Behind the Science of Science-Fiction Writing
From The Science of Science-Fiction Writing, by James Gunn

The September 1999 issue of Analog included a story by James Gunn called "The Giftie." Although I did not think about it until after the event, that publication marked, to the month, the publication of my first science-fiction story, "Communications," in the September 1949 Startling Stories. To be strictly accurate, it was my second story; it got published first, but the first one I wrote was "Paradox," which was published in the October Thrilling Wonder Stories. I didn't have a story published in Astounding Science Fiction until "Private Enterprise" in July 1950.

All those stories, like the rest of my first ten, were published under the pseudonym of "Edwin James," for reasons that now are difficult to recall. I think it had something to do with keeping my real name for writing about science fiction, which has something to do with the present book. The last story published under my pseudonym was "Survival Policy" in the October 1952 Astounding. The first story published under my real name was my eleventh, "The Misogynist," in the November 1952 Galaxy.

My experience as a full-time writer of science fiction lasted only four years, the first period between 1948 and 1949 and the second between late 1952 and mid-1955, although, since my retirement in 1993, I may be in my third. The 1950s were a difficult period to be a full-time writer; SF was supporting maybe half a dozen full-time writers at the time. In 1995, when my writing income was beginning to pick up, I moved my family to Lawrence, Kansas, where I had earned two degrees from the University of Kansas. Almost by accident I got involved with the University, first as a part-time teacher of freshman courses in composition, then as managing editor of its alumni publications. In 1958 I was invited to fill a new position writing feature articles about the University and the following year was hired as Administrative Assistant to the Chancellor for University Relations, eventually assuming responsibility for the University's public relations.

In that position I taught one course a year in fiction writing and kept up my contacts with the English Department. Meanwhile, throughout this period, I continued to write part-time, completing the stories for Station in Space, The Joy Makers, The Immortals, and my first collection of short stories, Future Imperfect. For a few years during the tumultuous 1960s I found no time to write—I didn't even take the month's vacation to which I was entitled—but about 1967 I got back to it. I devoted my vacation to writing tasks that I had carefully laid out in the months before, and completed the last two novellas in The Burning and wrote the chapters and stories that eventually developed into Kampus and The Listeners.

In 1970 I decided to return to teaching and writing, and the English Department welcomed me. When he told me about the unanimous departmental vote, the Chairman also commented that "some of the younger faculty members hope you will teach a course in science fiction." I taught that course my first semester back, and the lectures became the chapters of Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction, the coffee-table book that Prentice-Hall published in 1975. It was the beginning of my writings about science fiction.

But teaching, and the time the University expected to be devoted to research, also liberated my fiction-writing energies, and I published two books a year for the first few years of my full-time teaching career. As a part-time writer, I was following a long tradition. Over the years most SF writers have written in the time they could spare from full-time jobs or household duties. Part-time writing has its virtues; when money is not the primary concern, writers can devote themselves exclusively to what they want to write. Only in the last couple of decades, with the broad expansion of the book market from under 300 books a year in 1972 to about 2,000 books a year today, has the full-time writing of SF become relatively common.

The 50th anniversary of the publication of my first story (it was my 96th published story) combined with a couple of earlier events to catalyze The Science of Science-Fiction Writing. A dozen years earlier I had begun gathering my various chapters and essays about science fiction into a thick folder under the title of Inside Science Fiction. When Robert Reginald asked me if I would be interested in publishing a book with Borgo Press, I thought of this folder. As I put the book together, however, I discovered that I had enough material for at least two books. Since Borgo Press was an academic publisher, I selected for Inside Science Fiction the essays and chapters about the literature and the teaching of science fiction. That book was published in 1992.

What I had left in the folder were the thoughts about the writing of science fiction that I had collected over a period of more than 40 years of experience in teaching fiction writing and 20 years of teaching the writing of science fiction. The incentive to pull it together came in the late summer of 1998, when a writer and editor named Ted Rodriguez proposed an on-line writers workshop that he called the Soshin Distance Learning Center. He asked me if I would be willing to take charge of the science-fiction section. I had been exploring the Internet for four or five years and had subscribed to several serve lists as well as helping organize one for alumni of the Workshops I held annually on campus during the summer. I was interested enough in how it would work to agree to a trial run, looked through my folder on writing and on writing SF, and prepared readings and lesson plans.

The Soshin Distance Learning Center was a good idea that didn't work, but it led to a subsequent on-line workshop organized for me by a young writer who had seen the Soshin materials and, almost single-handed, got together a small group of writers for an experimental venture. Out of all these, and the writings put together for it, came The Science of Science-Fiction Writing.

Here you have it: forty years of reflections about the fiction-writing process and how to teach it, and the ideas I have shared with my students about how to do it effectively and how to get it published afterwards.

updated 9/22/2004

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