I got the following question from Jennifer Lopez: “There is a lot of info on there and I am not quite sure where to start. I am writing some scifi and am definitely looking for more outreach, so I was wondering if you had any pointers on how to get started with scifi as a female writer.”
The two major pieces of advice I have are the same as Ray Bradbury’s: read widely and write fast enough that you don’t get in your own way.
The reading part is important because you need to read in your wheelhouse (science fiction), but you also need to read both contemporary and historical books (I’d recommend Victorian gothic novels in particular–more on that in a moment), as well as keep up to date with current events and science.
You need to consume as much as you can.
And, I cannot emphasize this enough: do not worry about stealing.
This is what trips up a lot of starting out writers: they are afraid to read widely because they don’t want to steal. It’s my notion that, in the United States (at the very least), we are obsessed with the illusion of originality. Our ideas, our writing style, all of these things have to be “original” or else we’re hacks. (I wish the song was Cult of Originality instead of Cult of Personality, but who knows, maybe they’re kind of the same.)
So here’s something that made me feel so much better when I learned it myself:
Shakespeare was just really good at stealing shit.
I found this knowledge so wonderful because it totally takes the pressure off to be original.
If you’re an English major, you already know about Shakespeare’s thievery. It’s common knowledge. It’s almost Literature 101. Shakespeare was totally ripping off Ovid. And his audience that could’ve afforded to be educated would’ve known that because they were educated in the Rhetorical tradition as well, and would’ve recognized the classic story lines being remixed for their contemporary moment. [It’s my personal opinion that this is why 10 Things I Hate About You and Clueless remain pretty awesome as far as teen movies go: they were ripping off Shakespeare (Taming of the Shrew) and Jane Austen (Emma) in the best ways possible: they had nods to the source material, enough for “everyone in the know,” while retelling those tales in a way that the current audience could relate to and enjoy.]
In his book, Zen in the Art of Writing (which I totally recommend and can usually be found for under $10 on Amazon or Half.com), Ray Bradbury says that a writer also has to be a good curator–building a taste level and your own style preferences. That’s why reading widely is so important. And that’s the reason why I personally suggest throwing in some Victorian gothic novels in as well. Both British and American, but throw some Kafka in, too, for good measure.
Sidenote: not enough people find Kafka as hilarious as I do. No one will doubt that he is Important with a capital “I,” but his importance was always sold to me about how serious his writing was. And when I read his stories with this filter of “seriousness” across them, I wanted to go Joker on his ass and also my professor’s ass and burn the motherfucker down. Which is a shame that he is sold as a “serious” writer–“serious” here is not to be confused with being taken seriously, these are two separate, distinct concepts in my mind. I think Kafka is one of the best comedic writers ever. You might think there’s something super emo about his writing at first, and it might not be your taste. But after reading his letters, I think he is widely misunderstood. He had one of the most performative self-deprecating poetic and hilarious personalities in his letters (performative meaning that one tries to perform a version of oneself for a specific affect). Honestly, I feel like he was the Joss Whedon of his time, Kafka is that funny. But early-ish-to-mid-career Joss, back when Firefly was still getting canceled.
So to recap: Victorian era fiction is good for speculative fiction (science fiction and horror in particular) because they’re the primary source material. Their stories are constantly getting remixed. And you can’t fully appreciate Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice without having read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
(Although Frankenstein was written right before the Victorian era proper–scholars call this “the long nineteenth century” to get past these tricky little details.)
So to re-re-cap: read a lot. Like a whole lot.
Ray Bradbury and Stephen King both advise against television. I heartily disagree. I think serialized television shows are really great ways to learn how to build character through action (as opposed to pages of inner monologue). Comic books are also excellent for this.
There’s something really wonderful about the invention of Pinterest–this might seem an abrupt subject change, but go with me on this–it has mainstreamed the practice of curation: turning mild-mannered Interweb users into curators with impeccable taste, collecting pictures and URLs to catalog information.
So: read a lot. Write as much as you can without getting in your way (I hope to explain this in Part Two), and also start a Pinterest account. It’s a good exercise in curation, plus you will find images that will hopefully inspire you to write.
Part Two: I’ll talk about writing fast, writing resistance, and self-sabotage.