Becoming an SF Writer

A Discussion with C. Dale Brittain


Q: How do you become an SF writer?

A: One becomes a writer by writing. Write a lot. Write all the time. Write a lot of different things besides SF. One gets better the more one writes, just as one gets better at a physical activity (such as tennis) the more one practices, so don't get discouraged if your early efforts are less than you hoped for. There are plenty of books in libraries and bookstores on structuring novels, developing characters, and the like, which are well worth reading. Make sure you really know how to use the English language correctly (a manual of style like Strunk & White's can be very helpful). Get feedback from people whose judgment you trust. The ultimate reward in writing, whether or not one is ever published, has to come from within, knowing that you are really working to make a story as good as it could be. One actually has an advantage in writing as an unpublished author, in that you can concentrate on improving your writing, rather than having to meet a deadline or guessing what an editor wants.

Q: Do you need an agent to sell a first novel in the fantasy and science fiction genre?

A: It helps. I didn't have an agent when I sold Bad Spell to Baen. Although most SF authors get an agent eventually, many SF publishers actually do read their slush piles. Something like 100 new novelists are published a year in the genre, two a week, and the publishers have to find them somewhere! On the other hand, publishers like to have submissions "pre-vetted" by an agent who knows the field--and if you're shopping for an agent, believe the ones who say "No SF" on their websites, because they reallly mean it. With very few exceptions, you'll get the same deal from a publisher on a first novel with or without an agent, and a bad agent is much worse than no agent at all. Once you have a fantasy or science fiction novel published, you can join SFWA (Science-fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) and get their proprietary list of the agents used by members of the organization. Then, if you want an agent, you can write to a few other SFWA members and find out if they are happy with theirs.

Q: How much should I pay an agent to look at my manuscript?

A: Nothing! Zero! All reputable literary agents make their money from selling books to publishers. They keep about 15% of what the publisher is willing to pay for the book. This means they are inspired to negotiate for as much money as possible (of which, remember, you get 85%). Publishers like dealing with agents they know, from whom they have bought books in the past, because they know these agents wouldn't be offering them a potential book unless it was good. (An agent doesn't dare approach a publisher with trash because it will destroy her reputation. But this is also why agents are reluctant to take on new authors--they don't want to take a chance.) Remember, the money goes from the publisher to the agent to you, not the other way around (although, once you're established with an agent he may charge you small fees for extra xeroxing, overseas phone calls for selling translation rights, etc.). If an agent asks you for money upfront, run the other way. There are plenty of people who call themselves agents but who have never sold a single book (!), making all their money from charging authors "reading fees."

Q: Should you try to get a professional "editorial service" to look at your MS before you try a publisher?

A: If you've gotten your story as good as you can make it without outside input, you don't need a formal "editor" (and many so-called editorial services are just money-making scams) so much as someone who reads a lot in the genre, is intelligent and astute, and will make critical comments when critical comments are needed. I've always used my husband. A spouse may or may not work in this role for everyone (for one thing, how do you feel about receiving criticism from your nearest and dearest?), so you might consider a writer's group. The real person who can tell you if your book is salable and will do fairly well, is a publisher. They tell you by either buying or not buying your manuscript.

Q: What are SF publishers really looking for, anyway?

A: One of the things that is very nice about the science fiction and fantasy field is that subject matter is wide open. Books that carefully explore religious issues sit on the shelves next to determinedly atheistic ones, just as unicorns are flanked by spaceships, imaginary socialist paradises are next to rugged individualists, and extrapolations from hard science sit next to rollicking space opera. What editors are especially interested in when looking at new authors is strong, likeable characters, coupled with a plot that keeps moving briskly along. (The two or three first pages are especially important for drawing in the reader.) Editors are open to virtually any sort of theme as long as it emerges from the story, rather than having the story appear as just a thin disguise for a preachy theme.

Q: What should happen in my plot?

