Contradicting Giants

by Tom Ligon

This sounds like a good opportunity to trash the advice and work of some of the giants of science fiction.

I was introduced to short fiction early, by a remarkable woman named Dorothy Ulrich Troubetzkoy, a noted Richmond, Virginia, writer who took it upon herself to teach writing and poetry to youngsters via a club called The Poetry Party. I joined at the tender age of eight. One of her favorite subjects was Edgar Allan Poe, an author whose style was a mite intense for a kid who was taught to read by Dr. Seuss. She did succeed in familiarizing me with the short story form, though at that age I was no great literary threat. My mind was elsewhere . . . the Space Race was just getting underway, and I was fascinated with anything related to it.

I learned to enjoy writing over the ensuing decade, but I never really considered attempting to get anything published, until one day in college when I had a total brain freeze. I was stuck for at least half an hour attempting to comprehend two paragraphs of an engineering mechanics text. I became concerned that I might have suffered a stroke, and lost my ability to read. About this time, a friend dropped by my room, and left behind two dog-eared paperbacks. They were by some author I’d vaguely heard of, Robert Heinlein. I had read very little science fiction by that time, and nothing by him. I picked one up and began reading it. I think I finished it in under an hour. I opened the second, and had it done in about the same length of time.

I was delighted. There was nothing wrong with my brain. I could still read! I had also thoroughly enjoyed both novels, one of which was Double Star. However, as a hard-core space science fan, I was not really satisfied with their technological rigor, and considered them to be basically detective stories with rocket ships and ray guns. Within a day or two, I’d decided I might be able to do better than this Heinlein hack.

Pretty arrogant, right?

I am not a “professional” writer. I don’t do it for a living and would probably starve if I tried to. I write because I enjoy it, and I only do it when I have something to say. Very often I think something important has been overlooked, or gotten wrong, in earlier examples of the genre. This blog should appear as “Beek” is in print [in the March/April issue on sale now]. After you have read it, you may realize that it was inspired by something I’m sure Heinlein got wrong, and which other writers have continued to get wrong.

Rule One is that stories are about characters facing problems and how they deal with those problems. Rule Two is that the main character should be changed, usually in a profound way, by facing and dealing with the problems.

Before anyone gets offended, consider that continuous reexamination and improvement of earlier ideas is the history of science fiction. For over a century, writers have been exploring ideas, and fans have been giving feedback. In particular, they’ve picked the technology apart and pointed out errors. So to change my target a little, let me pick on Larry Niven, and Ringworld. There was a fundamental flaw in the concept of this alien megastructure: it is inherently unstable. Fans pointed this out. So, did Niven just sweep this under the rug? For the sequels, he hit upon the notion of using Bussard ramjets to stabilize it, thus opening up a number of rich plot options. This was much to the delight of Dr. Bussard, although he felt the rotational speed of the structure was far too low for this means of propulsion to strut its stuff. (If you’ve followed Analog long enough, you know I worked for R. W. Bussard on the Polywell reactor.)

My first piece of advice to anyone hoping to break into science fiction is this: don’t do it if you just want to tell somebody else’s story over again. Strive to advance the genre. If you can find the new angle, or correct an old error, you may set your work apart enough to catch the editor’s attention. If you can incorporate new ideas with a fresh plot, you definitely will.

I mentioned “gadgets” above. One of the first axioms in writing science fiction is that gadget stories are a deadly bore. An example of a gadget would be Dr. Bussard’s “Interstellar Ramjet Star Killer.” The day I met him, he asked if I could write a story about this monstrosity. A story about this gadget, as he described it, would have been: one side launched it, and the other side never saw it coming, could not have stopped it, and they all died. No story there! It took me about eleven years to find a way to stop the infernal thing, which allowed me to ask, “What would happen if you put Harcourt Fenton Mudd in a situation where he had to sacrifice himself to save humanity?” This produced “El Dorado” (Analog, Nov. ’07), a story about a man who must stop the weapon, and what must happen inside him for this to occur.

This does not mean you can’t have gadgets, it just means you need to realize what stories really are before you attempt to create your own. I strongly recommend that new writers take a good creative writing course and attend seminars on the subject. I did, and learned a few simple rules that have served me well. Most of these tips work in any genre. Some of these were invented by Poe, whom many consider to be one of the founders of the short story form.

Rule One is that stories are about characters facing problems and how they deal with those problems. Rule Two is that the main character should be changed, usually in a profound way, by facing and dealing with the problems.

“El Dorado” employs both of these rules heavily. You can probably find a story here and there that breaks these rules, but it is rare. Poetry need not obey these rules; it can simply describe a scene or person, or explain feelings, without showing a problem or a change, but any prose form from a short story onward will quickly fall flat without obstacles to overcome, and without producing change.

When I had this discussion years ago on the old AnalogSF forum, one contributor suggested an exception: the biblical story of Job. Job remained unflinchingly faithful in spite of his trials. I would suggest, though, that the main characters in this are God and Satan. Satan thinks losing everything will destroy Job’s faith. Satan learns otherwise. The reader, on the other hand, may find their faith shaken by God encouraging Satan to do this to poor Job and his family. Even if you imagine a steadfast character, you must include problems for them to overcome, and you probably cause them to change other characters.

All prose stories from the short story onward must engage the reader quickly. The shorter the form, the faster you should do this. I submitted an early story effort in a writing seminar, which I thought was well written. The pro read the first two paragraphs to the class, and asked, “Can anyone spot the problem?”

One of his more experienced students replied, “It’s got no hook!”

Rule Three is to hook the reader fast.

