Author J Lynn Else On How To Create Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories
An Interview With Ian Benke
Let your World be its own character: Will readers want to visit your world afterwards, or will they be left with vague images of the place they visited? Maybe the world is something frightening that shouldn’t be visited, and do your readers feel that? Leave readers with some emotion about the world they’re walking through.
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 J. Lynn Else.
J. LYNN ELSE is an award-winning author from Minnesota who’s self-published two historical fiction novels set in ancient Egypt, “The Forgotten: Aten’s Last Queen (2013),” which was named an Indie Editor’s Choice book for 2016 by the Historical Novel Society, and “The Forgotten: Heir of the Heretic (2016)” as well as a sci fi novella “Strangely Constructed Souls (2018).” Through Inklings Publishing, she’s authored an Arthurian-influenced, female-driven fantasy trilogy called ‘The Awakening’ series: “Descendants of Avalon” (2018), “Lost Daughters of Avalon” (2019), and “Prophecy of Avalon” (2021).” Her short story “The Girl from the Haunted Woods,” won 2nd place in the “Journey into the Fantastical” Anthology contest. In 2021, she became the Indie Reviews Editor for the Historical Novel Society. She believes in unicorns and practicing random acts of awesome.
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?
Growing up in the 80s and 90s, while a big fan of sci fi and fantasy, there weren’t a lot of female characters to identify with. The females typically lacked depth, didn’t have a lot of agency, or simply were there as a romantic interest. As I started developing my fantasy trilogy, I wanted to create a cast of female characters who were all different. They made jokes, made mistakes, got angry, got frustrated, weren’t always the ‘bookish smart’ one. I wrote because I wanted greater depth of characters for young girls reading these genres so that they could picture themselves in these worlds without having to be ultrasmart or beautiful or aggressively assertive. The tipping point was while I was watching a movie in which the two male characters were having all the magical fun; meanwhile, the females were the ones turning them in and getting the males into trouble. It was like something snapped inside me: The time had come to get the first book of the series out there and let the girls take the reins and have the magical fun.
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?
Curiosity. I’ve always loved the idea that out in space, there are endless possibilities. A little closer to home, as a young child, my family lived in a rural community. Our home was in the middle of a wooded area. I loved looking into the forest and imaging what might lie in its depths. It’s the reason the books of ‘The Awakenings’ series opens up in small-town Northern Minnesota. That sense of curiosity and wild beauty has stayed with me. It cast a spell on me long ago.
I was also curious to learn more about people from antiquity. After attending an exhibit about King Tut, I wanted to discover more about the life of his wife who disappeared from history shortly after Tutankhamun’s death. Its what lead me to write and self-publish my first novel.
Perseverance. Writing ebbs and flows. You have to hold yourself accountable, or find a writing buddy who will! It also takes perseverance when looking for an agent or a publisher. There are going to be rejections after rejections until you find that perfect fit. Writing communities are great guides to help new writers along. I have a wonderful local community of writers who have supported my journey. When I was writing my first book, a friend was reading my chapters as they were being completed to make sure things sounded grammatically correct or spell check. She kept asking me, ‘When can I get the next one? What happens next? Hurry up!’ My writing was keeping her interested, which was a big motivator to keep going. Additionally, big thanks to another friend and fellow writer, Meg Hafdahl, who introduced me to my current publisher, Inklings Publishing. They were just what I needed to develop and publish my Arthurian-inspired fantasy trilogy.
Enthusiasm. I enjoy books, but not just reading books. I love talking books and book genres and book characters and the emotions wrapped in all of the above. Going to book shows and selling my own books are dreams come true. Its like finding “my people.” I’ve met some incredible authors and readers at book shows. You can usually find me at my booth waving or busting out in to random song and dance because my joy, or as one writer friend put it “my glee,” fills the space around me.
This also holds true with writing. When I’ve got a new idea or plot twist, I have to get up and start writing. One way I write is through what’s called “free writing.” It’s basically shutting off all the questions or comments in your brain and just letting your writing juices flow. My excitement for the story helps carry me through pages of non-stop prose. Once I get that raw, unfiltered scene or two down, then I can build and refine afterwards. When you love what you’re writing, moments like this motivate me to keep going (…and we circle back to perseverance!).
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?
My upcoming project is a children’s book about a young elephant girl who joins a ballet class but is a different shape than all the other dancers. It’s written from my observations growing up as a dancer. I remember some of the tight-fitting costumes I had to wear that made me uncomfortable, and I was very thin growing up. I wanted to create a story that illustrates how dance should not be one size fits all. What perfect way to illustrate that than by using different animals as the characters?
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?
When I think sci-fi, my mind instantly goes to Star Trek: The Next Generation (Sorry, original Trek. Those short skirts really turned me off for a long time). I think of sci-fi as being very grounded in science. However, just because something is set in space, doesn’t mean it can’t also be fantasy. The lines between magic and science tend to blur based on society and certain points of view. To have Captain Picard beam down to King Arthur’s time would appear to Merlin like a god magically conjured before him. Capt. Picard would, of course, think differently as this is basic technology for travel. Thus, when I think of fantasy, I think dragons, wands, transfiguration, druids, and a basis in earthy elements. To me, magic is drawn from connection to things like our world or those around us. And sure, the Force in Star Wars has been attempted to be described scientifically (midi-chlorians, whatever!), but it still feels like magic in my mind.
