The late, great science fiction novelist, Ben Bova (1932-2019) began his life in aeronautics and his incredible planetary fiction shows it. He didn’t cotton with malarky like wormholes and faster-than-light drives. His use of hard (and practical) science distinguished him from other SF writers, and he shared that with us through his own writing experiences in this book.
I’d not read many of his short stories, but he reprints his shorter ones in this book to give new writers solid examples of developing character, plot, conflict, background, and process. With the analysis of each story, there’s a checklist of things to look for in the story on that topic and some suggested exercises.
He mentions his own tough beginnings as a reporter before he became a scientist and his role models when he began to write SF. Mr. Bova doesn’t cheerlead or lecture. He doesn’t provide rules for punctuation and grammar. He deals with the meat of the story: what motivates the characters, what do they risk if they fail, how movement (or the feeling of movement) is important to the plot. He discusses what he has learned the hard way and willingly shares it with the struggling writer.
“Plant a time bomb on the first page” is his sage advice. Difficult to accomplish, but good advice. The fact he can do that explains why his books are so successful.
I found this book very helpful for several reasons. As I mentioned, he doesn’t discuss basic writing skills. I found that constructive as most writers should be familiar with the tools of their craft if they are writing short stories. Most of this book discusses short stories, and as a short story writer myself, I found that instructional. There is a chapter on applying the things he teaches to the longer novel format for SF novels.
Since the book was written in 1994, the chapters on marketing are severely out of date and deal with how to type up a manuscript to send to a publisher. Thank goodness for the electronic age and paperless submissions. I’d skip the marketing chapters entirely.
Each of these self-help books for writers focus on different subjects: grammar, plot, market analysis, hooks, motives, etc. This book would be very useful for a SF writer who has conquered the basics and is wanting to learn how to bump it up a notch with short examples, understandable analysis, and helpful checklists.
RIP, Mr. Bova, and thank you for sharing your writing expertise.