Freelance Writer and Editor

how to write sci-fi in 3 super easy steps

how to write sci-fi in 3 super easy steps

A lot of people are scared of writing a novel. But you’re not. Right?


Because you’re here. You’ve got it in your head to write the next great sci-fi novel already, and you’re on the internet to figure out just how to write sci-fi. You’re not scared. you’re excited. You want to learn. You can’t wait to start breaking the keys on your keyboard.

So let me help. I’ve got a decent bit of experience science fiction with a half-dozen novels under my belt. Since I started out writing Birthright, I really do think I’ve learned a few tricks on how to write sci-fi. I’m no Isaac Asimov or John Scalzi, but I’m not total garbage–at least I keep telling myself that!

how to write sci-fi, step 1: pick a sci-fi genre

You’re going to get nowhere if you don’t pick a sci-fi genre. There are just too many out there to say you’re just writing sci-fi. I mean, you have to know who your audience is going to be. Folks who like first contact with aliens may not be interested in your nanotech thriller. You might alienate (haha, puns) readers if you advertise your book as hard sci-fi but instead have lots of handwavium like Star Wars (which is a science-fantasy or space opera, depending on who you ask).

Picking a sci-fi genre to write in is mega important. Each sub-genre has its own conventions, and the better you know them, the more successful you’ll be. After all, there’s a reason formula novels have made Harlequin millions and millions of dollars. People look for specific things in their fiction, and if you’re learning how to write sci-fi, then you’re gonna have to learn how to give them what they want. I learned that lesson the hard way.

step 2: pick the right software

It may not sound like a big deal, but picking the right software can make or break your novel writing. I’ve written and edited full manuscripts in a handful of different programs: Microsoft Word, Pages, Google Docs, and Scrivener.

And time and again, I keep going back to Scrivener. It’s not the cheapest (that would be either Pages or Google Docs, since they’re free), but it’s the most robust. I like how I can keep my manuscripts organized with separate documents for chapters and research, and I can keep folders of notes in a sidebar without doing lots of tabbing in and out to look at them.

But keep in mind, that’s for writing. I draft in Scrivener. When it comes to editing, there’s nothing that beats Microsoft Word. There’s a reason it’s the industry standard. I tried using Google Docs for this, but loading a 100k-word manuscript into a web-based editor is not something I’d suggest you do. Even on my new 2016 Macbook Pro, it bogs down like mad.

Pages might be okay to write and edit in these days, but I haven’t tried in years. I’ll probably give it a shot on my new laptop just to see.

step 3: butt in chair, hands on keyboard

You will never learn how to write sci-fi if you don’t sit down and do it. All your hemming and hawing will be for nothing if you never make the time to write. Steal a few minutes here and there to get words on paper. The only way to get a novel written is to write it. You have to sit down and put some kind of words on paper.

I used to say I treated writing like the job I wanted it to be. And now, I’ve quit my job as a college English teacher, and I work as a freelance writer. I make my living with my words. I get paid to make stuff up. It’s awesome. But I never would have been able to do that if I hadn’t sat myself down in a chair and done it.

So…if you want advice on how to write sci-fi (or just write in general), start writing. Put your butt in a chair and start writing. Sure, pick a genre (but you can always refine your conventions later) and grab whichever word processor you prefer (in the end, they all do the same thing). Then start writing. Let yourself write garbage. But make sure that you’re writing.

There is no magic solution to becoming an author. It’s a craft to me, not an art. Which means that if you if you want to know how to write sci-fi, then the only advice I can give you is this: write sci-fi.

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Dangers of Cross-Genre Indie Books: Returns and One-Star Reviews

When I set out on the Kickstarter project for Birthright last year, I had a major task ahead of me: I had to define what made my book any different or any more suited for crowdfunding than anyone else’s.

I mean, I was a new author with no discernable fanbase, writing science fiction about a kid who finds a magic sword. How the hell was I going to market that?

And then it hit me. I was writing science fiction about a kid who finds a magic sword. Scifi. Not fantasy. On top of the MMO-themed technology (Instancing) in my book that I thought was a selling point, I could tout Birthright as being cross-genre.