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?
We’ve seen things in movies or TV shows about the future become reality. Imagining what technology might be able to do in 5 years, 10 years, or 50 years (etc.) is exciting. Its drives us to learn more and find answers to questions. Sci-fi can also serve as a warning: what too much power or too much tech can do. Did Terminator or Battlestar Galactica pop into your head just now?
Conversely, I’ve found myself more drawn to fantasy as I’ve gotten older. Maybe its because I’m surrounded by computers and TVs and phones all day. My favorite moments are those laying in a hammock and reading a book and letting reality disappear.
In your opinion, what are the benefits to reading sci-fi, and how do they compare to watching sci-fi on film and television?
I’ve always been one of those “the books are better” movie goers. I like picturing how the pieces fit on my own. Who doesn’t enjoy when the clues finally come together in a mystery novel and you figure out the murder before its revealed? Its harder to do that with movies as your brain is typically in rest mode while your eyes absorb the spectacle. I don’t mean to sound overly cynical. I love watching Star Wars or the MCU or Star Trek. Its when we pass into cinema taken from well-loved books that my disconnect happens. From simply watching the trailer of “A Wrinkle in Time,” I knew it was going to be nothing like the book. “A Wrinkle in Time” wasn’t about being a warrior, it was about Meg letting her love for her family guide them home.
What authors and artists, dead or alive, inspired you to write?
Katherine Hepburn was such a trailblazer for women. While I’ve always enjoyed storytelling, my focus started in theater. I wanted roles where women weren’t just love interests or ditzy side characters. Writing lets me create those characters. So while I wouldn’t say she influenced me to write, she did influence me in how I wanted to define myself.
I seriously started writing when I joined a Star Trek writing club. I found the ad at a Star Trek convention, and each month we would write a story about a character we created on a made-up ship somewhere in Star Trek: TNG land. I had many pen pals and loved creating adventures for myself…ahem, I mean for my totally fictional character.
After college and starting my own family, the writing bug slowly began to find its way into my heart again. My dad is a big influence on that. He writes freelance and works on other side stories. He recently put together a book for my kids about a year of “Grandpa Daycare” and their experiences together. My dad is good at writing with heart. I hope my heart is also reflected in my writing.
If you could ask your favourite Science Fiction and Fantasy author a question, what would it be?
Where do you find the most inspiration for your characters? Is it an ideal person you’d love to meet? A person in your life? A combination of different voices?
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?
“Don’t forget — no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell.” Charles de Lint
I firmly believe that we all have a unique voice and perspective. What’s important to me in my story may not be someone else’s focus if they were writing the same book. Embracing what makes your own voice special is something I like to share with other aspiring writers. I’m a huge nerd, so inevitably, one of my characters is going to be nerdy like me. I’m going to embrace that aspect of myself and let it shine within my writing. I’m a very character-driven writer, and I put a piece of my heart into each character I create. Instead of outlining my entire plot lines, often I let my characters take the lead and make the choices.
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.
- Let your World be its own character: Will readers want to visit your world afterwards, or will they be left with vague images of the place they visited? Maybe the world is something frightening that shouldn’t be visited, and do your readers feel that? Leave readers with some emotion about the world they’re walking through.
- Character Flaws: Don’t create perfect characters. It’s hard for readers to relate if your characters are all cut from the Superman cloth. Let your characters rise above their own fears or weaknesses to find success. It’s what makes the journey compelling and relatable.
- Character relationships: Is there a Robin to your Batman? Do they get along well, or are they enemies united towards a common goal? Is your main character awkward in any and all social situations? Does this help or hinder relationships? Creating intriguing side characters will help enrich your world and your main character’s place in that world.
- Libraries: I believe incredible worlds also have incredible libraries or other type of source of information in which knowledge is kept (and/or hidden). Create a sacred space that readers will want to burrow into and explore.
- Costs of Magic/Tech: Magic or technology should require skill and/or enact a cost on the user. If everything is easy for your characters, the plot becomes predictable. Characters should make choices that will cost them something. Let your characters solve the problem, not the device or spell.
I also go over this list and some books which highlight each point in my YouTube video located here: https://youtu.be/AMU02mcpxcc
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 :-)
Sir Patrick Stewart! He’s Jean-Luc Picard, he’s Professor X, he’s like a living master class of Shakespearean roles and sonnet reading. Of all the Star Trek conventions I’ve attended in my life, I’ve always wanted to see him and hear his stories.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I try to keep busy on social media. Here are a few places I can be found:
Facebook at www.facebook.com/teasippinnerdymom
Amazon link: www.amazon.com/author/jlynnelse
Thank you for these excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent. We wish you continued success.