"Visiting the Future: Writing Science Fiction Today" with Mary Rosenblum.

Thursday, September 26, 2002

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l50+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.

Mary is Mary Rosenblum, author of more than 40 short stories, three science-fiction novels and a hardcover collection of short fiction. She was a recipient of the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. Her novella, Gas Fish won the 'Readers Award' from Asimov's Magazine, and was also a nominee for the Hugo award.

Names in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews in the Professional Connection room begin at 9 Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.

Moderator: Good evening, everyone. I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator for this evening, and it gives me special pleasure to introduce tonight's guest, Mary Rosenblum. Mary has published more than 40 short stories, along with three science-fiction novels and a hardcover collection of her short fiction and will talking with us on the subject of "Visiting the Future: Writing Science Fiction Today." Then, after tomorrow, Mary will be taking over as the new web editor for the Long Ridge Writers Group, which will include moderating these interviews. Welcome, Mary!

Mary: Hi, all. Glad you invited me!

Moderator: Mary, how did you get started writing?

Mary: I always loved to read, but constantly changed the endings and characters in my favorite books. Eventually it occurred to me to do this on paper!

Moderator: What is a typical writing day like for you?

Mary: Actually, I rarely have a typical day. I raise all my own fruits and veggies on a couple of acres and when the words don't come freely, I go hoe or pitch manure and think about the story until they are ready to go.

Moderator: I love that! What is it that you enjoy about writing (or reading) science-fiction?

Mary: I love SF's ability to let us step out of our mundane world. We don't really SEE things around us. We see what we're used to seeing. By stepping into the future, we get to look at our present with fresh eyes.

Jack: You said by stepping into the future, we get to look at our present with fresh eyes. Is that something you try to convey in your books--like a theme in them?

Mary: I wouldn't call it a theme, but yes, my stories do tend to extrapolate some trend that I see in the present. I tend to write near future SF as opposed to Star Wars futures.

Moderator: Can you give us a definition of science-fiction?

Mary: I suppose you could say that it's fiction that is based on the future.

Moderator: What is the difference between science-fiction and fantasy?

Mary: SF is extrapolated from some kind of reality. The laws of physics work. Mostly! Fantasy is based on magic of some sort. They do blend.

Moderator: What special elements go into science-fiction that set it apart from other genres?

Mary: I think imagination is what sets SF apart. You are not fettered by reality, but unlike fantasy, you ARE tethered to reality. That's what I love about it. You can create a magical world that does anything you want it to do. People can fly or create storms. If you want your science fictional characters to fly, you'd better put them on a light-gravity planet and alter their bone structure so that it works!

Drsnowleopard: Have you ever developed anything from dreams?

Mary: I have, once in awhile. Alas, unlike some writers I know, I rarely dream in nice coherent plots. But sometimes a concept comes to me and really sticks with me.

Sasha: What do you think are some of the "new" areas of SF today?

Mary: There are a lot of hot new areas in SF. Look at what Biology is offering us! The ethics and effects of genetic manipulation, cloning, all those topics, for a start.

Mbvoelker: Can you give a brief description of the main SF sub-genres? Are certain sub-genres in greater demand than others?

Mary: The 'sub-genres' of SF aren't as clear cut as, say, in Mystery, but they exist and do overlap. You have 'hard SF' where the science is the anchor, and often the characters are thin. Then there is 'space opera', think Star Wars. Of course we have the current evolution of Gibson's 'Cyberpunk'. And near future SF.

Jack: Have you ever written something and before it could get published had the idea show up in the news as really happening--and no longer fiction? Does that ever happen to sci-fi writers?

Mary: Ooooh, it happens all the time. And it happened to me. My first SF novel The Drylands proposed the effects of extreme global warming. Turns out, a researcher down at University of Oregon has a climate model that proposes the same scenario. It has been in the media.

Paja: Technically, how is SF today different from SF '60's and earlier--Stranger in a Strange Land or the Lensman series, for instance?

Mary: You see quite an evolution from the SF of the fifties -- Amazon Women on Mars into the more socially oriented SF of today with more three dimensional characters and (thanks be!!) more women characters!

Moderator: How does a new writer get started in SF?

Mary: If you don't read SF you need to read it before you write it. Many tropes have been done to death in the genre. You will unwittingly run into a stone wall selling them. For an excellent taste of the genre, get any copy of the yearly 'Year's Best SF' edited by Gardner Dozois, Editor of 'Asimov's Magazine'.

Moderator: In order to write sci-fi, do you have to be a scientist or can you "fake it"?

