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Author Jen Finelli On How To Write Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories

An Interview With Ian Benke

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 Jen Finelli.

Jen Finelli is a world-traveling scifi author who’s ridden a motorcycle in a monsoon, swum with sharks, crawled under barbed wire in the mud, and hiked everywhere from hidden coral deserts and island mountains to steaming underground urban tunnels littered with poetry. She was once locked inside a German nunnery, and recently had to find her way through swamp-filled Korean foothills dotted with graveyards on Friday the 13th under a full moon without a flashlight. On her quest to rescue stories often swallowed by the shadows, she’s delivered babies, cradled the dying, and interviewed everyone from prostitutes to Senators. If you want cancer-fighting zombie fiction, dinosaur picture books, scientists jumping into volcanoes, or talking cars and peyote legislation, you might like Jen. You’re welcome to download some of her stories for free at byjenfinelli.com/you-want-heroes-and-fairies, or join her quest to build a clinic for the needy at patreon.com/becominghero. Jen’s a practicing MD, FAWM candidate, and sexual assault medical forensic examiner — but when she grows up, she wants to be a superhero.

Her space opera, NEODYMIUM EXODUS, was positively reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly and the American Library Association — both difficult achievements. A blend of hard biomedical science fiction with multicultural fantasy, Neodymium Exodus combines the introspection of classics like Perelandra with the vibrant boldness of modern best-sellers like This Alien Shore and Space Opera. In the book, Lem’s a mace-wielding teen space-ninja in a universe of sentient insectoids, purple jungles, and insane electromagnetic fields. She solves most problems by hitting harder, and never plays by her enemy’s rules — until she’s captured by a violent zealot bent on curing her from her way of life. She’s given a choice between the lives of those she loves — and the fate of a Universe no one else even knows exists.

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?

Well, Ian, I was the kid who read the dictionary, and half the encyclopedia, before I was about 12. Reading and writing were what I knew, you know? I didn’t have access to other forms of storytelling, and I loved, as one of my readers put it, starting at ink on a page and hallucinating vividly. I had to be a part of that.

And you know, as a kid, there were always things I wanted to change in the stories I read or saw. I wanted to be able to help this or that character, or tell this or that character it would be okay, and so I started making stories of my own where I could do that. I guess it translates into the reason I became a physician, too: I saw things that saddened me, and I wanted to be able to help and fix them.

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 is everything. NEODYMIUM EXODUS, in its various forms, was rejected over a hundred times over fifteen years before landing with Wordfire Press. You have to believe in what you’re doing.

But you also have to be willing to change what you’re doing if it’s not working. You can’t get up in your feelings if someone tells you, “hey, I don’t understand or like this character.” That’s on you to figure out, and it takes a lot of time and practice to understand when a reader’s just got some personal preference, and when you’re just not communicating well as a writer. The vast majority of writers — especially unsuccessful writers — struggle with taking feedback, and are more likely to say “no” to critique than yes. Getting on critters.org was lifesaving. I got a lot of practice seeing what was and wasn’t working in other people’s work, and it helped me fix mine. It also helped me meet my mentor, the hilarious and very tough James Beamon. He was a director of the SFWA, and an editor of major Sci-Fi publications like the Escapepod, and I was lucky enough to meet him before he even went pro. He would leave me these insultingly hilarious bits of feedback that just absolutely had me laughing and crying at the same time, but they were so so so true. He is great because we wildly disagree on everything in the world, so if he reads something, and says it’s good writing, I know I got my point across. If he reads something and it doesn’t make sense, he will point it out very quickly, and no one is going to be harder on me than he will. So I now have the experience where I can say, “hey, this is his personal belief and preference, and it’s a theme or character that I believe in, so I’m going to set aside his feedback here,” or where I can say, “he literally doesn’t know what’s going on because I have failed to communicate it, so I’m going to fix this now.” You must must must be willing to see when you have failed as a writer to get your point across, and that’s really the bottom line on critique. Are they mad because you said something they disagreed with, or are they frustrated because what you’re saying literally doesn’t make sense because of your poor diction, syntax, plot organization, whatever? This one skill makes or breaks creatives.

Finally, I’m willing to put in the work. I have written well over a million words in my field, most of which had to be thrown away. NEODYMIUM EXODUS was over 500,000 words in its first draft. It was torn down to 250,000. Then, I threw the entire manuscript away and rewrote 100,000 more words just from memory. Then I literally rewrote that — I had the manuscript open in one window, and a blank word doc open in anther window, and I rewrote the entire thing. Not just once — multiple times. And every single version had multiple revisions, so you’re looking at over eight recreations of the same work. I strongly urge writers to ask themselves: are you avoiding that critique because it really doesn’t agree with your vision for the work, or are you avoiding that critique because fixing the issue would be too much work? There’s a point at which things have to just get out there, of course, and where perfection becomes the enemy of progress; I’m not going to go back and fix the errors that bother me about BECOMING HERO, for example, now that it’s been out for a few years. Even with that book, though, I do strongly consider a re-release, often.

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?

Well, right now I’m working on the third book in the NEODYMIUM series. The second book, NEODYMIUM BETRAYAL, is coming out

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?

Speculative fiction is the broader category; science fiction focuses on explaining what fantasy just accepts. For example, in Dungeons and Dragons I could say, “my character puts a hex on your character, giving your character necrotic damage,” or I could say, “my character has learned how to accelerate biological bacterial decay, and sprays you with a solution that hyperactivates the bacteria living on your skin, so that they digest your flesh.” Both are describing the same phenomenon, but the first one is fantasy, and the second is science fiction.

