Review: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card

cover art: How to Write Science Fiction and FantasyHow to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card (Writers Digest Books, 1990)

In How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy Orson Scott Card doesn’t repeat the writing advice he’s given elsewhere (Characters and Viewpoint from Writers Digest Books). Instead he focuses on the particular attributes needed in the speculative genres.

The book contains five sections: The Infinite Boundary (defining the genres), World Creation, Story Construction, Writing Well, and The Life and Business of Writing.

What makes a good science fiction story? A good fantasy? Mr. Card illustrates the differences and provides an extensive reading list. He says we won’t like everything on the list, but we’ll see the varieties within the genre and we’ll see what works and what’s already been over-done. And analyzing our responses will help us discover the style and approach we want to use in our own fiction.

The book offers solid teaching on the crafting and writing of a speculative story (world, history, characters, etc). Mr. Card advocates a lot of thinking and discovery before writing, which may frighten seat-of-the-pants writers, but we’re not starting from the known setting of planet Earth. Without the depth of history and background, our story world and cultures won’t feel real.

Other than the World Creation section (the largest part), any kind of fiction writer can benefit from the information in this book. The examples are from speculative work but the principles apply across genres.

The author gives tips on how to develop what he calls a “Wise Reader,” someone who can read your manuscript and give his/her reactions. The aim is not to get advice on what to do next, but to hear genuine audience reaction to your plot, characters etc. This will help you find those points in the story that don’t achieve your desired impact or effect.

There have been changes since the book appeared in 1990, in speculative fiction and in the general world of writing and publishing. Writers can find that information elsewhere, and will still find this slim book helpful.

If you’re going to write (or are writing) in the speculative genres, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy is an essential resource. If not, you’re still likely to find something helpful in the second half of the book.

Hatrack River is the official website of  Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Orson Scott Card (or visit the directory of all his sites).

[Review copy from my personal library. Review first appeared in FellowScript, August 2012.]

2 thoughts on “Review: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card

  1. Violet Nesdoly

    Hi Janet,
    Your reviews are always interesting. Thanks for this. I especially perked up at this part:

    “Mr. Card advocates a lot of thinking and discovery before writing, which may frighten seat-of-the-pants writers, but we’re not starting from the known setting of planet Earth. Without the depth of history and background, our story world and cultures won’t feel real.”

    A few days ago I read Tracy Kraus’s blog post recommending Rachel Aarons ‘2,000 to 10,000 How to write faster, write better, and write more of what you love’ and downloaded the book. It has much wonderful advice. But one of the things I struggle with in the thought of writing thousands of words a day is what goes before that–the “thinking and discovery” time that’s needed before one is ready to write. Biblical fiction (like any historical and I suspect speculative fiction) needs a immersion in not only the setting but the thought and atmosphere of the era. It takes me weeks, months, to get to the point of even being ready to write. It’s so nice to read that some how-to expert agrees this is time well spent.

    Reply
    1. Janet Sketchley

      Violet, that discovery phase is what worries me about things like NaNoWriMo. I can see how writing fast without stopping to self-edit will get the story out and keep a writer caught up in the thrill of the chase, but without that background, be it setting and/or character or some form of research, I’d be always stopping to look up what I needed. Or I’d be blocked because I wouldn’t understand the realm of the story, or I’d have my characters doing really dumb things that would require huge edits later.

      With your historical novel, if you hadn’t immersed yourself enough in the setting, your characters wouldn’t have acted as naturally as they did. After all, their decisions and actions are influenced by what’s around them geographically and culturally.

      The “2,000 to 10,000” book sounds interesting. I’ll have to have a look. Last time I had a daily word count, I think it was only 500 .

      Reply

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