Robert Grant, author of Writing the Science Fiction Film, is a filmmaker, screenwriter, critic, and script consultant with a penchant for science fiction and fantasy. Based in London, he currently sits on the jury of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction Literature and serves as Literary Editor for SCI-FI-LONDON.com. Robert is also one of the core team behind The London International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film.
Why did you write Writing the Science Fiction Film?
Because they asked me!
No, seriously, we watch a lot of films at the SCI-FI-LONDON Film Festival when submission time comes around, and we keep seeing people making the same mistakes over and over again, often because they hadn’t thought about why they wanted to make a science fiction film in the first place. A bad thriller does not become a good thriller because you set it in space, a bad action film does not become less bad because you put a few spaceships in it. My hope when writing the book was that I could teach people why science fiction is the best of genres to write, and also what sorts of stories lend themselves to sci-fi and what don’t. I also want to show filmmakers that science fiction does not have to mean big budgets and lots of CGI, some of the best science fiction is much quieter than that and challenges the audience in a more profound way than just with flashy visuals.
What is it about science fiction that everyone loves so much? Why do people deem Sci Fi fans “fanatics?”
Science fiction is the perfect doorway to adventure and escapism. It takes us to hostile alien planets in far flung galaxies to battle with giant insects, sends us backwards and forwards in time, gives us the the cure to world-killing diseases, lets us blow-up an asteroid before it crashes into Earth or makes us the last man left alive. Anything you can think of, everything you ever wanted to see, all the amazing things that live in your imagination can find form in science fiction, and at the same time be contemporary and relevant and enlightening in ways other genres cannot.
Science fiction is known as the genre of ideas. Writing science fiction is about asking big “What if..?” questions, allowing us to play with the day-to-day realities of our own world by exploring new and different realities in worlds we can create. Science fiction can examine big social and societal issues and ask difficult and searching questions and it can do it without pointing directly at any individual or group, any particular religion or country, any specific corporation or government. It allows us to shine a spotlight on something and say, “Look at this! Look what is happening! Look what they’ve done!” And this is especially true if that something is out of our control or something we cannot easily change.
I’d been handling the filmmaking workshops and reviewing books and classes and doing other stuff at sci-fi-london.com for ten years and was lucky enough to meet Ken Lee at MWP because of that work. We got chatting about filmmaking and about science fiction in particular and I must have started out on one of my rants about the genre because a few months later they asked me if I’d be interested in writing a book on the subject. I, of course, blithely said, “yes,” but after proving I could meet the quality bar for MWP books, a deal was done and I started writing.
What was your favorite part about writing the book? The greatest challenge?
The biggest challenge was actually getting started. I’m one of those writers that outlines in detail, so I need a bit of a run up to get going. Inevitably then I fell behind schedule, but science fiction is my specialist subject, and once I actually started writing it was amazing how quickly it came together, and when you get in that zone and the words are flowing—that’s the best part of writing anything.
What are three mistakes newbie screenwriters tend to make and how can they fix them?
As far as science fiction goes, it’s 1) knowing why you’re writing in the genre, and not just writing a comedy or thriller or something else 2) getting the science right so that your story world makes sense and is believable—that does not mean it has to read like a physics paper, but it does have to be feasible, coherent and consistent and 3) avoiding the many, many science fiction tropes and clichés that turn up time and again like bad pennies, there’s no excuse for using them, not anymore.
Additional advice for screenwriters?
Just write. A lot. Like all skills whether it’s playing the guitar, or learning a language, or dressmaking, it takes lots of hours of practice to get good at it, and there’s no short cuts to that. You can read all the books and take all the classes, but in the end you have to actually write—put the theory into practice—to get good. Do that and you will eventually be a good screenwriter. Oh, and realise you never stop learning.
Advice for non-fiction writers?
Get organised, know your structure so that you have a coherent beginning, middle and end and write a detailed outline. The more detailed the better then writing the chapters becomes a case of filling in the gaps and it gets easier. Also, know your subject matter. Inside and out. If you can’t stand up, on demand, and give a five minute presentation on your subject, without notes, then you’re probably not well versed enough to to make a convincing fist of the book.
How do you balance all the facets of your career? How does writing in different mediums help your writing/people’s writing in general?
There’s no easy answer to the question of balance. I constantly spread myself too thin by committing to things I shouldn’t have, but then you only get one shot at a life so you make it work. The only practical advice I can give is that you just have to get organised, prioritise the things that are truly important to you and only do that which pushes you in the right direction. Anything that derails you from your goals – and I include people in that—you need to either cut loose or compartmentalise into a manageable place.
As for writing in different mediums, well it’s all practice. It teaches you to write to a deadline, to write to order, and to edit for purpose, all good skills to have.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?
A couple of things; the main thing I guess is that that I didn’t need anyone’s approval to write. It took me many years of writing secretly and not showing my stuff to anyone before I realised that the only person I had to prove anything to, was me. That realisation was so liberating that it freed me to really let go and write what I wanted, which improved my writing enormously and in turn spurred me on to write more so I got better, and so on in a virtuous circle. The second thing is that you can’t do it all alone. You need to join writers groups and filmmaking groups and go to festivals and basically, join in, if you want to move forward. The world isn’t going to queue up at your door offering riches and fame, so it’s as important to go out and work at it in the right places as it is to stay in and write.