What to Study If You Want to Write Speculative Fiction
Judging from my own experience, and that of other sci-fi lovers I’ve met, people frequently fall in love with speculative fiction as adolescents, or perhaps in junior high. Not that you’re entirely unfamiliar with the tropes of sci-fi as a child, in our society where a whole generation of post-Star Wars blockbusters have made sci-fi-lite the hegemonic genre of entertainment. Sure, you watch TV shows with spaceships zooming around, but as a real mind-bending, life-changing literary experience it usually hooks you a little later. For me, A Wrinkle in Time was a one-off thing when I was nine, but then I remember reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and A Spell for Chameleon and the floodgates just kind of opened.
The point is, for a lot of young people, by the time they’re in high school science fiction has become a passion, and can even feel like a calling. So what do you advise a kid in that position to “do with their lives”?
This is trickier with science fiction than other artistic vocations, because, obviously, there’s that whole “science” thing. You have to know something about science to write good (hard) science fiction. Besides, people will be pressuring you to do science and engineering anyway, cause that’s where the money is. But if you really want to be a writer, you’ll need some skills beyond the lab. Here’s my college advice for aspiring LeGuins and Heinleins:
1. Take mainstream lit and creative writing classes.
Literature is a trade in itself. While it’s possible to be both a chemical engineer, say, and a novelist, you have to put time into both. The danger here is that you may feel alienated by the snobbery of most MFA-style writing workshops. There will be strong pressure to drop the speculative elements in your stories or at least do some non-speculative work. My advice: give in to that pressure. You have more to gain than to lose. You can remain loyal to nerd-dom in your heart while taking what you can from the artsy-fartsy world of creative writing.
2. Stay well-rounded.
Besides science, and fiction, there’s a whole wide world of content that goes into any novel, and no field of experience is without its use. Furthermore, the “world-building” aspects of speculative fiction require one to have a good working knowledge of history and the social sciences. A generalized appreciation for the arts is important to be able to have confidence in your judgment as a writer. Good science fiction is good fiction, which means it must appeal to anyone who might pick up your book, not just the initiated and obsessive otaku few.
3. Consider computer science.
This is my big regret as a writer. I double-majored in English and Religious Studies because I was fascinated by the world’s religions. While that’s certainly helped lend some color and flavor to my imagination, I had not anticipated just how much tech skills make a difference for even the most liberal-arts-leaning of poets today. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve always been an early adopter and I can get by just fine. But in terms of practical skills for making an artistic dream happen these days, it can’t hurt to learn computers.
That’s all I’ve got for now. Keep watching the stars!
Lauren Bailey is a freelance blogger who loves writing about education, new technology, lifestyle and health. As an education writer, she works to research and provide sound online education advice and welcomes comments and questions via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.