David Gerrold, the acclaimed author of science fiction classics including The Man Who Folded Himself and the Star Wolf series, shares his expertise in writing compelling fantasy and science fiction. “In a chatty, informal, and even humorous style, he provides numerous exercises and questions, challenging the would-be writer to imagine the answers” (Library Journal).
For fans and fellow writers, Gerrold reveals his techniques for crafting plot, setting, character, and dialogue. He also teaches readers how to build a fantasy world, create alien races, develop a hero, write good sex scenes, keep imaginary elements believable, and so much more.
This ebook edition of Worlds of Wonder is the perfect resource for sci-fi and fantasy writers seeking encouragement and “tricks of the trade” from one of the greats.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Every great writer was once a beginner. Remember that. Don't beat yourself up for not knowing something. Go out and learn it.
The very best writing instructor I ever had was an incompetent.
A terminal alcoholic who could barely find the classroom each day, he was a blearyeyed, red-nosed, overstuffed, walking elbow-wrinkle of a human being. Whatever writing ability he'd ever had, he'd long-since drowned it, and the corpse was a layer of dried sediment at the bottom of a bottle.
He didn't like me either.
His lectures were a waste of time. His assignments were pointless. The class was as challenging as the hole in a doughnut. Custard had more substance.
But one day he said to me the most important words in my entire career. Had he not said these words, my life would have been far different — I probably would not have become a writer. He looked me straight in the eye and said, "Stop wasting my time. You're no good. You'll never be any good. You have no talent. You'll never be a writer?'
His words angered me so much that I made a promise to myself. It was very simple. I'll show you, you stupid old bastard!
That was in 1963.
Within four years I'd sold a script to television — "The Trouble With Tribbles" episode of Star Trek. Within ten years I'd published eight novels, two anthologies, two nonfiction books about television production, and a short story collection. I'd written four more television scripts. And I'd won three Hugo and three Nebula nominations.
Boy, I showed him.
And yes, rage is an excellent fuel.
Later on, when the rage faded out, I discovered that rage isn't enough. A writer also needs technique. And that's why he was an incompetent instructor, because he failed to teach the necessary skills for carrying a narrative over the inevitable rough spots — he failed to teach technique.
The second-best writing instructor I ever had was Irwin R. Blacker at USC Film School. Blacker's theory of writing could be summed up in three words: "Structure! Structure! Structure!"
That was the beginning. Those three words opened the door to understanding. From that moment, storytelling as a craft ceased to be a mystery and began to be an adventure. I wondered what other secrets I could discover.
The trick was to learn from real writers.
A few years later, I started to attend science fiction conventions. The most exciting moments occurred when some of the best writers and editors in the field appeared on panels and spoke candidly of their own discoveries and insights: Harlan Ellison, Frederik Pohl, Anne McCaffrey, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, James Blish, Robert Silverberg, Terry Carr, Randall Garrett, Harry Harrison, and many others whose work I admired.
As a beginner, I was envious of the mastery that the pros in the field took for granted. I wondered how they had gained such wisdom and despaired that I would ever achieve that same kind of skill. At the beginning, every sentence was an effort, every paragraph was an obstacle, every chapter completed was a victory. Writing was hard. (And it never gets any easier. It just gets harder in different ways.)
Here's the paradox:
There's a lot of technique to learn, and you can only learn it by doing. Writing teaches itself in the act of writing — but only after you learn the technique, do you find out that writing well is not about technique at all.
There is another domain of creativity, another way of being, a process beyond mere technique. I had inadvertently stumbled into it when I used rage as my fuel, but I hadn't realized at the time what I'd learned. Only much later did I start to recognize the questions I should have been asking:
How do I take the reader someplace else and make him glad he went?
How do I create an experience of another life so vivid and compelling that for the moment it exists in the mind, it obscures and obliterates the experience of the reader's own life?
How do I transport human consciousness into the realm of exhilaration and transformation?
How can I get so deeply into my story that I am telling it from the inside?
The first time I asked these questions, they looked unanswerable. That was because I still thought that writing had to be important. That was my mistake. Writing is not important by itself. It is only important if it makes a difference. (Yes, it's fun to be important — but it's more important to have fun.)
The truth is that storytelling is a natural skill — it's part of being human. It's how our intelligence manifests itself — through conceptualization. Every human being does it. Almost everything we say is a story.
