Writing Cli-Fi Without Knowing It 

Guest blog by: Will Gibson, author of Paradigm Time: Two Tales of The Future 

 The year was 2007 and I suddenly found myself with time to write again. I had started a novel years earlier, before the raising of a family had taken precedence, and now I just might be able to finish it. It was about coming of age in the 60s and 70s, and what that had meant on a social and cultural level. I wanted to share the unique experiences of that time with others.  

But now something else had grabbed my attention that seemed much more important to address. And that was climate change. I read as much as I could to become knowledgeable on the subject. And the more I found out, the more convinced I was about the urgency for action. As a parent, I felt the duty to be proactive in passing on a livable world to the next generations.

I thought about writing essays to include in a book (I’m not an essayist). I thought about doing the research on climate change and writing non-fiction (I’m not a scientist). But I had to write something about this thing called climate change. Having written a short story and won some flash-fiction contests, I found out I was a storyteller. The idea for a novel was born.

Facts and figures on climate change can be scary and people turn away. But if one engages them more emotionally in a story, those same ideas can be sneaked in without the objection. I have two novella length stories in one book. In the first, we failed to take action on climate change and life is challenged. In the second, we took action and have created that better world.

It took two years to write the first draft of the novel but I knew editing would be required to produce a quality book. In the beginning, I would print the pages on paper to make edits. Then placed in a binder, I would start on page one and do a complete edit of the 320 pages, marking sections that needed rewriting. I did this three times, going through several reams of paper.

A visit by a cousin produced my first outside ‘editor.’ Expressing an interest in the book, I sent him home with printed pages and after reading a section, he would call and direct me to pages he saw with typos or ambiguous phrases and sentences. It was my first experience with an extra set of eyes a writer requires, seeing what you wrote, not what you think you wrote.

Writing a book is one thing but getting it published is much more difficult and I knew that reality. But I had this great idea of writing a novel about climate change, a fictional piece expressing very real world consequences. Surely, others would see the value of this book and want to take it on. Others must surely be as worried as I was about the coming decades. 

So, before the editing was done and the manuscript was polished, I headed to nearby San Francisco to shop around Paradigm Time: Two Tales of the Future. I had a list of four publishing houses and three agents that I would approach. I wasn’t going to send out countless query letters only to be rejected. And by day’s end, I knew what I would be doing, self-publishing.

The year 2007 also held other meaning for me that would come into focus as I finished the project and released the book. The first was the development of CreateSpace, a print on demand company, requiring only a cover file and an interior file to print a book. CreateSpace produced a single copy for about five dollars. I would order three, giving away two of them.

Using the third, I’d do random edits on the pages while waiting for others to finish reading. When I would hear the same thing from more than one reader (usually something they didn’t like about the book) I would change it, make the edits, and upload a new file. For the next two years, I did this at least a half dozen times producing a new copy to start the process over again.

It was about this time while on one of the instructional self-publishing websites that I saw a post by Dan Bloom, an English teacher and former journalist living in Taiwan, who in 2007 had coined the term Cli-Fi. He felt there was a lack of climate science in the popular consciousness.

Dan Bloom

    In a 2017 interview, he stated, “It doesn’t have to be all dark and depressing in cli-fi novels. I also hope to read and see cli-fi works that portray positive, hopeful ways of coping with what is arguably the most pressing existential threat humankind has ever faced. I am an optimist, myself. I hope cli-fi can help readers…break through to the side of optimism and hope.” *

Having re-written sections more cleanly while incorporating all the edits, I finally released Paradigm Time in 2011. I was proud of having written a novel, had learned much about publishing a professional product, and told everyone who would listen about the importance of taking climate action. For the next year, I gave away books, many more than I would sell.

 But it wasn’t about making money. It was about getting out the message. And I would still hesitate using the term Cli-Fi as it was so unfamiliar to many. I would simply say ‘It’s a novel (implying fiction) about climate change.’ One person I gave a book to became my next editor. After reading it, his professional critique of the book greatly helped me polish my writing.

CreateSpace at the time only had glossy inexpensive covers and yellowish interior paper that was of low quality with light ink. In other words, not a book that could compete with industry quality standards. I also was not happy with the cover design that I had pushed on a friend of mine who was a graphic designer. We had tweaked it quite a few times but it wasn’t working.

So, after a year of being available for sale, I pulled it from publication at the beginning of 2012. I would spend that year and half of 2013 re-writing the entire novel utilizing all the input I had received. I told my friend to do a new cover. I moved the printing of the book to Lightning Source, an Ingram Company with matte covers, quality white paper, and rich black ink.

My Second Edition was copyrighted in 2013. That same year NPR did a segment on Weekend Saturday titled So Hot Right Now: Has Climate Change Created a New Literary Genre? It was to become the first major mention of the term cli-fi for climate fiction. From that show, “…when novelists tackle climate change in their writing, they reach people in a way that scientists can’t.” 

It would be years later when I became aware of this so I continued avoiding the term. I still would say, ‘There are two stories in one book, in the first we failed to take action on climate change and are paying the price. In the second, we came together and in time and have created that better world.’ If writing dystopian fiction, I felt compelled to also present a utopian view.

But at that time no one was listening and I moved on from the book and found other ways to promote action on climate change, on other ways to contribute. I joined the local chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and tabled at college settings, made presentations, and lobbied city council members to Congressional Members to assist in putting a price on carbon emissions.

Having our meetings at the Monterey Bay Aquarium was a huge draw for our group. It was a natural connection to the ecology of the area and to the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary that had been created fifty years earlier for the protection of 275 miles of the California coastline. And now, ordinary citizens were taking action to protect the planet for the next generations.

 In 2007, people weren’t talking about climate change. It wasn’t mentioned on the nightly news or in the newspapers. When I talked to people, they had no interest in it. But now, in 2021, things are very different. Because of the extreme weather events happening, all forms of media are connecting the dots. And we need to define the problem before we can solve it.

 For years I gave away scores of my book, knowing most of them would never be read. But in July, co-workers in their twenties found out I had written a book and asked for copies. And I got feedback from each of them, it felt good. In August, I ran a Goodreads giveaway and had 2300 entries. In September, the local newspaper profiled the book. And now, a guest blog post here.

 All that work was worth it. And if someone asks me what’s the book about, I say it’s Cli-Fi.

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