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:
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
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
Fourth, The Advice:
1) My own advice on writing science fiction is available on my
web site. Read
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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