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Breaking into the Science Fiction Marketplace
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 2003 by Robert J.
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
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
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
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
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
the Nebula Award-winner
The Terminal Experiment, and
the national bestsellers
Calculating God and
Humans. He lives in
Mississauga, Ontario. Visit his website at:
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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