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

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Breaking into the Science Fiction Marketplace

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

First published in The Canadian Writer's Guide: Official Handbook of the Canadian Authors Association, 13th Edition, 2003.

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 a print SF market. Still, much of the best science fiction is written by nonscientists. To keep up to date, read the magazines Discover, New Scientist, and Science News, and watch Discovery Channel Canada's nightly science newscast, Daily Planet.

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 are all 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 (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 (Ace and Roc at Penguin, Aspect at Warner, Del Rey at Random House, Eos at HarperCollins, and Spectra at Doubleday), 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; the biggest names slide into six figures per book.

The only Canadian publishers regularly doing SF are small, specialty presses, with advances in the Cdn$500 to Cdn$1,500 range, and little chance of earning royalties beyond that. Canadian presses that have had success with SF include Bakka, Edge, Pottersfield, Quarry, Red Deer, and Tesseract.

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), such as Absolute Magnitude. The only Canadian SF magazine whose contents are noted by American editors is Edmonton's On Spec.

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, your novel manuscript will be read by most publishers, although response time may be over a year, and simultaneous submissions aren't allowed.

There is a lot of e-publishing 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 Canadian Region of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) 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; all the news you need can be found on the SFWA news site and at Locus Online, the web counterpart of one of the field's two trade journals (the other is Chronicle).

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 in most regions of Canada, including V-Con in Vancouver, ConVersion in Calgary, KeyCon in Winnipeg, Ad Astra in Toronto, 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).

[2003 bionote] Robert J. Sawyer's 17 SF novels include the Hugo Award-winner Hominids, the Nebula Award-winner The Terminal Experiment, and the national bestsellers Calculating God and Humans. He lives in Mississauga, Ontario. Visit his website at: https://sfwriter.com

More Good Reading

Rob's essay on The Death of Science Fiction
Rob's essay 1993: The Dark Side of the Force
Rob's On Writing columns

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