When you tell a joke, you're telling a story. When you tell a lie, you're telling a different kind of story. When you explain why you were late getting home, or what happened to the chocolate cake, or why the dog is wearing your sister's hat, you're telling a story. Every time you relate an experience, you are automatically shifting into storytelling mode. The listener meets you halfway, because he wants to hear about the discovery that is at the heart of every story.
This is the essential definition of a story:
A person has a problem, he explores the problem until he understands it, finally he makes a choice (usually a difficult one) that produces a transformation of understanding and resolves the difficulty. So a story is about the experience of problem solving and the lessons learned.
This is the insight:
Storytelling is the essential expression of human consciousness. It is the way the mind conceptualizes and stores experiences; the mind relates to the universe as things to be discovered, understood, and mastered: problems. We see things as chores and challenges (and occasionally as crises), all of which demand resolution.
The entire process of problem solving is fundamental to being human. So is the process of sharing the experience. When we communicate the experience of solving the problem, we do it linearly — we recreate the problem for the next person in line and that person gets to experience it too, albeit vicariously.
Essentially, the storyteller only needs to answer three questions: What's happening? Who is it happening to? And why should we care? What's happening is plot (problem). Who it's happening to is character (person). And why we should care is the emotional heart of the story — the most important part.
After that, the storyteller needs only one skill: effective communication.
Effective communication is not about giving the reader a totally detailed and completely accurate description of events. Effective communication is not about eloquent language and elegant metaphor. Effective communication is simply about evoking the experience.
First, you create the experience for yourself — then you share what it feels like. The reader recreates it. All you need to provide the reader are the elements essential to the emotional moment.
This is why rage was such a good fuel for me to start with. Everybody knows rage. And everybody can plug into rage very easily. If you write from rage, the reader will access his own in response. This is why some of the most effective stories ever written have a strong component of anger in them — it's a familiar, easy, and powerful emotional hook.
But while rage is an effective place to write from, it isn't the best place to write from, because if rage is the highest emotion a writer can aspire to, then there are whole dimensions of emotional power beyond rage that he or she is missing. The challenge is always to look beyond the limits.
So when I finished being angry with my "first-best writing instructor" (sometime in 1969 or 1981 or 1992, somewhere around there, I think), I had to find another fuel. It took a while — several years, in fact — but I found something better than simple rage, something so much more powerful that a single dose of it has been good for twenty years and I'm still accelerating. Since I discovered the source of this better fuel, I've written twenty more TV scripts and twenty more books — some of the best work in my life.
So what is this superfuel?
It's the next step beyond enthusiasm.
Of all the things I've ever learned about writing, this is the most important: There's a domain of excitement and eagerness and delight that can be astonishing. It is a place of commitment and discovery and wonderment. It is the far side of passion. It is a totality of purpose, an inspired obsession. I like to call it stardrive. It's the engine at the center of your personal starship. It's your heart of brightness. It is who you really are. It is simply you — you are the source.
If you've already been there, then you know what I mean. And if you haven't been there yet, or if you're not sure ... don't panic. Start writing anyway. Write what you care about most — that way at least one person in the universe loves your story. (And if one person loves it, then surely there will be others.)
If you can do that, then somewhere along the way, I promise, you will ignite the engines of your enthusiasm in ways that will astonish you. You have a natural ability to communicate. Every human being does. What we call creativity is no more than your willingness to fully express yourself as passionately and as honestly as you can.
Write from your heart and you will go into stardrive.
May the source be with you.
— David GerroldCHAPTER 2
The Literature of Imagination
The distinguishing characteristic of fantastic literature is that it evokes a sense of wonder in the audience.
Start with a simple exercise.
Actually take the time to do this — not as a thought experiment, but as a specific physical writing process. It'll be more effective that way.
Take out a blank piece of paper (or open a new file on your computer), and make a list of your favorite science fiction and fantasy movies.
List all the ones that changed the way you thought about things, that made you want to know more — the ones where you left the theater reluctantly because what you really wanted to do was climb into the screen and go back into the world of the movie.
Here's my list:
The Wizard of Oz King Kong (1933)
The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T Them!
War of the Worlds
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Forbidden Planet Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (Jiri Trnka animated version)
Slaughterhouse-Five Kwaidan Yellow Submarine Planet of the Apes
2001: A Space Odyssey The Exorcist Star Wars Aliens The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension Repo Man The Princess Bride
Now make a list of your favorite science fiction and fantasy books.
