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Science Fiction Giant: Talking with Robert J. Sawyer, Part 1

When you want a long view of science fiction, you go to someone with a long history in the genre. And a person like Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell Memorial award winner, screenwriter, and novelist Robert J. Sawyer (Hominids, FlashForward) has that perspective in spades. In part 1 of our interview with him, Sawyer shares his thoughts on the differences between writing novels and scripts, New York publishers vs. self-publishing, and why successes like Andy Weir’s The Martian are unexpected outliers that are hard to repeat.

RECURSOR: You do both novel writing and screenwriting, an opportunity not every writer enjoys. What is it like to be writing in both worlds?

Robert J Sawyer interview on Recursor.TV

Photo credit: Bernard Clark

RJS:  They’re different right from the get go. In novels, you start off writing short stories first. You learn your craft at short lengths with low paying markets and try to graduate to higher paying markets and eventually writing a long enough piece to be called a novel.

In screenwriting, there are of course student films and little, low budget films, but most screenwriters start by writing for a multimillion dollar television production or a hundred million dollar movie. You have to be writing really good to start getting those kinds of gigs, and that requires some formal training. I happened to go to Canada’s top broadcasting school at Ryerson University. Almost everyone I know who works in the (film) industry studied scriptwriting professionally.

Is it difficult to switch gears from writing novels to scripts?

I find I can go back and forth between the two forms pretty easily because they exercise different muscles. Writing novels is all about the inner lives of characters, what’s going on between somebody’s ears. You see each scene from the limited perspective of that one person in the scene — what that person sees and hears, and what that person thinks.

In scriptwriting, it’s completely different. You are in the audience as the viewer; you’re ping-ponging back and forth. You’re never inside anybody’s head. And so I find that I can easily write for half a day on a novel, and then relax those creative muscles and starting working out different creative muscles and work for half a day on a screenplay.

Roberr J Sawyer Hugo Award / Recursor.TV

Comparing Hugo Awards with Robert Charles Wilson (right). Photo Credit: Carolyn Clink

Do you like the challenge in screenwriting of working within certain parameters, or do you find it confining sometimes? What’s your preference?

That’s a really good question. Challenging? No. I understand the format; it becomes ingrained in your DNA the more you do it. But it is constraining to some degree. As a novelist, I am very much interested in the subtle interplay of plot and subplot, where they counterpoint each other. I find that it’s a richer writing experience creatively writing prose fiction. But I certainly don’t find it difficult in the sense of challenging to do scriptwriting.

You shared some great insights on the science fiction writer’s choice between self-publishing vs. traditional publishing at Genre-La 2017 (The Greater Los Angeles Writers Conference). Would you recap them?

When I started in 1990, my current publisher Ace published five science fiction novels and one fantasy novel a month. Here it is 2017, and they do five fantasy novels and one science fiction novel a month. In other words, science fiction commercial publishing is a very small field right now in terms of the number of titles produced. There are way more people who are competently writing science fiction than there are publishing slots available today. And so for a great number of people, self publishing is a viable way to go.

There are a couple of caveats with that. If you try and succeed at self-publishing, wonderful. You can be Hugh Howie with Wool or Andy Weir with The Martian, and become extremely rich. But they are the outliers. The majority of people who try self-publishing fail.

The problem with that is, you can’t usually say, “I failed at self-publishing. Now I’m going to try commercial publishing” because you show up with a track record. It’s been demonstrably proven in the marketplace that there is no appreciable audience for your work. You’re way better off, if your goal is commercial publishing, to start first trying to crack the commercial market. The other way around is very difficult.

We spoke to Andy Weir recently, and it’s clear he was surprised by the commercial success of The Martian, which was self-published.

Robert J Sawyer Quantum Night / Recursor.TV

Sawyer’s latest novel, Quantum Night (2016)

You don’t know what is going to be the breakout novel. It’s almost impossible to predict what is going to succeed and what is going to fail in the marketplace. Big publishers survive on quantity. They’ll buy a lot of first novels cheaply, throw them out there in the marketplace without very much support in terms of advertising or promotion, and they’ll wait and see which ones the public responds to, and then put their efforts behind the ones that are already starting to catch on. It is well known that Andy tried to get the novel published commercially, and every science fiction house in New York turned him down.

When those outliers happen, do you feel there is something in the story that appeals to people? Is there a synergy that brings about success in the case of someone like Andy Weir?

You know, the United States essentially abandoned space as adventure starting with the shuttle program. Nobody’s been to the moon since 1972. The space shuttle program — even the common name ‘shuttle’ is banal. A shuttle is what takes you from the airport terminal to your car rental place or your hotel. So Andy Weir tapped into my generation of readers who thought that space was exciting. And it turned out there were an awful lot of people like  me who were waiting for someone to come back and say humanity should be doing this, and it’s going to be a great exciting adventure.

Tune in next week for part 2 of the interview, in which Robert J. Sawyer gives us a glimpse into the future of science fiction publishing, describes his passion for research, and talks the latest news with his iconic alternate earth series, Hominids.

In the meantime, you can learn more about him on his website,