Author Alan Smale On How To Create Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories

An Interview With Ian Benke

Ian Benke
Authority Magazine

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I hit three earlier on which I believe are true for all literature — persistence, attention to detail, and an ear for language, so I’ll stick with those. For the remaining two, I’ll make them specific to SF&F and go with: Originality — the ability to think outside the box, and come up with new ideas (or at least new ways of exploring established ideas), and not take the obvious answer, and Heart — keeping your story about your characters, and not getting so carried away with the worldbuilding that you lose sight of the people living in that world.

Science Fiction and Fantasy are hugely popular genres. What does it take for a writer today, to write compelling and successful Science Fiction and Fantasy stories? Authority Magazine started a new series called “How To Write Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories”. In this series we are talking to anyone who is a Science Fiction or Fantasy author, or an authority or expert on how to write compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alan Smale.

Alan Smale writes alternate history, historical fantasy, and hard science fiction. His novella of a Roman invasion of ancient America, “A Clash of Eagles”, won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and his novels set in the same universe, Clash of Eagles (2015), Eagle in Exile (2016), and Eagle and Empire (2017) are available from Del Rey. Alan has also sold around fifty pieces of shorter fiction to Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and numerous other magazines and original anthologies, and his non-fiction science pieces have appeared in Lightspeed, Journey Planet, and (soon) Galaxy’s Edge. Hot Moon, his alternate-Apollo thriller set entirely on and around the Moon, will be launched by CAEZIK SF & Fantasy in mid-2022.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share a story about what first drew you to writing over other forms of storytelling?

I can’t remember a time of my life when I wasn’t writing. I was always fascinated by stories, and by creating my own. My dad used to make up tales to tell me at bedtime when I was very young, which I think helped to solidify my conviction that inventing stories was, in fact, a normal human occupation (which it is!). My own earliest efforts were far less proficient and hugely derivative: terrible Tarzan pastiches starring my heroes Val, Su, and Chay (otherwise known as the Mountain Children), plus what would now be thought of as Star Trek fan fiction. It felt odd to me that my friends didn’t do this too.

You are a successful author. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Persistence. Attention to detail. An ear for language.

Let’s start with the middle one. If you look at the first page of a book that you love, you’ll likely see a lot of very vivid and specific detail that pulls you into the story from the beginning. You can already picture the scene, you’ve already entered that world, and you care about it. If the book begins with generic characters in generic settings, why would you care to turn the page?

Another interpretation of intention to detail: when editing and proofreading your own work, it’s critical to get your manuscript as “clean” as possible. Be super detail-oriented. Check everything. Leave less for your editors to do. They’ll thank you.

Persistence is key. It’s clear that when I started writing I was terrible. (I mean, “The Mountain Children”? They weren’t even on a mountain. They were in a jungle.) I persisted, and got better. And when you’re submitting work to publishers, you can’t afford to get disillusioned by rejection. Writing for publication involves a lot of rejection. I needed to get used to that. I feel like maybe everyone does?

Some of my short stories eventually sold after being rejected a dozen or more times. You have to persist, have faith in yourself, and keep sending stuff out. Often the work itself isn’t bad, it’s just not a good fit to what the editor is looking for right now. Maybe the next editor will have different taste.

Also: even when you’re being regularly published … you’re still getting rejections. My Clash of Eagles series of books sold really well and got good critical attention, but my next book didn’t get picked up by anyone. It was the book after that, Hot Moon, that has taken off again, if you’ll pardon the inevitable pun. (Maybe I should have included ‘patience’ as one of the important character traits, because authors certainly need that while waiting to hear back from publishers …)

And lastly, without an ear for language, without knowing how different people speak and why, and being able to use that knowledge to write effective dialog, you won’t be able to write a compelling scene that draws the reader in.

Can you tell us a bit about the interesting or exciting projects you are working on or wish to create? What are your goals for these projects?

Sure! I’d be happy to. Especially as my latest book, Hot Moon, was my labor of love. I was always fascinated by the Apollo Moon landings. They shaped my very early childhood, and my life. In my day job I now work for NASA, which was always my dream. When I was a kid I assumed that “working for NASA” meant I’d be living in space by the age I am now. But in fact I’m a research scientist in astrophysics, and a science enabler. I’m still on Planet Earth, unfortunately … but it’s a pretty cool job.

Okay, back to Hot Moon. It’s set on and near the Moon, in an alternate 1979 where the Apollo Program continued, and the Soviet human space program also kept going. And now the Cold War is heating up, with entirely retro space hardware. I get to show the very first battle in space, with clunky Apollo and Soyuz craft. And then … well, then we get to the lunar surface, where things go from bad to worse. I really enjoyed getting the technical details right, and having all the action consistent with the laws of physics (which does make some of the orbital maneuvering hard, and seriously constrains the options open to my characters), while still keeping up the pacing, characterization, and sense of excitement.