List all the ones that seemed to be written especially for you; the stories that took you to marvelous new worlds — stories that awoke new feelings in you, and took you to places you never wanted to leave.
Here's my list:
1984 by George Orwell
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
What Mad Universe by Frederic Brown
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
Dune by Frank Herbert
Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
Ringworld by Larry Niven
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
The Door Into Fire by Diane Duane
The Long Run by Daniel Keys Moran
Discworld (the entire series) by Terry Pratchett
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Now look at your lists.
Do you remember how you felt the first time you saw these fantastic films? Do you remember what you felt as you turned the pages of a story you were falling in love with?
Do you remember those feelings? The flavors? The emotions you felt? Can you recreate them now, sitting in your chair? Close your eyes for a moment and see which of those images are still floating in your mind. What sensations do they still evoke in you today?
Probably, the first time you saw the movies on your list, or read the books, you were struck with feelings of awe and astonishment. Probably, you were surprised and amazed. Perhaps you even gasped or cried out in startled reaction.
Perhaps these were things you had never seen before, never even imagined. Perhaps your imagination was stretched beyond its limits, stretched and expanded. And afterward, perhaps you were left pondering things far beyond your sense of the possible.
That feeling is the sense of wonder.
The literature of the fantastic is about awakening that feeling of awe — and exercising it.
The sense of wonder is the marvelous heart of every great science fiction or fantasy story. It comes from the surprise of discovery. It comes from the recognition of the magic within. Most of all, it comes from the realization — the acknowledgment — of something new in the universe.
That sense of wonder is what you aspire to create; that's what you must create if you are going to write effective science fiction and fantasy.CHAPTER 3
Effective storytelling is about surprising the audience. The rest is details.
Your goal, as a storyteller, is to evoke the sense of wonder in your audience.
You start by evoking the sense of wonder in yourself. Where one person is awestruck, others are also likely to be amazed.
Think of it this way: Your own head is your test lab, so you have to wake up your own imagination first, drag it out of bed, force it outside, barefoot, shivering in its pajamas, to look up at the dark blazing sky. There is no better way to apply CPR to a snoozing imagination than by confronting it with a skyful of dazzling stars and a bright gibbous moon.
Yes, you think you know what the sky looks like — but go outside and look at it again. It will surprise you. Every time.
And in that moment of surprise, that's when you are most alive. Your astonished intake of breath is you listening to the universe. Evoke that awe when you share the moment.
Your job is to look for surprises in the world. And share them.
To surprise someone, you have to bring new things to his attention, or new ways of looking at old things. You have to do the opposite of what's expected. You have to startle. You can startle either with the shock of the alien or the shock of recognition — or both at the same time. Startlement comes when something is unexpected.
Think about the fantastic movies and books you listed. They all have one thing in common: They're full of surprises — all sizes, all shapes, all flavors. That's what hooks the interest of the audience — all those marvelous new discoveries and possibilities.
Readers look for the surprises in your story the same way a child looks for the prize inside a box of Cracker Jacks. If you don't surprise your audience, they walk away from your story wondering why they bothered.
A great story is a series of surprises. Every chapter should have a surprise, every paragraph should have a surprise, every sentence should have a surprise.CHAPTER 4
If-The Most Powerful Word
It doesn't take a powerful lever to pry open the doors of imagination, just a well-applied one.
Before we can understand the differences between writing science fiction and writing fantasy (or the similarities), we have to examine what's unique to each of the forms. Science fiction first:
A science fiction story is an extrapolation of what we know about how the universe works. The classic definition of science fiction is that a story is based on one of two possible extrapolations: "What if ...?" or "If this goes on...."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Worlds of Wonder"
Copyright © 2001 David Gerrold.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Literature of Imagination,
If — The Most Powerful Word,
... and Fantasy,
What Is a Story?,
A Story Is ...,
Crises and Challenges,
Who Is This Person?,
Setting the Stage,
To Build a World,
Detailing the World,
Structure, Structure, Structure!,
Write From Inside,
Adjectives and Adverbs,
Finding the Right Words,
To Be or Naught to Be,
Find Another Way,
Who's On First?,
Dialogue, Part I,
Dialogue, Part II,
The First Million Words,
Ten Pieces of Good Advice,