SFFdirect is back in the fray! With a sneak peek at NOSTOS
Literature Writing

SFFdirect is back in action! With a sneak peek at Nostos

December 17, 2019

You may (or may not!) have noticed that SFFdirect has not uploaded a new post for two months. The reason for this is that I have been busy with my MA in Creative Writing, and with my space opera novel, Nostos, (which is a big part of my MA so there is overlap). I’ve also been battling my M.E. but that’s another story.

I embarked on my novel at the start of term in September and I intend to work on it during this academic year. Hopefully I will have it finished and revised/edited well before next September, which is when my dissertation has to be handed in. I also intend to keep SFFdirect going at the same time, with at least four posts per month.

We’ll see how it goes with meeting those goals(!) but for this post I want to share with you the proposal for my novel. I had to write this for my MA and it had to be submitted on 23 October. It is a 1500 word (+-10%) statement of what I intended to work on during this term (and perhaps the next one too). I wanted to share it with you so you can see what I’ve been busy with and why I’ve neglected SFFdirect a bit.

The working title of my novel is Nostos. I’ve written 15,000 words it so far. I hope to make better progress from now on. Wish me luck guys! Anyway, without further ado – here’s the proposal. PLEASE NOTE, IT CONTAINS SPOILERS. You have been warned.

NOSTOS – Proposal

Genre, Influences, Form and Audience

I am a huge science fiction and fantasy (SFF) fan, and I write science fiction. Until summer 2019, I wrote short stories, but for my second year of the MA I decided to write a novel in order to try a new form and keep learning.

The science fiction sub-genre I have chosen to write in is space opera. The term was coined by Wilson Tucker in 1941, referring to the ‘spaceship yarn’, and it was originally used pejoratively, although that is no longer the case[1].

Sawyer[2] describes the space opera sub-genre as ‘committed to action and adventure, focused upon the heroic’. It is, above all, fun and exciting, and the emphasis is on entertaining the reader. Gary Westfahl[3] states:

“Typically positing a universe filled with human or alien spacefarers – some hostile, some friendly – space opera is a literature of conflicts, usually with violent resolutions.”


I chose to write space opera because I enjoy reading it. Within the sub-genre, works can be categorised as military or non-military (civilian). My novel is the latter. Civilian space opera is currently enjoying a period of popularity[4], which I hope to take advantage of.

There are three recently-published books which have influenced me and which are similar to my intended novel. These are Leviathan Wakes[5], Embers of War[6] and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet [7](TLWTASAP). In these novels, a small likeable civilian spaceship crew travel through space in a tale of action and adventure. The latter two are most similar to mine because they are set in the very far future in a populated universe full of aliens and different societies. The ships are controlled by sentient AIs, who are characters in their own right.

Plot-wise and tone-wise, I was also influenced by Mortal Engines[8]. It is steampunk not space opera, but it is action-adventure. The reader gets to visit multiple exciting locations as the protagonist crosses a perilous world to return to his home city.

My intended audience is adult SFF readers. I include fantasy readers because the focus on adventure puts space opera very close to fantasy. In fact, some critics have called it fantasy set in space[9].

My novel will be approximately 90,000 words long. This is the average word count of a typical adult novel[10]. I am aware that SFF novels are often much longer[11] but as a debut novelist the advice I consistently encounter is not to make the book much longer than average because publishers are averse to the additional production costs[12]. My novel will be divided into chapters and I have plotted it scene by scene according to Three Act structure[13]. I am a big planner[14].

Subject and Creative Process

My basic idea was of a salvage crew finding something valuable and taking it through hostile space to deliver it to a planet, visiting multiple locations (planets, space stations) along the way. I would include lots of conflict because, as Larry Brooks says, conflict is ‘the essence of story’[15]. In this context, ‘conflict’ means characters facing challenges and obstacles.

Blake Snyder recommends that when planning a story, you start with the logline (also called the premise) and that the logline should have irony[16]. This creates interest and inherent conflict. Similarly, Maass states that a premise should have four things: plausibility, inherent conflict, originality and gut emotional appeal[17].

