[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

SFWRITER.COM > How to Write > Letter to Beginning Writers

Letter to Beginning Writers

Copyright © 1999, 2006, and 2011 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

Dear Beginning Writer: [Robert J. Sawyer]

You're getting this letter because you've contacted me about writing science fiction. Unfortunately, so many people have taken to asking me for advice that I've had to resort to this form letter of response. Still, I hope it's of some assistance.

This letter, the article that follows, and the advice on my web site contain 100% of the help I can give you; everything else is up to you.

First, The Things I Cannot Do:

1) I will not read any sample of your work; sorry, but I just don't have the time and, besides, the only opinion that counts is that of an editor who is willing to pay you money.

2) I will not collaborate with you; writing fiction is a solitary profession, and, frankly, if you're a beginner, you've got nothing to bring to the table, anyway. Ideas are a dime a dozen; if I stopped having ideas today, I'd still have enough not-yet-used ones to continue writing for the rest of my life. The same thing is true for all professional writers.

3) I will not recommend you to my agent. The agency I'm with was founded by the top name in the field, and when I switched to him in 1996, I had to be simultaneously both a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award nominee to attract his interest. His agency is not looking for beginning writers.

Second, The Things You Should Remember:

1) Money always, always, always flows to the writer, never the other way around. Any "publisher," "editor," or "agent" who asks you for money up front for anything is a ripoff artist. Period. Never pay to have anything published, agented, or critiqued.

2) Aim for quality markets: ones that have good reputations, ones from which stories routinely appear in "Year's Best" anthologies or on major award ballots, ones you've actually heard of in some context other than just a market listing, and ones that established, big-name pros routinely publish in.

Third, The Home Truths:

1) A writer needs talent, perseverance, and luck — yes, all three of them.

2) Fewer than one percent of those who want to be science-fiction writers ever publish even a single story. This is a tough, tough game to get into, and there are thousands of aspirant writers just like you. Almost all will fail, and 90% of those who manage to sell a first novel or a few short stories will also fail after that, never selling anything again.

3) Almost nobody gets rich writing SF, and hardly anyone gets to do it full-time. If you're going into this for the money, you are making a mistake. Most SF magazines pay between three and eight cents US a word for stories, and most first novels in this field get advances of between US$2,500 and US$7,500 — and never earn a penny beyond that in royalties. Flipping burgers at McDonald's will make you more on an hourly basis.

4) You have to finish your first book before you can sell it; only later in your career will you possibly be offered contracts for unwritten books.

5) The response time from an editor for a novel submission (either the full manuscript, or a partial [first three chapters and an outline of the rest of your already-finished book] will be between three months and well over a year. Sad, but true. And almost all publishers frown on you submitting your work to more than one editor at a time.

6) North American SF publishing is centered in the United States, for the most part. If you want to publish SF, submit first to editors in New York. And submit to the big publishers first; the small press is where you salvage a book that otherwise wouldn't be published at all (and I say that as a small-press editor myself).

Fourth, The Advice:

1) My own advice on writing science fiction is available on my web site. Read it.

2) If you need to learn the basics of writing or want someone to give you feedback, either take a creative-writing course (or, even better, an SF-writing course) at your local college or university, or see if your local college or library has a writer in residence with whom you can consult; that's what they're there for. You might also check out the online Critters workshop.

3) Information about markets can be found online — one excellent source is Ralan.com — and most major book and magazine publishers have their submission guidelines online; check their websites.

4) There's only one right way to do a manuscript. The format is explained on here.

5) The best book on writing SF is The Writer's Digest Guide to Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card and the Editors of Writer's Digest, published by Writer's Digest Books.

6) Don't worry about copyright. No one is going to steal your idea, and you don't have to register a work in order for it to be protected by copyright.

7) Know the marketplace. If you don't read SF regularly, you're doomed to failure. Printed SF is almost nothing like what you see on TV and in the movies. And different book publishers and different magazines like different types of SF. Spend hours browsing in the SF section of large bookstores — know who is publishing what.

8) There are no magic words, no secret handshakes, and no fast-tracks. The way to get published is to write a really good story, submit it by paper mail, and wait for an editor to buy it. You don't have to know somebody; you don't have to belong to any organization; you don't need an agent ever to sell SF short stories, and most authors submit their first novels without an agent.

9) When you get an offer from a book publisher, find yourself an agent to negotiate the contract. Literary agents aren't regulated by law, and anyone can claim to be one. A list of reputable agents specializing in science fiction can be found here.

10) Finally, read the article below.

That's it! I wish you the best of luck.

Robert J. Sawyer

Breaking into the Science-Fiction Marketplace

(particularly if you're Canadian)

by Robert J. Sawyer

Science fiction is a genre in which Canadian writers are having international success, but unless you follow the rules, you're doomed to failure.

First, SF literature has nothing to do with what you see on TV and in the movies. For one thing, printed SF is a largely character-driven genre, devoid of the simplistic heroes and villains of Star Wars. For another, SF is a literature of ideas. Although there is a place for mindless action-adventure, good SF is usually about something (and often something very profound, such as whether or not God exists).

Second, science fiction and fantasy are radically different — indeed, antithetical — genres. There is always a way to get from our here and now to the setting of any science-fiction story (usually by making reasonable advances in science and technology as time marches on); there is never a way to get from our real world to the setting of a fantasy story (magic simply doesn't work in our universe).

