The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy
with Elisa Bonnin
Have you always wanted to get into writing science fiction and fantasy, but you don’t know where to start? Maybe you’re a long-time speculative fiction reader, or maybe you’re new to the genre, but have an idea you can’t quite let go of? Whatever the case, this course is for you. In 10 weeks, you will learn all about speculative fiction genre conventions through lectures, class discussions, and writing exercises geared toward helping you develop your sci-fi or fantasy novel or short story idea into something you can start writing from the moment the course is done.
As part of this course, you will learn about the different sub-genres of speculative fiction and about writing techniques specific to sci-fi and fantasy, like worldbuilding, magic systems, and using advanced technology. But you will also learn tools and techniques that can be applied to all genres of fiction, like plot structure, character development, and pacing. All of these elements will be taught through a sci-fi and fantasy lens, so that you can directly apply them to your idea.
Each week, you will have a writing assignment geared toward developing your own story idea. You will get weekly feedback from your instructor, and will have the opportunity to get feedback from your peers in a small group setting. Come prepared to suspend your disbelief and geek out about alternate worlds and new, untouched horizons, because this is the one genre where no idea is too absurd as long as it’s written well.
By the end of this course, you will have written two 3,500 word short stories or the first 3 chapters and an outline of your novel. And if finishing that novel is your goal, at the end of the course, you will be given resources to get through your outline and get to the end of your first draft.
Learning and Writing Goals
By the end of this course, students will:
- Have a thorough understanding of what makes speculative fiction different from other fiction genres, and have a good overview of the subgenres of speculative fiction.
- Learn how to apply essential craft elements such as character, plot, setting, pacing, and structure to the specific subgenre of speculative fiction that the student wishes to write.
- Have an understanding of genre conventions unique to speculative fiction, like technology or magic systems.
Students will complete and receive feedback on one of the following items:
- Two complete short stories
- One short story with significant revision
- The first 3 chapters of a novel or novella and a completed outline
Students will also generate new writing each week through weekly writing assignments, and will receive feedback on these assignments from the instructor and some of their peers.
This class will meet once a week on Fridays from 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM Eastern Standard Time. Zoom meetings will be used to discuss the topic of the week, with about half the meeting time set aside for lectures and the remainder of the time given to lecture discussion and Q&A.
Attendance at the weekly lecture session is not mandatory, and lectures will be recorded.
There will be another 60 minute long Zoom meeting each week for group writing and workshopping in small groups, with time to be determined based on students’ availability. Attendance at this session is highly recommended. Whenever possible, students with similar schedule availability will be placed in the same critique groups.
Week 1: Through the Looking Glass
This week, we’ll introduce the speculative fiction genre and discuss different subgenres. By the end of the week, you’ll be able to define what makes your story idea speculative fiction, and start thinking about your story’s core concept, the unique aspect that makes your world different from reality.
- Short Story & Novel(la) Tracks: Identify the genre and core conceit of either your novel project or your first short story
Week 2: Where No One Has Gone Before
Worldbuilding is important in all forms of fiction, but in speculative fiction, which often relies on strange and wondrous settings, worldbuilding is absolutely necessary. This week, we’ll work on all the basics of building a world, beginning with the core concept you identified last week.
- Short Story & Novel(la) Tracks: Write a short (~500 word) scene from the point of view of an ordinary person in the world your story will be set in
Week 3: You All Meet at an Inn
All stories require characters, and speculative fiction stories are no different. This week, we’ll talk about characters, the role they occupy in the story, and how to build them. We will also talk about how the speculative fiction genre allows us to push characters in ways more realistic stories can’t. At the end of this week, students should be able to identify the protagonist of their story.
- Short Story & Novel(la) Tracks: Identify your main character, and write a short (~500 word) scene from their perspective, before the start of the story.
Week 4: Sufficiently Advanced Technology
Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This week, we’ll discuss the basics of building a good technology or magic system, depending on what your story needs.
- Short Story & Novel(la) Tracks: Fill out a worksheet outlining the importance of technology or magic systems on your story and setting. Build your magic system or core technology
Week 5: The Hero’s Journey and Beyond
As fun as it is to imagine fantastical worlds, we do need to at some point write the story. This week, we’ll talk about plot and structure, including common frameworks for story structure like the three act story, and deviations from that structure. For aspiring novelists, this week will also have a discussion on word count expectations across age groups.
- Short Story Track: Outline your first short story
- Novel(la) Track: Outline the first act (or first third, if not using the three act structure) of your novel(la)
Week 6: Avoiding the Infodump and Other Pitfalls
You’ve developed your own unique world, or have introduced fantastical elements into our world, but how do you show all that to the reader while still maintaining good pacing and avoiding the dreaded “infodump”? This week, we’ll discuss pacing and exposition, giving you the tools you need to finally begin putting words on the page.
- Short Story Track: Write the first half of your first short story
- Novel(la) Track: Write the first chapter of your novel(la)
Week 7: Fight Scenes and Other Genre Conventions
Chosen ones? Epic battles? High councils? This week is all about tropes. We’ll tackle how to write action sequences, which are common in the genre, but also talk about how to put a fresh spin on old ideas for those of us who aren’t writing action-packed sword and sorcery adventures. Tropes are not bad, as long as they’re used well!
- Short Story Track: Finish your first short story
- Novel(la) Track:Write the second chapter of your novel(la)
Week 8: How to Hit the Books (And Know When You Need Help)
If you’re writing hard science fiction, you’re going to need to do some research. But even the most medieval of medieval fantasy writers can’t escape occasionally hitting the books (just how far can a horse travel in one day, anyway?). This week is all about where to go for information and how to incorporate that information into the world.
This week we will also talk about sensitivity readers, and the importance of being critical with your own sources, to avoid stereotyping other cultures.
- Short Story Track: Receive feedback on your first story and decide whether to revise your story or to write a second short story.
- Short Story Revision Track: Read through comments and begin revision of your first story
- Second Short Story Track: Outline your second short story
- Novel Track: Write the third chapter of your novel(la)
Week 9: More than Escapism
Fantasy and science fiction allow us to explore impossible scenarios, but that doesn’t mean that these stories have to purely be about escaping the real world. This week, we’ll talk about how these genres can be used to shine spotlights on human nature or society. We’ll tackle themes and how to find out what you are trying to say in your own story.
- Short Story Revision Track: Finish your first revision and submit your story for feedback
- Second Short Story Track: Write half of your second short story
- Novel Track: Outline the second act (or second third) of your novel(la)
Week 10: What Comes After the Ending?
For our last week, we’ll go back to the business of writing. We’ll talk about strategies for finishing a long project after the initial inspiration has worn off, and how to start revising. This week will introduce the concepts of alpha and beta readers, and talk about next steps for those with publishing goals, including finding markets for short fiction, finding editors for self-publishing, and querying agents for traditional publishing.
- Short Story Revision Track: Complete line edits of your short story
- Second Short Story Track: Complete your second short story
- Novel Track: Outline the final act (or final third) of your novel(la)