Mary: You can definitely 'fake' it, but you'd better do a good job. <g> A lot of scientists read SF. But there are lots of good science sources out there! You need to get your basic facts right. Things don't go 'boom' in a vacuum, for example. I'm currently working on a series of short stories set on orbital colonies, so I have to read current work on the space station, proposed orbital habitats, and the like. But you ARE dealing with the future, so you have wiggle-room on devising new tech.

Drsnowleopard: Is there a market for SF novels with teen characters?

Mary: Yes, indeed! Actually, the young adult market is a very strong one and has very little SF. That would be a great place to market it.

Navarrejudy: What are the titles of your Rachel O'Conner series books?

Mary: That's my mystery series, written by my split personality, Mary Freeman. They are: Devil's Trumpet, Deadly Nightshade, Bleeding Heart, and Garden View.

Moderator: Where do you get your sci-fi ideas, Mary?

Mary: I find them all over the pages of our local paper, in our agricultural newsletter, in the pages of popular science magazines. We are making discoveries every day that have wonderful and frightening implications.

Moderator: Can you think of a book or story you wrote based on an idea found in one of those sources?

Mary: Two, actually. I have a story coming out in 'Asimov's' called "Golden Bird" that came directly from an IEEE journal article on creating a 'canary in the coal mine' to detect terrorist-released viruses. And "Songs the Sirens Sing," also to show up in Asimov's comes from an article on mining asteroids for water.

Moderator: Wow! That's impressive. I am so lacking in scientific knowledge that I don't even know what you're talking about!

Drsnowleopard: Then I should read Young Adult SF in my research?

Mary: I'd certainly read to see what is out there, drsnowleopard. There isn't a lot, which is why I say it's a fertile field. I teach a lot of teens and Star Wars is VERY popular, for example.

Narrejudy: And Harry Potter? Is that still popular too?

Mary: You know, I think the swell has passed on that, although the next book out may bring the series back to a boil.

Moderator: How do you create these science-fiction "worlds"? Is it totally from your imagination?

Mary: It is totally from imagination, but as I said before, you have to start with reality. For example, for my asteroid miners, I began with existing technology, then bumped the tech up to higher levels, consistent with the future setting.

Mbvoelker: Could you expand on the concept of bumping up technology? How do you keep it all believable? How do you figure out what else a new level of technology will change -- domino effect stuff?

Mary: Well, look at the evolution from the first 'Trash 80' computers (I'm dating myself), and today's PC. For example, in my asteroid miners, I took today's technology for creating metal alloys for space, added the potential of nano-technology, and created a 'smart-metal' that could reshape itself to suit a purpose. The key here is to be plausible, rather than real.

Sandra: Is it true that angst is a good source of sci-fi ideas?

Mary: Well, paranoia served Phil Dick well. <g> I guess you have to worry about tomorrow in order to wonder in print 'what if this goes on?' Phillip K. Dick is a very famous SF writer whose fiction is full of 'they're out to get me themes' and although I didn't know him personally (he's deceased), I gather that he was personally rather paranoid.

Moderator: How do you develop the "rules" of your make-believe science-fiction world? [e.g. Rules of Time, Space, Magic, etc.]

Mary: In both SF and Fantasy, your rules need to be consistent. And of course, in SF, you really can't get too far beyond the rules of physics. Anti-gravity belts have been frowned upon lately, although I now understand that it's an actual possibility, according to latest research.

Moderator: How do you work out the history, language, geography and customs of your invented world?

Mary: That is something that, alas, many writers skimp on. Personally, I like to work out the society, economics, and culture of my characters and their world. It's part of characterization, as far as I'm concerned.

Jack: In your planning stages, do you have notebooks to keep track of your language and customs etc. to refer to?

Mary: Yes, I do. Often, they're brief for a short story, but when you're creating so many customs, histories, slang words, etc. for a novel, a notebook helps a LOT.

Sandra: Is it a good idea to research some things before you launch into the story to keep it real?

Mary: If you have a burning idea, you can always get it down and then research. But I've found that almost always, once I begin to research, the facts inspire the story idea and deepen it in ways I would not have discovered on my own.

Moderator: How do you determine where such a story should start, since there is so much explaining to do so the reader will understand this strange, new world?

Mary: No matter what you write, you need to begin where your story really begins. Readers of SF are no more tolerant of long introductory beginnings than in any other genre. You can drop your character into a totally alien situation and then clue the reader in as to what is going on around her as she struggles through the scene. Takes a bit more work than dealing with everyday reality, but it's not at all impossible.

Navarrejudy: Do you consider the Jean Auel books to be sort of SF?

Mary: I think I'd call them more historical fantasy than SF. Unless she has hopped into the future in her latest book?