A: Although of course the details differ, all genre novels, SF, mystery, western, etc., have the same overall plot structure. The basic genre plot requires the heroes/heroines to face something serious and dangerous, which would have horrible repercussions if they don't resolve it, and then to triumph in the end, due to their own efforts, but only with great difficulty, and only with changes to themselves (e.g., serious injury, sacrifice of something dear, having to face up to a deep-seated fear, etc.). The most common plot failures are not having a serious problem for the characters to face, not having a satisfactory resolution (preferably one that couldn't be easily predicted), or having heroes/heroines who are either rather unpleasant or else too perfect. If your characters have an internal life (they aren't cardboard or complacent) and have the gumption to solve their own problems, they'll do just fine in the genre.

Q: Why all these "rules" about plot structure?

A: Because they're basically what the readers expect, even if the readers haven't enunciated it to themselves. But I'm sure you've started a book at one time or another and then put it down without finishing, because the characters themselves seemed uninteresting, or the problem they were facing wasn't very important. Or you've been frustrated because at the end the bad guys just go away, or someone other than the heroine steps in and solves everything for her. Successful books get published all the time that "break" the rules, but you have to break them on purpose, not because you don't know any better. And a novelist who already has a fan base can of course get away with more than a first-time novelist.

Q: I see that you published a novel with the Wooster Book Company. Would that be a good place to submit my novel?

A: Not really. The Book Co. has been wonderful for me, but I had known the owners for years already. They're a small press, and for the kind of personal relationship that small presses do best, you'd be better off finding a small press in your own hometown. In addition, you really don't want to go to a small press for your first novel. I already have a fan base from 7 novels published by Baen and distributed nationally, so I can hope that my fans will find my new book because they're looking for it. For a first novel, where the fans have never heard of you, it's best to start with one of the commercial SF publishers, who will do their best to get your book out where people will notice it.

Q: How about publishing my novel with an e-publisher?

A: Probably not a good idea, in part for the same reason you don't want to go to a small press for your first novel: nobody will have ever heard of you, and will not therefore think to look for you. There's so much rubbish on the web that chances are slim that someone will actually dig through it all and accidentally find your doubtless excellent novel. E-publishers come and go on the web on a virtually daily basis, generally because they discover there's no money to be made, so if you sign up with one you may find them--and the rights to your novel which you signed over to them--gone without warning. Kindle (with Amazon) allows a writer to publish their own e-books and keep the rights, but the difficulty again is getting people to notice your book among the other million titles. There are Kindle authors who have yet to sell a single copy, and I doubt I would be selling many if I didn't already have a fan base from hardcopy books. And because being on the web "counts" as publication, you would have to sell your novel as a reprint, rather than an original, if you later got a commercial publisher interested, and reprints always sell for less.

If you decide to self-publish your novel through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing service (one great advantage is that doing so is free, plus you keep your rights), both the advantage and the disadvantage is that you have total control. No more foolish editing of your prose or bad choice of cover image. But you have to do everything yourself, from cover design to marketing. If you decide to try KDP, I've written a book (available from Amazon of course) that explains such things as how you get paid, how to track sales, and what you have to do in order to get book reviews. It's called "Know your Self Publishing."

Q: Do you see "print on demand" (POD) technology changing the field?

A: The real advantage of POD technology is that books need never go out of print, and (once the technology is fully implemented) someone who loves a particular author will be able to buy everything he or she ever wrote. However, POD will do nothing to help the new author get established. Even if your book was available to be printed "on demand," no one would know to request it! Bookstores of the future may just have great long lists of available books, maybe with a brief descriptive paragraph on each. And yet the way that people discover a new writer is by seeing an interesting looking book on the shelf, picking it up, reading a few pages, and then proceeding to the checkout with it. Even if bookstores had every single title available to be printed "on demand," they couldn't possibly have samples of all these books, because there just wouldn't be room for all of them (think about a big university or city library, how much bigger it is than even the "superstore" bookstores, and yet even a city library only has a fraction of the books that might be available). So far nobody's come up with a better way for new novelists to be discovered than for their novels to be sitting there on the shelf.

