’s been out at ANALOG for 31 days now (that’s longer than any story I’ve ever submitted there, but I attribute that to the holidays).  Last night, I had a dream that I received a "rejection slip" from Stanley Schmidt, editor of ANALOG for 30 years now.  What was strange about it was that it was a long, handwritten note (several pages) with questions about the story scrawled in between references to various articles on the science contained within the story.  There was not a word saying that the story was accepted or rejected.  This is interesting because mabfan, in a radio interview, described getting a similar letter from Stan and not knowing whether this meant Stan wanted a rewrite or not.  To me, it’s just a sign that the submitted story is in my mind.  One other thing about the dream:  in his note, Stan asked "What happened to Norman?" (Norman is the protagonist in the story)–implying that the ending was not clear.  This is contrary to the actual story where it is very clear (to me) what happens to Norman.

Heading off to go shopping now.  Hoping to get some writing in later today. 

“It wasn’t all that easy”

The February 2009 issue of ASIMOV"S has a great "Reflections" essay by Robert Silverberg called, "It Wasn’t All That Easy", in which he talks about the the time when he was a young, would-be writer, seeing all of his heroes sell stories and become famous, while he collected rejection after rejection.  He wondered if he’d ever make it, ever become like them.  I know how he feels, and that made the essay all the more meaningful.  You should check it out, if you are so-inclined.

March Analog!

I neglected to check the mail yesterday, but when I went out to check it this morning, I found the March 2009 issue of ANALOG waiting for me.  This issue contains the conclusion of Robert J. Sawyer’s serialized novel, Wake.  Now I can take all 4 issues and read the whole thing straight through before the book hits the shelves in April.