Science fiction, fantasy and communicating everything else

You know what’s great about science fiction and fantasy writing? There are lessons for everything in life. Everything, I tell you.

Other means of communication

Let me start with the example that inspired this piece, Sue Archer’s Doorway Between Worlds blog. Sue works as a business analyst in the IT industry as well as being a big sf+f fan. So she’s taken those two interests and jammed them together, writing a blog that draws lessons in communication from science fiction and fantasy. That’s awesome. That’s grabbing people’s interest and attention and then showing them something valuable. By combining two different areas it sheds new light on both.

Many of us live by the words of wisdom given by Yoda. Many of us learned about the slippery path to oppression by watching Babylon 5. Many of us have taken heart from the humble courage of Sam in Lord of the Rings. Fiction itself is full of lessons.

Democracy in action

Now step back a moment and take a lesson from the community rather than the fiction it creates.

This year there’s been a lot of fuss around the Hugo awards. Unless you’re deeply embedded in the core of fandom then you may not be aware of this. I won’t get into the reasons, but some people are unhappy at what’s on the final ballot and how it got there.

No, the controversy isn't over their badass retro spaceship
No, the controversy isn’t over their badass retro spaceship


Thing is, all those finalist stories, they got there by people making the effort to vote. Because that’s how democracy works – the people who turn up win. With local and European elections in the UK next week, and a huge fuss over the rise of UKIP and the BNP, we really, really need to take this lesson on board. If you don’t like the alternative then you need to turn up and vote. Because in a democracy it’s the active voters who win, not the ones who throw away their polling cards because ‘I can’t make a difference’.

Learning from your craft

What’s more, my particular writing obsessions have relevance beyond crafting fiction. Like Sue, I’ve worked analysing and influencing businesses. The things that shape my craft, that I believe are important to readers and writers – trusting yourself and others; treating people like they’re smart; embracing change – they also apply in our professional and personal lives.

Yes, fine, I write for a living and am married to a fellow geek, of course sf+f is relevant to my professional and personal lives. But that’s not why the lessons cross over.

Take trust. In business, employees work far better if they are trusted to do the job right. This gives them the independence to take the initiative, the opportunity to grow, and a reason to commit to the organisation’s goals. I’m halfway through a big freelance project around this and all the best analysis shows that the same thing that works in writing – trusting your audience to work it out – also works in the office.

It applies in your personal life as well. How much better do you feel when the people around you – friends, family, partners – trust you and have faith in you? How much worse do you feel when they over-supervise, take over tasks, contradict your judgement?

Lessons on every level

Everything about science fiction and fantasy – the stories, the craft, the community – can teach us valuable lessons. As learning tools go it’s not to everybody’s taste, and that’s fine. But for those of us who love it, it’s an endless source of education and entertainment.

Now your turn. What have you learned from sf+f? Don’t be shy, I trust you to say something smart, so share it below.

Trusting your readers, trusting yourself

In fiction, as in human relations, trusting others  is one of the most important things you can do. And I don’t just mean that moment when the character makes a leap of faith and counts on his friends (cue stirring music). I mean writers trusting readers.

Trusting readers

‘it’s a respect thing, and my readers deserve that respect’ – Victoria Grefer, Writing For You

Good fiction writing is usually subtle. It hints at what’s going on, rather than hammering the reader over the head with exposition. It lets the reader feel smart as they work out what’s going on between the lines.

Doing this requires the writer to trust their readers, to assume that they are smart enough to work it out. That’s not as easy to do as you might think. After all, you want to be sure that they get the message, and sometimes the push to achieve certainty means you forget that trust. You over explain, you exposit, you repeat yourself. You might not mean to, but you’re refusing to trust your reader.

To quote Victoria Grefer again, ‘you walk a fine line as an author, because if you’re too vague, you’ll confuse your readers… if you’re always stating the obvious, you’ll frustrate and insult your readers’. But having the restraint not to over-explain can often be harder than giving enough explanation.


Trusting yourself

Why is this so hard to do?

I’d say that it’s mostly because we find it hard to trust ourselves. We doubt that we’ve given enough information, so we shove more in. We think a hint might be too subtle for ourselves as a reader, so we assume that others need help. We don’t have enough faith in our smarts to rely on those of others.

It can be a hard things to do, but if you have a bit more faith in yourself as a writer then you can also place more trust in your readers. If you find that you’re often over-expository then, when in doubt, trust in the hints that you’ve dropped. If they create confusion you can always add more cues in later.

Beyond fiction

Like many writing lessons this is valuable in the wider world. Many of the times when I’m most patronising and least willing to rely on others come from a lack of faith in my own abilities. I’m not sure I’d get something right, even though I probably would, so I ‘help’ too much – and by help I mean explain the blindingly obvious or take over.

It’s a huge problem in business, a subject on which I do a lot of reading and writing. Those higher up seldom trust in the people below them, and that’s crippling to morale and the flexibility of an organisation. But how much does that come from not trusting that they’ve got it right themselves, that they’ve put the right structures in place to let the business work?

Trust in your readers. Trust in the people around you. But start out by trusting in yourself. It’s a whole lot more satisfying, and a a whole lot more productive.


Picture by w00kie via Flickr creative commons