Which I did. And the Kickstarter was a rousing success–155% of my initial $2,000 goal!

And now, a year later, the book is selling pretty well. It’s listed in two very distinct categories on Amazon (Epic Fantasy and Space Opera), but I can’t help but wonder if going the cross-genre route was a good idea.

Traditional No-No

From all the research I’ve done, books need to fit in a single, well-defined category. It can be pretty much anything the book’s about, but it needs to be singular. Crossing genres and saying you have a erotic dystopian zombie memoir is a recipe for disaster.

Because while you’re going to appeal to those true-life, post-apocalyptic, zombie-sex lovers out there (you know who you are), anyone who likes just one of the constituent genres is going to be left out.

So unless your book can fit snugly in a marketable category, traditional publishing is probably going to pass. Which is understandable because you’re at risk of not earning out.

Enter The Indie Author

But as indie authors, we have the power to cross-pollenate. We can list our books in Epic Fantasy and Space Opera at the same time. We can tell a swords-and-sorcery story while hopping dimensions and creating pocket universes.

And people who like that sort of thing will absolutely rave about it. Your day will be made. So will your week, your month, and your year. You’ll be ecstatic, and you’ll scream “This is why I’m an indie!” from your roof until your neighbors tell you to shut the hell up.

And then it will all come crashing down.

Because you didn’t account for two simple things in your ecstasy: ebook returns and one-star reviews.

One-Stars Hurt

To be fair, I’ve only been given a single one-star review, and it wasn’t on Birthright. (I know that one’s coming, too, but it just hasn’t yet. I’m steeling myself for it, though.) And it sucked. It hurt my feelings. And it took everything I could not to get on Twitter and whine and cry and bitch about it.

But I didn’t. Because that’s not professional. You take the bad reviews with the good ones. Even if you don’t agree.

And when you’re writing cross-genre books, you will most certainly not agree with everyone. They may think you’re book is too much of this without enough of that. Or the reviewer might love your implementation of that and that your claim to be this was overwrought for marketing purposes.

Whatever. If you write cross-genre, be prepared to upset some fans of one or both of the genres you’re messing with. It comes with the territory, and while it’s not easy to deal with, you have to suck it up and know that you’re screwing with something someone holds very dear.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Ebook Returns

As a working author who’s made a pretty decent number of sales on my books, I like seeing big numbers. Amazon allows indie authors to check sales data in pretty close to real-time. I can F5 my browser and watch (more often pray) for new sales to show up.

Unfortunately, Amazon also allows readers to return purchased ebooks within 7 days of purchase with–from what I understand–no questions asked. 7 days. Which is plenty of time for someone to read a book, enjoy it well enough, think about it a bit, and then decide they’d rather have their money back.

So they go, initiate the return, and my F5’d sales numbers drop. Money that I thought I’d made disappeared.

And as a cross-genre indie, I have to accept that. Some people will buy my book because it has a flaming, golden sword on the cover. Then when they get to the part where I’m discussing pocket universes and hyperspace envelopes, they rush back to Amazon because that was not what they thought it would be.

And that’s okay. I’m still unhappy about it, and every time it happens I’m a few dollars short of quitting my day job and doing this full-time, but I expected it. People who want a sci-fi book may not want fantasy trappings, nor do people who want a fantasy book want to deal with technobabble.

So they return the book and buy the fiction they were originally seeking.

It sucks, and again, it hurts my feelings, but there’s nothing that can be done about it. Plus, like my wife says, it’s better that they return the book and get their money back than leave a one-star review.

True dat. I repeat: True. Dat.

If a reader doesn’t like my cross-genre writing, their return only costs me a few bucks out of my month’s sales. Their one-star review sits on that book forever. So of all the bad stuff that can happen to cross-genre indie authors, returns are actually on the better end of the spectrum.

In The End

You want people to buy your book, love your artisanal genre-bending, give you five-star reviews and all the money in their bank accounts. And while that might happen on a small scale, the reality of indie publishing is the same as traditional: in the end, money talks.

