Anyway, Mum said something interesting, as she always does. We were discussing my younger brother, a young actor in Hollywood searching for his big break, and how a big-name studio asked him and his crew to do a short film. You can catch some snippets of it here, if you don't mind strong language. (He's on IMDB, too.) That dark-haired fellow with the Mel Gibson looks and the chip on his shoulder and the what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about expression on his face is who I grew up with, folks.
Anyway, I finally managed to inform my mum that I've submitted my first novel to Penguin Books, and am awaiting a reply. Among the many pithy observations she made was that my brother and I have both chosen extremely tough and competitive careers, and we are both on the threshold of success (she's great with the encouraging comments). It gave me pause. She was right in more ways than she knew. Not only have I decided to make my name in fiction, but science fiction to boot. The requirements of the genre are a bit more stringent than mainstream fiction. I don't mean to imply that mainstream fiction is a cakewalk or anything like that. Not at all. To be a writer in any genre requires patience, skill, practice, a certain degree of natural talent, patience, confidence, dedication, and hard work (especially the last one). It's not much different from being an actor in that respect. That was my mum's whole point.
But to be a sci-fi writer you need all that and more, I've realized. First, you have to understand the fundamental ways in which technology, science and progress affect human lives. You have to see the human story behind the inhuman gadgets and gizmos. You must march to the same fife as a mainstream fiction writer by composing a compelling story, a tale of ordinary human (or inhuman) beings in challenging situations, relatable characters with the same age-old problems, seasoning the tale with conflict and drama and triumph and failure and character development, not forgetting correct pacing and florid language and all the other ingredients which fiction is heir to; but that ain't all. Into the fabric of fiction you must weave the scintillating threads of the fantastic. You must wed your human story to the extraordinary technology of the future, the advanced science of impending ages, the limitless world of wonder that lies beyond the borders of imagination. One e-zine I've submitted to won't even consider a manuscript unless it's "a good character-driven story wherein the technology is so vital to the plot that the narrative would be indelibly altered were it absent."
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I consistently fail to do.
Writing is like herding cats. Staying on top of what every good story needs—plot, pacing, vivid characters, sizzling prose, universal mores—while trying to throw in the novel aspects of science fiction like mind-blowing tech and aliens and starships and whatnot is...challenging. It's rather like trying to cook a four-course dinner. You're boiling the pasta and stirring the sauce and grating the cheese and pounding the breadcrumbs, and just as finish you realize that you've let the mushrooms (which were supposed to be lightly sautéed) burn to ashes in the skillet. Despite your best efforts, the meal leaves a carcinogenic taste in the mouth of anyone who eats it. That, apparently, is what my stories are doing to the editors at Asimov's, Analog, and Daily Science Fiction. I haven't sold a story yet.
But at least I know what I'm doing wrong. The trick is that happy marriage of the unreal and imaginary to the tried-and-true fictive formula. I haven't had much success combining memorable characters, fantastic settings, incredible technology and a classic plot into one single story, but I'm getting better. Like anything else, all it takes is practice. You have to get a feel for it, and I can feel that I'm getting a feel for it. Enough to realize that some stories need to be aborted before I waste time and energy on them (such as the idea I had while shopping with Miss H last weekend, "Incheon Airport Post-Rapture"—ha!).
I can write good stories, and I can dream up good sci-fi concepts, but getting the two to merge in my brain and slide all the way down through my arms and fingers to the keyboard is another matter.
Tomorrow is Wednesday, my day off. I'll see what I can do about it then. Wish me luck.