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?

People need a quiet place to let their brains just focus on one form of stimulation. Film doesn’t allow you that almost hallucinatory, meditative experience.

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

Nice and quiet. There are plenty of studies out there on the benefits of reading for the frontal cortex, as well as impact on the sensory cortex, if you look. I actually wrote a little bit about those studies, and the way in which fiction becomes “real” to us as we read, in BECOMING HERO. It’s a novel about a comic book character out to kill his author, but in the middle of it we break into this little scientific reverie about reality, neuroscience, and how your brain interprets fiction. There’s a great New York Times article called “Your Brain On Fiction” that’s worth reading.

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

C.S. Lewis is a big one. My buddy James Beamon is an amazing short story writer, and has done so much for me. I’m really fortunate in that the author of my favorite StarWars book, Jedi Search, is actually my publisher. Kevin J. Anderson was really kind to take a chance on a writer like me, and I’m forever grateful.

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

Well, given that I can ask the last two authors on my list a question whenever I want, I guess I’m a really lucky lady! But I think if I were to ask C.S. Lewis a question, I would ask him what the water in heaven tastes like.

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?

Here’s the beginning of NEODYMIUM EXODUS:

Every one in the ice cream parlor froze when Lem Benzaran grinned.

Everyone except the meat-man: the literal lizard in a suit, consummate businessman who dealt in favors and pounds of flesh — he didn’t notice. His ruby-scaled claw left a streak of something like sweat on the plastic parlor table as he leaned over and cooed at Lem’s little sister. Lem stirred the dregs of her milkshake, her eyes never leaving her glass: in its reflection she watched the string of drool drip down onto the monster’s business suit. Lem was listening … listening to his heavy breathing.

“She ain’t for sale, Skins,” Lem said. She said it for everyone in the ice cream parlor to hear. She wasn’t a big fan of warnings herself, but the people who ran her life required them.

The businessman’s green hair puffed in offense; his slit eyes gleamed in the sunlight filtering through the wide storefront windows. “Mind yourself, witch,” he sneered.

Witch, huh? Lucky for him he didn’t call her crazy.

A loud slurp silenced the whole parlor as Lem finished off her shake, savoring the cool sweet cream on her bitter tongue.

Four seconds later Lem had chopped down the businessman like an overgrown holly bush. No one interrupted. No one helped, either. The space-lemur policeman in the corner stared at the phone in his paws, ears perked as he pretended not to see; the Wonderfrog server behind the counter tapped his bulging fingertips on his skull as if truly worried about dessert.

Lem tightened her grip on the meat-man’s wrist, spitting through her teeth as she ground his face harder into the plastic table. “Whatever I am, everyone in here knows you’re selling little girls to the grays, and one day I’ll prove it and get Officer Scritch there off his duff for a change.” Her voice dropped to a husky whisper. “But the day you talk to my sister again? Officer Scritch won’t be lookin’ for you. Won’t be a you to find.”

Meat-man grunted. He got it. A’ight. Lem straightened, wiping her brow on the sleeve of her rough brown civvies. She yanked the guy to his feet. He wheezed hard — she whacked him on the back. “Go, get outta here. See a healer about that asthma.”

The ruby-scaled businessman stumbled between the cafe tables and out the wooden door, huffing and crying. Lem smirked after him — man, if only all problems could get solved like this. If they’d just let her off her leash, she’d turn the entire town upside down.

Lem’s wristband lit up with an incoming message; she groaned. See, this, this was exactly the problem! I didn’t violate any treaties this time, man, just roughed him up a little. How’d Captain Rana catch her so fast anyway?

“When rules matter more than people,” Lem grumbled. She waved at her little sister: “Hey, Juju. We gotta go.”

Juju slid out from the booth, eyes wide in her mahogany face as she licked the purple lechichi fruit topping her frothy cream-shake. Her hair, strangely blondish for its tight, kinked texture, stuck out like a halo as she trotted head down, mouth shut and eyes open while Lem guided her, hand on this warm, bony little shoulder, out of the cool shadows of the parlor into the tropical heat of the LunaGuetala sun. Good little girl. Pretty little girl — exactly what the meat-markets wanted alive and the grays wanted dead.

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.

This interview is getting a little long, so I’ll do you one better and link you to the video I made on this for you! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1hty1i4-eo

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 :-)

I’m actually really happy to just meet with my readers and viewers. There isn’t really a star that I worship — I have been so fortunate in the people I have met all over the world. Honestly I think that’s the main issue with meeting famous people: everyone kind of just wants to get something from them, so the whole interaction is kind of bad to begin with. I kind of prefer to meet people that I can help in some way, you know?

That said, it would be cool to meet members of BTS and find out if they like scifi. I would love to chat about mental health, and mental health in media, and discuss supporting creators struggling with mental wellness. Creatively, I would LOVE to talk to Jennifer Lee, because I think she’s one of the coolest screenwriters out there with the most nuanced, heartfelt takes on social issues. Picking the brain of someone like her would be the biggest honor.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’m at byjenfinelli.com, and actually I have a special email list where I send out free Sci-Fi each week. People can get a free short story here: byjenfinelli.com/you-want-heroes-and-fairies

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

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Ian Benke

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