There’s a reason that traditional publishers avoid cross-genre books. It doesn’t make them a bad idea–in fact, it opens up a market for them for us indies–but it makes it so that if you’re going to try something that’s less-than-mainstream, you should be aware that it might not be all hearts, roses, and an easy jog to being a millionaire.

Do you have any experience marketing cross-genre literature?

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My Experience with KDP Select Free Promo Days

This past weekend, we set Nimbus to be a free download using KDP Select. We did a Friday/Saturday promotion, and over the course of those two days, we gave away 879 copies of our book.

In doing so, we hit #1 in the free Steampunk store, and we topped out at #4 in Sci-Fi Adventure. We even made it to #524 in the overall free ebook rankings of all Amazon.

Nimbus - Number 1 in Steampunk

Which is freaking awesome. Fan-freaking-tastic, in fact.

So how did such stellar ranking affect our book? How do we feel about the KDP Select program so far?

Long story, short: it didn’t, and it sucks.

At least so far–in the immediate afterglow of the promotion.

The algorithms on Amazon’s side of things have obviously changed in the past year or two, and I understand that. Free sales no longer directly translate 1:1 into paid ranking once the promotion ends. I didn’t expect to maintain #1 and #4. I did, however, expect some ranking. Some positive effect for giving away almost a thousand free books across two days.

Instead, I wake up the following morning to find Nimbus at #341,119 in the Paid Kindle store, and not even listed in any of the genre lists it had topped just a few hours before.


And that sucks.

Not Unexpected

Now, I can’t say this isn’t entirely unexpected. I had read for a while that the KDP Select free promos have lost some of their luster over the past few internal Amazon updates. I just didn’t expect the transition back into paid to be quite so ridiculously jarring, given how well we ranked while free.

I never expected to be #1 and #4 in the categories forever, but I did expect to still be visible. Which is something we are not right now.

And–again–that sucks.

I mean, Nimbus is a steampunk novel, and there are only ~800 steampunk novels on Amazon. By any amount of pseudologic, one would think that having nearly 1,000 copies downloaded would be worth something. I mean, within a week of Birthright‘s launch, it was ranked in the Top 10 steampunk novels–and it wasn’t even steampunk. It was miscategorized and ranked, so I couldn’t imagine how well an actual steampunk book would do with this kind of exposure.

Well, now I can. And it ain’t pretty.

What Next, Then?

Well, next…we wait and see. We wait on reviews to trickle in from free buyers. We wait to see if paid readers see those reviews, and in turn, see our book. We promote ourselves the same way we had been, and we just wait and see what happens.

That’s the hard part. There’s very little we can actually do to affect what happens next. We either did okay with the promotion, or it was a mistake. We just can’t know that this early.

What we do know is that we got out book into the hands of 879 potential readers, which is a good thing. Especially for our other books. I haven’t noticed a marked improvement in sales for Birthright since the Nimbus weekend, but that’s not to say it isn’t coming. It just wasn’t immediate.

I do know that I’m rethinking my whole KDP strategy, which most directly means that I don’t think Austin and I are going to be doing more free days for Nimbus in the near future. We are going to talk it over, and it’s likely that we are going to look at getting our books on iBooks, Google Play, and Nook soon–if results from being Amazon-exclusive remain this lackluster.

Sure the exposure is great, and we had an absolutely brilliant time tracking the numbers and seeing our book skyrocket through the charts. But if that was empty success that doesn’t translate to sales or even real exposure, being locked into Amazon isn’t worth it if all we get for it are a handful of lends to Prime members and free promo days we don’t use.

Update: A Few Days Later

Now that a few days have passed, the rankings are changing. And I still don’t think that it had anything to do with the KDP Select promotion. I paid for a few gift copies for review–4 to be exact–and now, Nimbus is ranking as a Top 100 bestseller. In fact, both rank and sales have steadily increased since I sent those to reviewers, and today Nimbus was ranked at #20 in the Steampunk category.

So just for those number people out there: 879 free downloads doesn’t count as much as 4 paid downloads.

Is this hard, empirical data? Hardly. But I think certainly says something about the usefulness of the KDP Select free promos.

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