The three stages of learning to write successful science fiction

To be taken with the usual grain of NaCl.

It seems to me that during the learning process from beginning science fiction writing to pro-level, we writers have to successfully hurdle three stages. None of these are exclusive of each other, neither do they have to be traversed in a certain order, but usually the development goes a bit like this:

Stage 1: the craft stage

This is where the writers spend most of their time with their nose on the ground and bum in the air, taking a microscope to their work and the work of others. This is the stage where writers learn about style, telling vs showing, use (or not) of adverbs and adjectives, about ‘forbidden’ words. This is where grammar and punctuation get polished. At the conclusion of this stage, the author-in-development will be able to state, quite indignantly, that so-and-so famous writer writes like crap because he/she frequently breaks rules number 12 and 35, namely those dealing with adverbs in speech tags and animate inanimate nouns (such as eyes darting around the room). Besides, this writer seems to have a fondness for the word ‘suddenly’ which is on the forbidden list, and there is even proof that the writer is not averse to starting sentences with ‘There was’.
At this stage, the writer-in-training is a total prick. Because, although bad grammar and style will certainly ensure a hasty exit from the slush pile, strict adherence to ‘the rulez’ won’t ensure publication. Good grammar and fluent style is where the journey begins.

Stage 2: the story stage

This is where the writers learn about character, dialogue and plot. Once writers hurdle the important stage of craft, it becomes necessary to develop the skills to maintain pace and tension, to pit characters against each other, to learn that giving a fact sheet with every character the first time you mention them is not a good idea. It is where writers learn to maintain tension without being too obvious in hiding clues from the reader, or without being too obscure. This is where writers learn what needs to be spelled out and what can be implied. This is where they learn about POV control.
Upon completion of this stage, writers can crank out a decent story, one that shows a plot arc, a character arc and tension. The story will show realistic human behaviour and believable emotions.
This is the stage where writers might start to break into the semipro market, and become frustrated as to why better venues aren’t buying the stories. This is the stage where the stories are lovely and nice, but they’re lacking something, and writers are beating their heads against the wall as to what it might be.
At this stage, writers will recognise a good or an inadequate story, but can’t quite put advice into practice.

Stage 3: the idea stage

Funnily enough, most people would think that ideas come first, but I think that ideas are what holds the rest of the story together. There is no point in using cement if the bricks are not properly baked. You can write a story that’s all lovely writing, plot and character, and doesn’t have much of a concept. In fact, those were the stories we’ve been writing so far.
I think writers don’t progress until they understand that a world-class story needs an extra something, extra depth in worldbuilding, extra information. It needs a higher concept behind the story. This is not to say that these ideas will automatically be plot-based not character-based, however much I hate that distinction – few plots work without characters – but it’s best if you can find details of setting that interact with the character in a unique way. But it’s the point where you realise that, if you wish to write successful science fiction, or even fantasy, or even fiction in general, you can’t just bung together a few made-up things and keep your fingers crossed that someone will like it. If you use facts, you’ll need to deepen your knowledge of them; if you make up something, you will still need to study similar situations to make up something that is both interesting and plausible.
Developing this world or concept may take a lot of reading and time. Almost none of this work ends up directly in the story, but it can make the difference between an OK story that’s readable but mundane and a great story.


  1. I’m reading at my peril here and feeling quite recalcitrant reading this article, trying to see where I fit into your scheme.

    Of course, you tried to cover all your bases by saying these stages need not be traversed in order etc.

    There is no traversing them one by one. You need all of them on the go at the same time and so the learning to write, anything, becomes a cyclical process.

    Yes, ideas do hold the story together. Ideas as something you can add after you’ve jumped through every other hoop … I don’t see me ending up with a story that way.

  2. I adore science fiction, but lack the tech knowledge to pull it off. Maybe if I read more…

  3. In the first paragraph, it says that the stages do not need to be traversed in a certain way, and I didn’t even say they need to be traversed one by one. Every writer is different. But, having been in writing workshops for over six years, and having read thousands of pieces of slush (2000 on OWW, 500+ on Authonomy, 500+ as slush reader, and a good 500 on combined other workshops – although I have no tally for the latter figure), the process I’ve described is what I’ve seen happening most often, but I never said there weren’t any other ways to do it.

    As for ideas… sure everyone has ideas when they first start out, but what tends to happen is that by the time the craft and storytelling has developed to a stage that gets picked up by magazines, you tend to realise that those ideas you had in the early stages for the most part don’t make the cut. Some do, but most of them don’t. That, again, is a generalisation, but it’s something that happened to me, and I’ve seen it happen many, many times to other writers.

  4. Reading non-fiction and having general knowledge (much of it of the type that can be picked up from a high school level textbook) is absolutely essential for writing science fiction.

  5. Well I get where you’re coming from. I feel I am straddling stage 2 and 3. And finding it bloody frustrating too! But that is all part of the process 🙂

    I have also stopped reading a lot of flash fiction for the very reasons you have outlined. A lot of what’s published in online flash journals is stuck in your phase 2. They are competent, adequate stories, but they don’t *mean* anything/add up to anything.

    I am setting myself a challenge of writing stories that mean something deeper than what’s going on on the surface. I hope that will get me to stage three and beyond!

    Well put, Patty.

  6. A lot of this, of course, is objective.

    What I see a bit, though, is that people write competent stories that are too mundane to make it big in SFF. Heck, I’ver written plenty of those myself. But there comes a time when you should be able to recognise what makes a great story and what makes a fun-but-meh story.

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