Snyder also states that the protagonist should have a compelling goal, they must offer the most conflict in the chosen situation, and they must have the longest way to go emotionally[18].

Taking all this into account, I decided that the protagonist is the captain of the spaceship and the item found is a fast-travel Gate that allows instantaneous travel to other Gates. The protagonist’s goal is to take the Gate to a target planet. The journey is hazardous due to space pirates and space squid. The setting is a sector of the Milky Way, far from Earth.

To create irony and emotional appeal, I decided that the target planet is the captain’s former homeworld and that she had vowed never to return. To create more conflict, I decided that her crew want to sell the Gate to the highest bidder but the captain decides to take it to her homeworld instead. Why, then, would she do this? The only plausible reason is for huge personal reasons. I decided that her long-lost daughter, who she believed dead, finds her and asks for the Gate for the home-world. She cannot risk losing her daughter.

Snyder states that stakes should be ‘primal’[19], and indeed I made my story’s stakes primal. In the conflicts with the pirates and the squid, my characters are fighting to survive; and overall, my captain is fighting to retain the love of her daughter.

My premise became:

After finding a fast-travel Gate, the Captain of a salvage crew must take it across hostile space to the homeworld she swore she’d never return to, in order to keep from losing the daughter she has just been reunited with.


My captain is called Mulubwa, and she is black, aged 40. I made her female and black because the character felt right and I believe in diversity. There is currently a huge trend for diversity in SFF[20], particularly for female characters[21], but also for characters of colour.

The comments I received during the class critique of my first chapter were very useful. In particular, they made me think more about who the Gate initially belonged to and the consequences of Mulubwa salvaging it. I now decided that the Gate originally belonged (illegally) to the space pirates. The pirates want their Gate back, so this conflict is now personal.

The novel’s working title is Nostos but this will probably change. In Ancient Greek literature, Nostos stories concern a hero returning home by sea[22].

Character arc and Theme

In my novel, Mulubwa’s inner conflict and character arc concerns the fact you can’t run from the past and about coming to terms with the past. She begins the story jaded, but through finding her daughter she becomes closer to those around her and comes home. To create a cohesive novel, I have matched this with a wider theme of the past refusing to be buried, and it impinging on the present. For example, the act of finding the Gate brings to the fore issues that were buried. Also, the alien character Tausal, the Captain’s faithful crewmate, has a history of being enslaved by the pirates which they don’t talk about, but it comes into the spotlight during the novel.

The most satisfying stories are ones in which the main plot (A story) and the protagonist’s character arc (B story)[23] come to a resolution at the same time[24] i.e. at the climax of the story. I will ensure that my novel does this. The final showdown with the pirates occurs when the ship reaches the homeworld. Here will be the obligatory A story scene of all action plots: ‘the hero at the mercy of the villain’[25]. But in addition, when Mulubwa sees her homeworld through the view screen, she finally forgives herself for her perceived mistakes in the past. This is the culmination of her character arc (B story).

Narrative situation, including Voice, Perspective and Tense

The vast majority of SFF is written in third person limited point of view[26] and past tense[27]. As a debut author, I have decided to stick with the genre convention.

I have decided to adopt a close third person style because I want to stick very close to Mulubwa and show everything very much through her eyes and ears, and show her interiority, including free indirect thought[28].

I originally intended for Mulubwa to be the sole viewpoint character but I am now considering whether to include additional viewpoint characters. SFF stories often have multiple viewpoint characters; this is generally done when characters are geographically far apart. However, TLWTASAP used multiple viewpoints of characters on the same ship, which worked well. It could work well for me too. In particular, I’m considering using the viewpoint of Dawn, Mulubwa’s daughter. She will have a relationship with a crewmember called Perry, and I would like to show their conversations without Mulubwa present.

