Non-Fiction Reviews

About Writing
The authorised field guide for aspiring writers

(2022) Gareth L. Powell, Gollancz, £16.99 / Can$28.99 / US$24.99, hrdbk, 348pp, ISBN 978-1-473-23469-7


SF² Concatenation's target core audience are scientists with a serious interest in SF, as well as SF aficionados with an interest in science. By far the most SF authors – and I have met a few (and broken bread with scores) – fall into one or other of these two camps. It has to be said that I have met some authors who do not, but they almost invariably tend to write fantasy or science fantasy. Consequently, it is likely that some of our regulars will have at least vaguely contemplated writing and so a writing self-help book such as this is at least useful in distilling their would-be musings.

Further, writing is a tough business. In the UK the top 5% authors earn getting on for half of all authors' income and notwithstanding this most authors' pay is not much and it is the same in N. America. Indeed, if you go through our two thousand or so SF/F book reviews you will find quite a few examples of very fine SF by folk that simply have not broken through into the big time, and have given up after a few novels. Writing is a tough business. Having said that, some do break through to become reasonable mid-list authors and if you can produce one or two books a year it may be that you can begin to make a basic living from it and with time even a reasonable living as you back list grows earning you additional royalties to that of your current work. You will not know until you have a go…

There are many self-help books including a fair few about writing. The author of this one is Gareth Powell, and he is a science fiction/fantasy writer, so his is slanted towards how to write science fiction. So, before diving into reviewing his self-help take, it is worth noting a couple of previous, useful 'how to write SF and get published' type books and you may wish to seek these out.

Christopher Evans Writing Science Fiction (1988) focuses on the writing with chapters on: the scope of SF; ideas, plot & narrative; characters; anatomy of a story, re-writing; and finding a publisher. His book has a little more on writing style, which is helpful for those who are a little less sure-footed in crafting words (though such folk should arguably read self-help books on copy writing first and there are a good few of those about too).

Bob Shaw's How to Write Science Fiction (1993) also focuses on the writing with chapters in essence (the titles are more inventive) on: the scope of SF as a genre; plotting; having science in science fiction; characterisation; world-building; SF's most common tropes; and getting it done But there is also chapters bracketing these on: starting a career; and the publishing process. Both books and Powell's content has significant overlap, but that they express much the same thing (albeit with different nuance) testifies to their utility and that reading this common advice helps get the points through.

Powell's book is a little different, which is good. The former two have a few larger chapters, all be they divided into sub-sections: Powell's has eight parts each with several to a dozen sections. With each section starting on a new page does actually cut the page count by a sixth, so this is not quite the tome that the above publication details page count suggests. Also, unlike the previous two 20th century books, this 21st century one includes info on key word-processing packages and some social media tips.

While the title About Writing does not specify science fiction – and indeed it touches upon other genres such as crime and romance – make no mistake that this guide is very much for the would-be SF author and the advice all the way through is, where appropriate, slanted to that genre. There are even tips on attending SF conventions. Very practical.

There is considerable ground covered – too much to go into in this review – but you can take it as read that it includes all the basics a potential writer will want to, indeed should, know. What's more, he also provides a few freebies: such as 55 story ideas! What more could you want?

Further, About Writing is not only useful for those contemplating becoming an author, it also provides a window as to the nuts and bolts of what it is to be a writer. As such, it is also a fascinating insight into the professional, job aspects of a writer's world.

Jonathan Cowie


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