I poured everything into this book. I’d already been published at novel length with my Ancient-Romans-in-America books, the Clash of Eagles series, and I knew right from the start of that series that it would be a three-book arc. I intended Hot Moon to be a standalone, and was quite sad when I finished writing it and “knew” I’d never get to play in that world any more. But my publisher (CAEZIK SF & Fantasy) is so confident in it that I’m now contracted for a second book! And the thing that surprised me when I went back through my Hot Moon notes and materials was how many hooks I’d left in there — not loose ends, but interesting ideas and technologies I hadn’t used, characters I could do more with, story potential I hadn’t yet tapped, and so on. I’m now part-way into writing the sequel, Radiant Sky, and having a blast with it.

Wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define sci-fi or fantasy? How is it different from speculative fiction?

To me, it’s all speculative fiction: hard SF science fiction, epic fantasy, even horror. Urban fantasy, magical realism … it’s all good, it all counts as speculative fiction. Going deeper, I might wave my hands and say that science fiction involves stories set around possible technologies, following the rules of physics and biology and all the other sciences, and fantasy is more about magical or non-technological worlds, but … honestly, the boundary between the two is so broad that it’s a hard discussion to have. Some of my favorite books mix aspects of both.

It seems that despite countless changes in media and communication technologies, novels and written fiction always survive, and as the rate of change increases with technology, written sci-fi becomes more popular. Why do you think that is?

I think that as people grow ever-more aware of the technology around them, that weaves through their lives and supports them, they spend more time thinking about it, wanting to know more about it, and wondering how technology might change in the future. And written SF can often dive much more deeply into the moral, philosophical, and thoughtful elements than other forms of SF.

In your opinion, what are the benefits to reading sci-fi, and how do they compare to watching sci-fi on film and television?

When you read, you consume the art at your own pace. You can linger where you want to, hurry on when you need to, reread parts you want to enjoy or study more deeply. Plus, when you’re reading, the story is unfolding in your own head. You’re actively collaborating in setting the scene and imagining all the details. If it’s a good book, it can be a much more immersive experience than being pulled along by the hand and told what to see and feel, which is often how I feel when watching science fiction on a screen.

What authors and artists, dead or alive, inspired you to write?

Just keeping this to the people I read in my younger years: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov. Ursula le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien. C.S. Lewis, Larry Niven, Ian Fleming, Mary Renault, Rosemary Sutcliffe, John Creasey, Len Deighton, Mary Shelley, Anthony Trollope, the Brontë sisters … I’m sure I’m missing quite a few. My list of favorites and influences would be very different today, much longer, and much harder to assemble.

If you could ask your favourite Science Fiction and Fantasy author a question, what would it be?

Wow. That one’s hard, especially as I’ve got to meet quite a few of my favorite writers at conventions, and been lucky enough to get the chance to ask them quite a few questions in person. (Established writers are often really generous with their time and advice, when talking to other writers who are still on their way up.)

So I’m going to cheat and choose a writer who passed away long time ago. I’d like to ask Emily Brontë about Heathcliff, why and how she chose to bring such a strange character into the world, and where she found the inspiration for him. (I grew up in Yorkshire very close to Brontë country, and I’ve always found the sisters fascinating, so the chance to ask one of the Brontës anything would be great — by whatever science fictional or fantastical means might be necessary.)

We’d like to learn more about your writing. How would you describe yourself as an author? Can you please share a specific passage that you think exemplifies your style?

This is another hard one, because I actually have several styles, based on the type of work and what I’m trying to convey. One thing that does seem to be characteristic of me is quick-fire, snarky dialog between proficient people working together to figure something out, or to achieve a goal. Also, I’m really proud of some of the complexity and realism of some of my battle scenes in the Clash series. But let’s go with this (lightly abridged) early scene from Hot Moon, where the commander of Apollo 32 finds herself caught up in a completely unexpected Soviet military attack:

Space suited, untethered, and in free fall, Vivian Carter struggled to focus her thoughts and make sense of the scene before her. Woozy from pain and shock, she heard no voices in her headset, nothing but the seething white-noise hiss of jammed S-band communications.

This can’t be right.

It was that empty hiss that freaked her out the most. She was alone in the void, between spacecraft, and as isolated as she had ever been. Comms were critical, and Vivian had none.

She’d been out of it for long, precious moments. Ever since the Soviet cosmonaut’s bullets smashed into her shoulder and raked her helmet and sent her tumbling slowly in space, sixty miles above the mares and uplands, the basins and craters of the Moon. Since the impact trauma, she’d been suspended in a stunned reverie.

C’mon, Viv. Snap out of it. Work to do.

An assault rifle in space? No reason why it couldn’t fire in a vacuum — ammunition had its own oxidizer — but dissipating the heat was another matter. Hopefully the weapon would jam before the cosmonaut could fire again.

