Here’s the truth: I never considered myself a science fiction writer.
Fiction, yup. YA? Heck yeah! Sci-fi? Well that’s a bit of a stretch.
In fact, the first time the words “sci-fi” came out of my mouth when I was describing my recent novel, it was a bit difficult to get my tongue around the syllables. It’s my first time; can I really call myself a sci-fi writer? I mean, I know technology insofar as I can operate my laptop and a smartphone and two out of five times, I can plug a USB cable in the right way on the first try. The last science class I took was in 2003. It was Astronomy. Helpful—you’d think—aside from the fact that my most enduring memories of that class involve someone we dubbed “Astronomy Boy” (long story) and the fact that my professor seemed utterly convinced that the past tense of “squeeze” was “squoze.”
But I love Star Wars and Firefly and I’ve seen my fair share of Star Trek and Quantum Leap (“Oh boy…”) and I got an A in that astronomy class, and I’m a professional writer, so sure, I could write science fiction.
Well, let’s just say I learned a lot. And I’m still learning (because: #amediting).
So if you’re about to step into writing sci-fi—or any genre, really—for the very first time and want some ideas on what to watch out for, here’s a look at some of the big lessons I learned:
Do your research. And when you think you’ve done enough? Do more.
I thought I knew what I was talking about with certain things. I thought mermaids were synonymous with sirens (they’re not) and any star could supernova (nope). While the mermaid issue was a quick fix that didn’t tremendously impact the story, the supernova issue is going to require some pretty big rewrites that could have been avoided if I’d done just a little more homework.
Which leads me to my next lesson…
Find people who are smarter than you. And ask them questions. All the questions. Even the dumb ones. (Maybe especially the dumb ones.)
Use absolutely every connection you have, especially when writing in a new genre. Check out what other writers are doing, both those on the shelves of Barnes & Noble and those who exist in fandoms and sites like Wattpad. Read blogs and articles about writing sci-fi (like Melissa’s awesome post on world-building, which I will admit, is prompting more than a few rewrites on my own work).
Also? Use your friends! If they’ve got a particular interest in your genre, ask them lots of questions. Chances are they’ll know the answer. I constantly pestered a particular friend who provided in-the-moment responses to my dumber probably-should-have-Googled-before-pestering-him science-y questions. (Me: “What’s the scientist that would study planets and stars and space and help plan space travel? Is that an astrophysicist?” Him: “Astrophysics is the study of the motion of stellar bodies. You’re on the right track.” Me: “Huzzah! Okay, good. I’m just happy I didn’t call the character an astrologer.” Him: “Me too. I’d have disowned you.”) Lucky for me, even after all the [stupid] questions, he’s still my friend.
Get thee a sci-fi fan for a beta reader! They find things. Things you need them to find. Even if you don’t want them to find these things.
You want to have a variety of different beta readers: those who will give you the tough love that you need, those who are 100% your biggest fans and will write comments full of smiley faces and hearts, and those who know a lot about the specific subject matter you’re writing and can find all the errors in your science. And I do mean ALL the errors. (Sigh…)
This same friend who would disown me for calling a scientist an astrologer is also one of my beta readers and has been crucial in evolving one of the major plot points of the story. (Don’t worry: For all his troubles, he’s been rewarded with a dose of posterity via a character named after him.) Because he understands how the science of star explosion works (clearly better than I did) as well as how critical that level of catastrophe is to my plotline, he was able to offer alternatives to keep the danger but not require more willful suspension of disbelief than a scientifically-informed reader could stomach.
But most of all? Just write!
My biggest advice when writing a new genre for the first time is this: Just do it! Don’t talk yourself out of it simply because you’ve never done it before. As I used to tell my dance students: We were all beginners once. It’s about having the courage to take that first step.
For me, this entire experience eventually became less about the particulars of being a sci-fi writer and more about just telling a darn good story. Because if the story isn’t good, it doesn’t matter how sound my science is or how obsessive I am about the particulars of a spaceship or an alien library. At the end of the day, it’s about the solid joy of telling a story in such a way that will have others experiencing and loving it as much as I do.
Look for more on Dawn’s adventures in sci-fi writing at www.twitter.com/dawncjonckowski and search #TheWeightofStarsandSuns