Challenges, Strengths, Weaknesses, and Goals

I have only ever attempted one other novel, which I wrote for NaNoWriMo[29] several years ago. I learnt a lot from the experience. In particular, I learnt that I need to plan better and spend more time devising a good premise and plot. However, I am still very inexperienced at novel-writing and that is my main weakness. I also have some concerns about my novel’s originality because a successful new-release space opera novel[30] begins with salvagers making a find. I am reading it now and there are key differences, so currently I have no intention to change my plan.

My strengths are the wealth of knowledge I have gathered in the last few years of studying creative writing, and my determination to finish. My experience writing short stories means I am used to writing concisely and keeping a story moving. This will allow me to achieve the pacy writing I am hoping for. I have a good understanding of grammar, punctuation and spelling, and story structure, and I keep up-to-date with the science fiction genre.

My biggest challenge will be simply finishing the first draft, and not getting ‘lost’ in the middle. My goal is to finish it before the New Year, although I realise how ambitious this is. I am finding the worldbuilding challenging, because space opera demands so much of it. Writing the alien, Tausal, is also challenging; I want them to be different and indeed alien, but they must be relatable to readers. I also think I need to make my scenes more immersive and descriptive.

Word count: 1650.


[1] A. Sawyer, ‘Space opera’, in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, eds. M. Bould, A. Butler, A. Roberts and S. Vint, (Oxford: Routledge, 2011), p. 505

[2] A. Sawyer, ‘Space opera’, in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, eds. M. Bould, A. Butler, A. Roberts and S. Vint, (Oxford: Routledge, 2011), p. 505.

[3] G. Westfahl, ‘Space opera’, in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, eds. E. James and F. Mendelsohn, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 197-8.

[4] For example: http://www.dirkstrasser.com/dirks-blog/current-trends-in-science-fiction# and https://cyleyoung.com/2018/08/25-trends-in-publishing-two/.

[5] J. S. A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes, (London: Orbit, 2011).

[6] G. Powell, Embers of War, (London: Titan Books, 2018).

[7] B. Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, (London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 2015).

[8] P. Reeve, Mortal Engines, (London: Scholastic Ltd, 2001).

[9] https://www.tor.com/2018/01/01/space-opera-is-more-than-fantasy-in-space/

[10] J. Hardy, Planning your novel, (Janice Hardy, 2014), p.169.

[11] J. Hardy, Planning your novel, (Janice Hardy, 2014), p.170.

[12] For example http://www.sherryleclerc.com/2018/02/23/how-long-should-a-debut-novel-be/

[13] For example, as described in: K.M Weiland, Structuring your novel, (Scottsbluff: Penforasword Publishing, 2013).

[14] I consult for example: K.M. Weiland, Outlining your novel, (Scottsbluff: Penforasword Publishing, 2011).

[15] L. Brooks, Story Engineering, (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2011), p. 55-56.

[16] B. Snyder, Save the Cat, (Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2005), p. 5-6, 16.

[17] D. Maass, Writing the breakout novel, (Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 2001), p. 40.

[18] B. Snyder, Save the Cat, (Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2005), p. 48, 52, 64.

[19] B. Snyder, Save the Cat, (Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2005), 54-55.

[20] For example: https://www.kobo.com/blog/10-must-read-diverse-sci-fi-and-fantasy-novels and https://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/04/05/books-diversity-in-sci-fi-and-fantasy.

[21] https://www.goodreads.com/blog/show/1440-the-sci-fi-fantasy-trends-of-2018

[22] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nostos

[23] S. Coyne, The Story Grid, (New York: Black Irish Entertainment LLC, 2015), p. 80.

[24] L. Brooks, Story Engineering, (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2011), p 211.

[25] S. Coyne, The Story Grid, (New York: Black Irish Entertainment LLC, 2015), p. 88.

[26] For example: https://www.sfwriter.com/ow07.htm and http://www.iulianionescu.com/blog/mastering-point-of-view/ and https://veronicasicoe.com/2012/12/03/point-of-view-in-science-fiction/.

[27] For example: https://www.sffworld.com/forum/threads/tense-in-fantasy.39813/

[28] https://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/psychic-distance-what-it-is-and-how-to-use-it.html and L. Jeffries and D. McIntyre, Stylistics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 90-92.

