I received a very interesting post from the Indies Unlimited blog yesterday that has made me take a seriously hard look at my own work. The post, authored by Gordon Long, was titled, “Why Scientists Shouldn’t Write Science Fiction.” In it, he basically makes the argument that people of a scientific bent spend too much time on the “worldbuilding,” or the creation of the way the science of their world and things in it function, and not enough time on the characters and the story itself.
Guilty as charged.
I’m not a scientist, although I did Letter in science and won the Physical Sciences division of my school’s Science Fair my senior year (a project in the Biology division won the Overall Prize, as well it should—it was a brilliant project). I tested out of a semester of chemistry in college. Outside of that, I’ve watched a lot of sci-fi. Star Trek, Star Wars, Stargate (the movie and the series), Battlestar Galactica (both incarnations), and many other TV series and movies have drawn me in. In writing, I’ll admit I haven’t read as many sci-fi books. I’ve read the last few of Jack Chalker’s “Well of Souls” books, Stephen R. Donaldson’s “Gap” saga novels, Alan Dean Foster’s novelizations of the Star Trek animated series, and so on. None of this qualifies me to be an expert in science.
Ah, but then there’s NOVA. Not so much today’s NOVA, but the NOVA of the 70s through the 90s. The Discovery Channel, in its early form, and the early version of The Learning Channel, where you could actually learn something by watching it. They poured out hard science, and I drank up every drop they would dispense.
The internet only made things worse. I spent tons of time on science sites (and some on Wikipedia, yes, I will admit, but only when I could verify the content).
Then, one day, around the turn of the 21st century, I got an idea. I could put some of this scientific knowledge to use and make a novel out of it.
I didn’t do anything with it right away. It fermented for a good ten years, until I started getting sick and unable to work. I had nothing else to do while on disability leave, so I sat down, put together all of the ideas about the science of the future that I’d brewed over the past decade, and tried to write a story around it. In the end, I got a 103,000+ word-long book out of it, but was it a readable novel? Time to take it to the experts at Scribophile and let them throw stones at it.
Boy, did I ever get stoned. And not in the good way.
One critiquer who made it through the book summed it up rather well. He said that I “ruled” when it came to worldbuilding, but my characters and my story fell short by comparison. I heard this same critique over and over. Great world, but where are the characters and the story?
Sigh. Eight drafts went this way. No matter how hard I worked on it, I couldn’t get the characters and the story to shine.
A writer named Malcolm Gladwell is quoted as saying, “The first eight drafts are terrible.” He spoke truth.
So, what am I going to do now? Well, I’ll tell you this: draft number nine is back in the fermenting stage. When it finally hits the keyboard and materializes on my computer, it is going to be very different from drafts one through eight. And, most importantly, it’s going to rely more on characters and story than it will on worldbuilding.
Sure, scientists can write science fiction. They simply need to use science as a spice, and not as a main ingredient.
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