Kaye: Is there a market for romance/sf? Which is better, books or magazines?

Mary: My friend Phyl Karr whose pen name is Irene Radford writes romance/sf books. There is indeed a market, mostly published by the Romance publishers.

Mbvoelker: Can you give some practical examples of working background into the story instead of using that long, introductory, tour of the world and culture that we all hate? ;-)

Mary: Let's see. Without spending half an hour creating a scene here. Your character leaps from his ship and dashes through the rubble of ruined buildings. He can be wondering if his friends survived the unexpected attack of the strange ships and how they will hide from the Hegemon. By the time he's safely in hiding, we'll have learned a bit about the political and technological situation as he thinks and uses equipment, and a bit is all we need to know at this point. We know we'll learn more and the action carries the plot along while you slip in the info.

Sandra: How do you keep it narrative without some help for the readers to understand the weird things?

Mary: You use a lot of 'showing' and avoid 'telling' the reader about anything. If I pull a blizmick from a branch and bite through the thick purple rind, while swatting at the buzzing leep, I don't have to tell you that I'm eating a purple fruit and swatting some sort of pest, right?

Sasha: As a woman writing SF, do you find any particular obstacles?

Mary: Well, other than that most of my readers are male...sigh. I have to say that there is a bit of prejudice against women authors, but I think that's true in many genres. And it has never stopped me from using my first name. There are some very strong women writers in SF, like LeGuin and Vonda McIntyre, for examples.

sandra: Explain the term "romantic science fiction" please.

Mary: This is a romance story set in a science fictional universe.

Jim: Do you use an outline? How detailed is it?

Mary: This is a lovely question. My writing style has evolved a LOT over the years. I never used to outline at all. I knew where I was starting, I knew where I would end, and I figured the rest out as I went. But I also HATE first drafts. I love the revising and character fine-tuning that I do in my second draft. I have discovered that I can do a 'shorthand' first draft that is basically a VERY detailed outline. That way, if I decide to seriously alter my story structure, or add a character, delete one, or what have you, I don't have to rewrite 400 pages of prose! No more first drafts! Hurray!

Drsnowleopard: Is it okay to write a homicide with SF as backdrop?

Mary: This is called 'cross genre'. There are some very good examples out there, but it is alas, very difficult to market. Mystery won't touch SF. You can indeed sell a short story of this nature, but a novel will be a tougher prospect. Although all reviewers have called my SF mysteries at one point or another. They do have basic mystery plots!

Moderator: How much invented jargon do you use in your sci-fi stories? How can it be used effectively?

Mary: I use lots of invented jargon. And science fictional jargon becomes 'real' English all the time. Bill Gibson invented cyber-space, and look at how many cyber- words we use now. The trick in SF is to use your jargon in such a way that you don't need to stop and explain it which takes some planning at times, let me tell you!

Sandra: Do you keep a file of this invented jargon and use it again in a later story?

Mary: I wish I was that organized! I do carry jargon, tech, and sometimes characters from one story to another, and I never have the foresight to keep it on file. So I end up searching through books or magazines to make sure I don't contradict myself!

Janp: Is it at all difficult to separate your SF world from your "earth" one?

Mary: Do you mean my mysteries from my sf? Or my sf from reality? <grin> As to the mystery and SF worlds, my characters are real people to me and each character inhabits his or her own world. They're all distinct, and after all, they're all just as imaginary.

Moderator: Many sci-fi stories contain aliens and other creatures. How do you create believability there?

Mary: You know, I don't think any SF writer including myself has ever created a REALLY alien alien. Every alien out there is based on something we understand and maybe fear or loath, but it is not really 'alien' in the sense of 'utterly unlike us'.

Moderator: What do editors want, both magazine editors and book editors?

Mary: Editors want fresh ideas and strong characters. As I said, there are certain tropes that have been done to death. One, for example, is the post-holocaust world. Character starts out in a radioactive, bombed out, empty universe. If you want that to sell, you'd better give us the reason we got there and the method. And cardboard cutouts for characters really don't work.

Moderator: Do characters really matter, or is the science everything?

Mary: Yes, they do matter. Sometimes, in hard SF, the science is the strongest part of the story. But more and more readers want strong characters to carry the weight of the story.

Moderator: Are the movies a good example of what to write?

Mary: Nope. NO. Forget it. They tend to lag far behind the 'cutting edge' of SF and to be pretty thin in content. SF readers are quite sophisticated.

Drsnowleopard: Have TV and movies made it more challenging for novelists?

