Book Review: The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells by Ben Bova

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The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells by Ben Bova 

This book came with the tag line for the author, “Six time Hugo Award winner for best editor.” Wikipedia speaks about him as, “Benjamin William “Ben” Bova is an American writer. He is the author of more than 120 works of science fact and fiction, he is six-time winner of the Hugo Award, a former editor of Analog Magazine, a former editorial director of Omni; he was also president of both the National Space Society and the Science Fiction Writers of America.”

Needless to say, when the book popped up during browsing Amazon website, it was a natural choice to read it.

This is an extremely engaging book. And starts with the general scope of ingredients of good fiction. “Every writer must bring three major factors to each story that he writes. They are ideas, artistry and craftsmanship… In most cases it is simple lack of craftsmanship that prevents writer from leaving the slushpile.” As he writes, “The techniques have changed very little over the centuries because the human brain has not changed.” (We may well correlate this to recent books on writing by Lisa Cron, “Wired For Story” and “Story Genius”).

As to the scope of science fiction, he reminiscences the famous John W. Campbell,

“He would spread his arms wide (and he had long arms) and declaim, “This is science fiction! All the universe, past, present and future,” Then he would hold up a thumb and forefinger about half an inch apart and say, “This is all the other kinds of fiction.”

The book is primarily directed at the writers of science fiction, particularly the ones that are identified as “hard SF”. But ideas and insights in it is relevant for other genres. For example, “If you can’t capture a character by a straightforward emotion vs. emotion equation, then you haven’t thought out the character well enough to begin writing”

Another example he writes about the protagonist, “…the protagonist’s real problem is inside her head. The basic conflict of the story, the mainspring that drives it onward, is an emotional conflict inside the mind of the protagonist.”

He illustrates his concepts through his short stories in the book, that makes for a clearer understanding. Also, he clearly distinguishes the requirements of writing a short story and a full length novel.

He has some interesting insight on writing process as well,

“Writers don’t use ink, they use their own blood. And the reason most people stop writing is they can’t stand the emotional strain, or they don’t have the emotional need to write.”

Some writers may find the book a bit prescriptive particularly when it comes to experiencing things first hand or living or observing in the same milieu about which one is writing. But no one can deny that writing science fiction (or any genre) requires some research. One cannot write any story just by imagination. Imagination without substance would just be fluffy purple prose.

As this book was written in 1994, some pages dealing with Literary Agents is dated, because now a days Literary Agents do scout for new writers who are previously unpublished. Besides the book focuses on traditional publishing, which was the only way in the 1990s. But in recent times some outliers have come to prominence from self publishing. For example Andy Weir’s book “The Martian” was originally self-published. Also Hugh Howey, author of “Silo” series also emerged from self publishing. These books were later grabbed up by traditional publishers.

Overall, it gives an excellent round up of the way a science fiction story should be written. An excellent nuts and bolts book.

Copyright © Anup Mukherjee

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