Third, science fiction is a largely pro-science genre. Although Vancouver's William Gibson is right when he says the job of the SF writer is to be "profoundly ambivalent about changes in science and technology," printed SF rarely takes the anti-science stance of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Nor does it embrace the paranoia and credulous acceptance of the supernatural that underlies The X-Files.

Fourth, the science in printed SF must be accurate. In Star Wars, Han Solo could talk about parsecs as a unit of time (rather than distance), and about "making the jump to light-speed" (the one thing Einstein prohibits is traveling AT the speed of light); those gaffes would spell instant rejection from most print SF markets. Still, much of the best science fiction is written by nonscientists. To keep up to date, read the magazines New Scientist, Discover, and Scientific American, and watch Discovery Channel Canada's nightly science newscast Daily Planet and listen to CBC Radio's weekly science show Quirks and Quarks.

Fifth, science fiction, although sometimes a medium of stylistic experimentation, is usually told in either third-person limited narration (following the point of view, and knowing the thoughts of, one character per scene), or first-person (unlike some fields, there is no taboo in SF against first-person narrative).

Note, too, that SF is an adult literature: strong language, explicit sex, and graphic violence are acceptable if required by the story. Readership (and authorship) is evenly split between men and women.

Mystery writers complain that US publishers are prejudiced against Canadian settings. That's not true in SF. The works of Terence M. Green, Nalo Hopkinson, Spider Robinson, and myself have all been published by major New York houses, yet revel in their Canadian settings.

If you're scratching your head and saying, "How can SF possibly take place in Canada — isn't it all set on alien planets and spaceships or in the far future?," you haven't done your homework. The only way to write SF successfully is to read it. An excellent "SF 101" course would be to read all the Hugo- and Nebula-winning novels, as well as the annual reprint anthologies The Year's Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois (St. Martin's) and Year's Best SF edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (Eos).

Not only do American publishers routinely buy Canadian-authored SF, but you should in fact turn to them as your first choice. Most major US publishers have SF imprints (such as Ace, Roc, Del Rey, and Bantam Spectra at Penguin Random House and Voyager at HarperCollins), and there are significant publishers that do nothing but SF (and fantasy): the giant Tor, and smaller Baen and DAW. Advances for North American rights to first novels usually range from US$2,500 to US$7,500; successful mid-career novelists can get between US$20,000 and US$50,000 up front; only a handful of giants slide into six figures per book.

The only Canadian publishers regularly doing SF are small, specialty presses, with advances usually around Cdn$500, and little chance of earning royalties beyond that. Canadian presses that have had success with SF include EDGE, Bundoran, and Red Deer.

Although many unpublished authors have cracked the US novel market with over-the-transom submissions, the standard career path is to first sell short fiction (at 5 to 8 cents US a word) to the genre's digest-sized American magazines (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov's Science Fiction, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction), or one of the "semiprozines" (semi-professional magazines, lower in pay and circulation). The only Canadian SF magazine whose contents are noted by American editors is Edmonton's On Spec, although Neo-Opsis is also starting to make a splash.

Short-fiction sales can help you land one of the two dozen New York agents who handle the bulk of SF (don't get a Canadian agent for this field). But even if you don't have an agent, many publishers will read your novel manuscript, although response time may be over a year, and simultaneous submissions aren't allowed.

There is a lot of e-publishing of books at the fringes of SF, but almost none of it is taken seriously. And speaking of not being taken seriously, don't try to break in by doing tie-in novels based on SF TV shows, movies, or games. These are considered hackwork, and, besides, are generally open only to experienced hacks ...

Canadian SF writers have two advocacy groups, neither overly effective. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), which has a Canadian Region, has more stringent membership requirements and offers several publications. SF Canada's main service is a listserve. Many pros do fine without belonging to either group.

Face-to-face networking is still the best way to meet SF writers and editors and to hear industry gossip. There are annual SF conventions with strong literary components in most regions of Canada, including VCON in Vancouver, Pure Speculation in Edmonton, When Words Collide in Calgary, KeyCon in Winnipeg, Ad Astra and SFContario in Toronto, Can-Con in Ottawa, and Con*Cept in Montreal.

Canada has two SF awards, the venerable Aurora (voted on by readers) and the juried Sunburst.

Information on Canadian SF can be found at

The principal reference works on Canadian SF are Northern Dreamers by Edo van Belkom (Quarry, 1998) and Dictionary of Literary Biography 251: Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors (Gale, 2001); I myself wrote the entry on science fiction in The Canadian Encyclopedia (2000).

Robert J. Sawyer's 20 SF novels include the Hugo Award-winner Hominids, the Nebula Award-winner The Terminal Experiment, and the national bestsellers Calculating God and Wake. He lives in Mississauga, Ontario. Visit his website at sfwriter.com.

More Good Reading

Manuscript-format checklist
Rob's "On Writing" advice columns
Rob's upcoming appearances (including any teaching gigs)
Advice on landing an agent
Notes for the copyeditor
Essay: WordStar — A Writer's Word Processor

My Very Occasional Newsletter

About Rob
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How to Write
Email Rob
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