Mary: Well, they do compete for our leisure time and attention, and visuals are less work than print. But contrary to what some people may say, I see a LOT of teens with their noses in books. You really can't do on a screen what you can do in a book. Printed fiction is interactive. You, the reader, get to help create the world and characters I present to you, in that I can't describe every detail, so I leave much to your imagination. Movies and TV give you everything. You're not really a participant and in printed fiction, you are.

Moderator: In your opinion, who's worth reading in this genre?

Mary: There are lots of good people, and some of the best are found in the short story magazines like 'Asimov's', 'Analog' and 'Fantasy and SF'. Bill Gibson is the father of cyber-punk, and there's Vonda McIntyre, Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes (hard SF and historical fiction), Catherine Asaro, who writes far future -- space ship -- Greg Bear, and many many more.

Moderator: Who, according to studies, reads SF?

Mary: SF readers cover the map. Teens read it, computer people read it, college professors read it. Nearly all segments of the population.

Jim: Does most Science Fiction need a Dr. Spock to explain history without flashbacks?

Mary: That's kind of clunky, but it does help to create a character who is somehow new to the situation. Otherwise you run the risk of a lot of 'as we all know, John' dialogue.

Sasha: Do you find it difficult creating character names that don't sound cheesy?

Mary: Well, yes and no. Names are always a bit tough. Too many Jims and Annes are boring, but finding something with the cachet, say, of Indiana Jones is not easy.

Drsnowleopard: What's your opinion of the Ben Bova library?

Mary: His reference books for writers are well respected, but I haven't used them myself.

Moderator: Can you recommend some good how-to books on writing sci-fi?

Mary: You know, I'm not a big fan of how-to-write books in general. I'd suggest that prospective SF writers attend local SF conventions. They occur in nearly every city and offer panels on writing and selling as well as guest editors and authors who will talk to you. Not to mention some very interestingly dressed attendees!!

Sasha: Do you worry about unconsciously rewriting past ideas?

Mary: Well, let's face it, EVERYTHING has been done. You simply do it fresh, your way, in your voice. But a reading background of SF does keep you from stepping too closely on someone's famous story.

Moderator: Where do I find markets?

Mary: There are quite a few short fiction markets for Sf and Fantasy: 'Asimov's, Analog, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, and many small press magazines. If you go to the SFFWA website:, you can check the online 'Bulletin' for up to date market news. All the major publishers have SF lines in novels.

Moderator: To sell science-fiction, do I need an agent?

Mary: You don't need an agent for short fiction, and it is one of the few remaining fiction genres where you can send in a book length manuscript without an agent. But I would recommend acquiring an agent after you sell your book and before you sign the contract.

Moderator: Are there professional organizations for science-fiction writers?

Mary: There is SFFWA -- Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. You have to have sold three short stories or one novel in order to join.

Moderator: Are there awards for science-fiction writers?

Mary: There are a number of awards in the genre. The biggest are the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award.

Sasha: Is an unpublished writer going to be able to get a story published in Asimov?

Mary: I published my first SF story in Asimov's, so I can guarantee you that you can!

Moderator: I left a bit of time here at the end for something a bit different. I wanted to give Mary a chance to speak a bit about the coming changes--like tomorrow!--when she takes over for me as web editor of the Long Ridge site. I know she has some new things planned, and some changes, but some of the same features too. Also, I will let Mary tell you who SHE is having for a guest speaker in two weeks.

Mary: Sure! Many things will stay the same on the web site. We'll still have the Tuesday Forum, and I'm adding an 'After Hours' session at Friday at 5 PM Pacific time -- later for you east coasters -- for those who'd like an evening Forum. In a couple of weeks we'll be offering a regularly updated Markets feature where we'll offer markets that weren't included in the Best of the Magazine Markets listing. I'll still be doing the Thursday night interviews from the OTHER side of the moderator's mic.

I'll be interviewing Lori Soard in two weeks, on Thursday, October 10. Lori has a Ph. D. in Journalism and Creative Writing, and will discuss Web Editing and Website Promotion. She has published over a thousand articles and short stories, as well as several novels and a 'how-to' book on writing nonfiction. In 1997, she opened, a multi-genre site for readers and writers. She is a co-founder of World Romance Writers and currently sits on the national board of Romance Writers of America. I know I'm looking forward to learning a lot more about this valuable form of online promotion! I'll also be available by email as web editor and don't hesitate to ask questions or to make suggestions for what you'd like to see.

And one last suggestion for you SF writers out there: Visit This is the website where most SF authors hang out. They have their own topics that are open to the public, as well as many informational topics.

Moderator: Mary, thank you. I'll be reading Lori's transcript as soon as I return from my trip. I know I am leaving the web site in very good hands!

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