[29] National Novel Writing Month, at https://www.nanowrimo.org/

[30] E. Bear, Ancestral Night, (New York: Saga Press, 2019).


All websites were last accessed on 20 October 2019.

Asher-Perrin, E., (1/1/2018) Space Opera is More than “Fantasy in Space”, [online], Tor.com. Available at: https://www.tor.com/2018/01/01/space-opera-is-more-than-fantasy-in-space/.   

Bear, E., Ancestral Night, (New York: Saga Press, 2019).

Brooks, L., Story Engineering, (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2011)

Chambers, B., The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, (London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 2015).

Corey, J. S. A., Leviathan Wakes, (London: Orbit, 2011).

Coyne, S., The Story Grid, (New York: Black Irish Entertainment LLC, 2015)

Darwin, E., (2010), Psychic Distance: What It Is And How To Use It, [online], This itch of writing. Available at: https://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/psychic-distance-what-it-is-and-how-to-use-it.html

Hardy J., Planning your novel, (Janice Hardy, 2014).

Hayley, (14/12/2018), The Sci-Fi & Fantasy Trends of 2018, [online], Goodreads. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/blog/show/1440-the-sci-fi-fantasy-trends-of-2018.

Hughes, T., (2019), 25 Trends in Publishing: Adult Fantasy and Sci-Fi Trend #2 of 25: Adult Fantasy and Sci-Fi, [online], Cycle Young.

Available at: https://cyleyoung.com/2018/08/25-trends-in-publishing-two/.

Ionescu, J., (10/7/2018), Mastering Point-of-View, [online] Julian Ionescu Fantasy & Science fiction writer. Available at: http://www.iulianionescu.com/blog/mastering-point-of-view/.

Jeffries, L., and McIntyre, D., Stylistics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

LeClerc, S., How long should a debut novel be?, [online],  (23/2/2018) , Sherry LeClerc, Available at: http://www.sherryleclerc.com/2018/02/23/how-long-should-a-debut-novel-be/.

Maass, D., Writing the breakout novel, (Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 2001).

Mumford, T., (5/4/2016), ‘We want to hear new voices’: Diversity in sci-fi and fantasy, [online], MPR News. Available at: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/04/05/books-diversity-in-sci-fi-and-fantasy.

National Novel Writing Month, [online]. Available at: https://www.nanowrimo.org/ .

Nostos, [online].  Wikipedia article. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nostos.

Powell, G., Embers of War, (London: Titan Books, 2018).

Price, T., (15/2/2019), 10 must-read diverse sci-fi and fantasy novels, [online], Rakuten kobo. Available at: https://www.kobo.com/blog/10-must-read-diverse-sci-fi-and-fantasy-novels.

Reeve, P., Mortal Engines, (London: Scholastic Ltd, 2001).

Sawyer, A., ‘Space opera’, in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, eds. Bould, M., Butler, A., Roberts, A., and Vint, S., (Oxford: Routledge, 2011).

Sawyer, R. J., (1996), Point of View, [online], Science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer. Available at: https://www.sfwriter.com/ow07.htm.

Sicoe, V., (3/12/2012), Point of View in Science-Fiction, [online], Veronica Sicoe. Available at: https://veronicasicoe.com/2012/12/03/point-of-view-in-science-fiction/.

SilentDan, (forum started 1/3/2013), Tense in Fantasy, [online], SFFWorld. Available at: https://www.sffworld.com/forum/threads/tense-in-fantasy.39813/.

Snyder, B., Save the Cat, (Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2005).

Strasser, D., (9/6/2018), The Top 4 Current Trends in Science Fiction , [online], Dirk Strasser. Available at: http://www.dirkstrasser.com/dirks-blog/current-trends-in-science-fiction#.

Weiland, K. M., Outlining your novel, (Scottsbluff: Penforasword Publishing, 2011).

Weiland, K. M., Structuring your novel, (Scottsbluff: Penforasword Publishing, 2013).

Westfahl, G., ‘Space opera’, in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, eds. James, E., and Mendelsohn, F., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

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