Hook? What is a hook? I was about to find out. If I had paid more attention to Poe’s openings, it would have been instinctive. You have one or two paragraphs to get the reader’s interest. If you’re really good, you can grab them with the first sentence. If you fail to do this, they may just flip some pages and find something else. Poe was also a newspaperman, and knew how to write an eye-catching headline. I recommend you read one of Poe’s science fiction stories for a great example. This particular story is usually listed as “The Balloon Hoax,” and was perpetrated upon the unsuspecting public in 1850. It was far ahead of its time, depicting a dirigible when only balloons were flying. It was published as real news, and so opened with a splashy headline.

ASTOUNDING NEWS BY EXPRESS, VIA NORFOLK!—The Atlantic Crossed in Three Days!—Signal Triumph of Mr. Monck Mason’s Flying Machine!—Arrival at Sullivan’s Island, near Charlestown, S. C.

Now that is a hook! So Rule Three is to hook the reader fast. For another example of a hook, re-read the opening sentence of this article. While you are crafting your opening, see if you can make the reader like your main character quickly. This is not an absolute requirement, but if your readers care what happens to the characters, they will keep reading.

Rule Four came from a creative writing class. Every scene should show a change. It is possible to write scenes in which the change happens between scenes, and I’ve seen a number of good stories in Analog that do this, typically spanning long periods of time. More commonly scenes show the change occurring. Changes within a scene need not be huge or profound, but they should advance the story. Practice this.

Since I mentioned showing change, let’s make Rule Five the time-honored advice, show, don’t tell. You can write down an infodump for your own use, as you create the background for the story, but don’t subject the reader to one. Figure out a way to reveal it slowly, perhaps by having a character discover it. Avoid, “As you know, Bob, if we disconnect the plasma conduit from the superconducting trap, the warp field will collapse and the ship will blow up.” Consider revealing it. “I was about to disconnect the plasma conduit from the superconducting trap, when Bob threw his body against mine, hurling me into a bulkhead. ‘You idiot’, he said. ‘The warp field would have collapsed, and we’d have dropped to normal space at lightspeed!’ I realized what that meant . . . Cherenkov radiation would have fried us!”

I should spend a little time contradicting Jerry Pournelle while I’m trashing the greats. Jerry told prospective writers that they had to write and throw away a million words before they could expect to publish. Ignorant of this fact, I sold my second submission to Analog. I doubt my total effort in writing fiction at that point topped 50,000 words. But most of those early words were trash. So were some of the later ones. If you have a good mastery of your language, the help of good mentors, and you have taken your time to craft your work, you can produce publishable work sooner than that pessimistic estimate. Without the help of good teachers and critics, you can write ten million words and they are likely to all be trash. Ulrich Troubetzkoy could count Thornton Wilder as one of her many mentors. Here is Rule Six: do seek guidance and feedback, and accept constructive criticism gracefully.

Rule Seven: if you want a particular scene, or want your character to do something, craft the story so that it makes sense for this to happen. I coached one writer through this some years back. His background was in English and he used the language competently. He had some interesting scenes and a rousing great ending. Alas, his characters were doing absolutely insane things to get from one scene to the next. No rational person would have done it. I doctored a few details and coached him on altering the situation so the characters had to take the risks he wanted them to. His rewrite sold, and he has since been an Analog regular.

In the spirit of trashing Names, one of my favorite examples of a hack writer not doing her homework and having things happen for stupid reasons would be found in a Danielle Steele aviation-themed novel, a subject she clearly knew nothing about. If you are flying across the Pacific, lost, low on fuel, with both engines on fire, you do not consult with your navigator, point to an uninhabited fly-spec on the chart, and say, “If we can stay up for another half-hour, we can reach this island.” She unnecessarily created a situation in which the plane’s wings would probably fold up within a minute, and her characters could not have navigated to a fly-spec without knowing their exact position. She could have just supposed an engine or weather problem requiring diversion to the island. In SF, you see things just as egregious every time a starship crew executes an emergency landing on an asteroid with a breathable atmosphere and Earth-standard gravity. I find this highly illogical.

I think I’ll stop with Rule Eight: Do your homework, and do the math. Particularly in science fiction, and most especially if your market is Analog, you had better know your facts. The readers will check. For example, when I wrote “Amateurs” (Analog, July ’96), I gave the coordinates where the spacecraft crashed. A reader checked, and reported in Brass Tacks that my description in the story matched what was to be found at those coordinates. This was not an accident. My story collaborator had recommended the spot, and I had checked it out on aviation charts. The methods I’d depicted to locate the ship’s emergency locator transmitter were standard Civil Air Patrol training I had been through. You may need to build a world. If you do, you must build it plausibly and you must stick to what you built. You may need to model the performance of your spacecraft, or the effects of a weapon you propose. If you try to launch a rocket to Mars using a bottle of compressed CO2, this audience will take you apart.

Have fun! Trevor will let you know if you got it right.

Tom Ligon

Tom Ligon, a retired Engineering Technologist, has published stories in Analog since 1984. He worked with Robert W. Bussard at the Energy/Matter Conversion Corporation from 1995 to 2001, developing the Polywell fusion reactor. Mr. Ligon holds ETE and Biology degrees from Virginia Tech, and describes his career as a technical jack-of-all-trades. Tom and his wife took up beekeeping a few years ago, and they find themselves fascinated by these remarkable insects.




  1. Good advice. My theory about starting to write is: eat enough and sooner or later you gotta hit the can. Read a few million words that stay inside you and sooner or later you’re going to have to write.
    Caveat: most of my theories are wrong.
    -ANALOG geezer Stephen L. Burns


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