Q: Is it better to start with short stories than novels?

A: It's actually easier (strange as this may seem) to publish a novel than a short story. Approximately the same number of each are published each year, but there are a lot more people trying to market short stories (for the obvious reason that it's quicker to write one). I've published eight fantasy novels and have yet to get a short story accepted. However, you have to write what comes out--no use either trying desperately to stretch a short story out long, or to squeeze a novel down short. The biggest difference between the two forms is that in a novel a fair amount of time passes, there is a lot of room for complicated plots and subplots, and the characters have to be developed thoroughly, whereas a short story is built around a single, fairly linear plot, most of which happens in a brief amount of time (generally no more than a few days). Most short stories that are published turn on an original Neat Idea, a "what-if" situation. The majority of stories in the magazines and anthologies are based on some sort of extrapolation from America at the beginning of the 21st century, whereas real world-building can take place in science fiction and fantasy novels.

Q: When can I become such a success as an SF writer that I can quit my day job?

A: Realistically, never. There are over 1000 active members of SFWA (people who have published at least one novel or three short stories), and probably only a dozen or two of these are talented and lucky enough that they can make a living writing one book a year. Some others make a living by cranking out a book every three months, which includes thinking up the story, writing it and revising it, and selling it. Now in fact, if you want to really think about your plots, your characters, and your settings, and want to polish your writing, you probably need to plan on writing no more than one book a year. (When you imagine becoming a writer, do you imagine yourself sitting in front of the computer for 14 hours a day? Do you think you could continue to be creative and enjoy your characters if you had to work under a tight deadline, knowing that if you didn't sell you wouldn't make the rent?) First novels generally make $5000 or less. Most established authors get no more than $10,000 per book, and often less. Short stories are generally sold for a few hundred dollars each. So most SFWA members enjoy a little extra income, to pay for a vacation or a home improvement, but keep their day jobs.

Q: But won't I be getting royalties?

A: Here's how royalties work. When a commercial publisher buys your book, they give you an "advance against royalties," probably around $5000 for a first novel. Now, every time a book is sold, your share is calculated. Most first novelists get 6% of the cover price, which means you'll get 36 cents every time a $6 paperback is sold. In practice, publishers will not credit "all" this money to your account anyway, but maintain a "reserve." This is because stores can return unsold books for a complete refund, and the publisher isn't going to credit you for books that never actually sell! (On average, about half of all books are returned.) When enough 36 cents sales have accumulated to add up to your $5000 advance, you are said to have "earned out." After this, you'll get paid your 36 cents per book in royalties, in twice-a-year payments. In practice, first novels rarely earn out. On the other hand, you won't have to pay your advance back. But for most writers royalties are a distant rumor. (The first two Yurt books have earned out, but this is unusual--and the reason why I was able to sell Baen 5 more books.) Reference books like Writers Market explain all this. Remember, the main reason to write fiction can't be money, but satisfaction from the writing itself, and from contact with people who've read and enjoyed your stories.

Q: Where can I learn more about the field?

A: The monthly magazine Locus is a good place to start. It's run by fanatical fans of the genre, and has reviews, details of forthcoming books, and interviews with authors every month. You can find the magazine in specialty stores or subscribe via their website. They list SF conventions regularly. Anyone can go to a "con" (just pay your admission fee) and attend what is called programming, panel discussions on everything from "Who is your favorite Star Trek character?" to religion in SF books. Lots of the panels will be on writing and selling in the genre. Cons always have a lot of published authors on the panels--maybe one of your favorites will be there! A good website for would-be SF writers is that maintained by the Science-fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, at They have useful warnings about "editorial" scams and tips on finding an agent, material available to anyone, not just members.

For more information about becoming a writer, read the transcript of an on-line chat with C. Dale Brittain.


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