Vivian blinked hard to shake away the drops of sweat that wouldn’t fall from her eyelashes in zero G. Glanced down at the compressed-air gun she was still clutching in her gloved hand and not using. Squinted at the pressure gauge on her wrist. Low, but steady. Her suit was probably compromised at the shoulder. But the holes must be small …

If she could get back to her ship soon, she should be all right.

Okay, fine. I’ve got this.

Maybe.

There was no time for self-doubt. A hundred yards ahead of her was the Apollo stack Vivian had seen in her dreams for a decade. A Command and Service Module mated with a Lunar Module, in glorious orbit around the Moon.

A similar distance behind her, Columbia Station was a patchwork beetle, a blocky cylinder with an X of solar panels resting on its shoulders. It was a converted Saturn V third stage, flown from the Earth to the Mon and decked out as a Skylab. Vivian had just come from there, having escaped through the airlock of the third port in some weird slow-motion version of the nick of time.

And then there were the three Soyuz interceptors and the unscrewed Progress cargo tanker, stalking over and around Columbia Station in a careful ballet. Sinister predators from the USSR, come to assault the US orbiting platform.

Vivian was about to concentrate her thoughts back onto her trajectory and use the gas gun to correct her course to the Apollo stack, when she caught a motion from a rotating Soyuz. The cosmonaut who had just minutes ago shot bullets at her — with what? An AK-47? — had reappeared in the hatchway. He was easy to spot in his orange-tinged Orlan spacesuit, and even easier because he was lugging a tube that must be six feet long.

A tube he was now settling into a suit attachment on his shoulder, and aiming in her direction.

A rocket launcher? You have got to be kidding me.

The Ocean of Storms, unrolling beneath her, might be the last thing Vivian ever saw.

Based on your own experience and success, what are the “Five Things You Need To Write Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories?” If you can, please share a story or example for each.

I hit three earlier on which I believe are true for all literature — persistence, attention to detail, and an ear for language, so I’ll stick with those. For the remaining two, I’ll make them specific to SF&F and go with: Originality — the ability to think outside the box, and come up with new ideas (or at least new ways of exploring established ideas), and not take the obvious answer, and Heart — keeping your story about your characters, and not getting so carried away with the worldbuilding that you lose sight of the people living in that world.

On the “originality” front: back when I was first trying to get published, we still sent stories to magazines and anthologies by papermail, and enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope for return of the manuscript, if the story was rejected. So, a fat envelope always meant a rejection, but a thin envelope meant you’d made the sale, because they were keeping the manuscript and sending you a contract to sign. I got a lot of fat envelopes, back then, but one day a rejection envelope arrived in my mailbox with handwriting all over the back.

What had happened was that the editor (Michael Stearns, who was assembling a fantasy anthology for Harcourt Brace called A Wizard’s Dozen) had read my story, been captivated by the idea but found the ending unsatisfying and unoriginal. He rejected the story, but apparently couldn’t stop thinking about it. So he fished the sealed envelope back out of the pile and wrote a short essay on the back of it telling me where I’d gone wrong and offering me the opportunity to try to fix it. Which I did, and the revised version was my first professional fiction sale! I was grateful, both for the sale and for the editorial advice, which I still think about when crafting story endings. It was a good lesson to me, that I needed an original idea and good characterization and a satisfying ending, and generally two out of three just doesn’t cut it.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Entertainment, Business, VC funding, and Sports read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)

Perhaps a little self-serving, but I’d choose James Cameron. I’ve enjoyed many of his movies, especially The Abyss and Avatar. For Avatar I’d like to chat about his extensive and detailed worldbuilding for the planet Pandora, and the culture of the Na’vi … and I’d also like the opportunity to pitch some of my books to him for movies, or even ask about the possibility of writing Avatar tie-in novels.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can find me at my Web https://www.alansmale.com. I’m also on Twitter as @alansmale, and on Facebook as https://www.facebook.com/alan.smale/, and of course I have an author page on Amazon as well.

Thank you for these excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent. We wish you continued success.

About The Interviewer: Ian Benke is a multi-talented artist with a passion for written storytelling and static visual art — anything that can be printed on a page. Inspired by Mega Man, John Steinbeck, and commercials, I.B.’s science fiction writing and art explore the growing bond between technology and culture, imagining where it will lead and the people it will shape. He is the author of Future Fables and Strange Stories, the upcoming It’s Dangerous to Go Alone trilogy, and contributes to Pulp Kings. The CEO and Co-Founder of Stray Books, and an origami enthusiast, Ian is an advocate of independent, collaborative, and Canadian art. https://ibwordsandart.ca

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Ian Benke
Authority Magazine

Writer, artist, origami enthusiast, and CEO and Co-Founder of Stray Books