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Author Shane Wilson On How To Create Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories

An Interview With Ian Benke

Sure! First, a writer who wants to write compelling science-fiction or fantasy must have follow-through. Maybe you think of this as too “basic” to count as sound advice, but nothing can be compelling that doesn’t exist. I’m not the kind of writer that urges “daily writing” or specific word count goals. I understand that there are a million ways to accomplish something. For me, I wait to write a story until I have ample time to fully immerse myself in its telling for hours at a time. Others may not have this luxury. For some, daily pages may work. The important thing is finding the writing habits that make you productive and sticking to them. Make these writing habits your ritual. If you’re serious about telling your story, your process should be sacred. Respect it and follow it accordingly.

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 Shane Wilson.

Shane Wilson is an award-winning writer of contemporary fantasy stories and novels. His short fiction has appeared in The Daily Drunk, Conclave, and Door Is a Jar, among others. His novels are A Year Since the Rain (Snow Leopard Publishing, 2016) and The Smoke in His Eyes (GenZ Publishing, 2018). His third novel, The Woman with a Thousand Faces, is forthcoming from GenZ Publishing (Fall 2022). Learn more at www.shanewilsonauthor.com.

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 grew up in a family of storytellers. My grandfather, especially, was an amazing storyteller. He worked in the oral tradition, though, which is common for a lot of familial storytellers. Additionally, my parents preached the value of stories, and they always urged me to seek out the stories of my elders, emphasizing what I could learn from those who had lived through so much history.

I remember listening to my grandfather’s stories as a child. He seemingly had a story that was relevant to any situation, and there was something enrapturing about how he told those stories. Everything felt so real — so immediate. It felt like I knew the people in his stories, though I never met them. From a very young age, I was aware that what he was doing was a kind of magic.

When my grandfather suffered a terrible stroke, he lost access to many of these stories. In the years following his stroke, he would become frustrated as he struggled to remember details or form his words into the eloquent sentences that once came so easy for him. Through this I saw the weakness of the oral tradition. That weakness is its temporariness. Writing, then, felt more permanent. If stories have such power and so much importance, it seemed worth recording them with an eye toward some kind of preservation, and as a young man with no mastery of an instrument or other tools available to artists in other mediums, I gravitated toward the written word.

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?

I think the three things I would point to that make me a successful author are the same three things that make any artist successful. I am disciplined, stubborn, and curious.

Writers need discipline. So many people have told me about how they want to write a book. In fact, when someone I meet discovers I’ve written and published, they rarely want to know anything about my work. Mostly, they want to talk about the work that they want to do. I think it’s great that so many people want to write books. I believe that everyone has a book in them — everyone. I think the single thing that separates most productive creatives and those people who only ever talk about creating something is the discipline to follow through. Creative work is never easy, but the hardest part is making yourself begin — and stick with — the work.

For those of us who find a way to begin the work, we soon find out that there is a big difference in starting and finishing. I think that most successful artists are probably at least a little stubborn. Talking about being stubborn reminds me of working on my first novel, A Year Since the Rain. That novel was never meant to exist. I didn’t sit down with the intention of writing a book. I thought I was writing a poem. I had been publishing some poetry back then, and this idea seemed to be a good one for that medium. When I started work on this poem, it just wasn’t working for me. It all seemed trite. But something in me wouldn’t give up on this initial thought — this initial spark — and I kept coming back to it. I refused to let it go, and that’s what being stubborn is, right? A refusal to let something go? At any rate, I refused to let this idea go, and eventually, it transformed into this much larger story, and my first novel was born.

Finally, I think all successful creatives — especially those of us who work in speculative genres — must be infinitely curious. Artists are curious about life and what it means to be human. We mine experience for some glimpse into the fabric of our existence. After my first novel was published, I found myself asking questions about creativity and the audacity of creating art with the intention that it would be consumed by others. Why is it that some of us feel compelled to create? Why is that an even smaller number of us feel compelled to share? These curiosities led me to my second novel — a story that explores what drives individual artists to pursue creative work. Writers must possess a natural curiosity. Everything can be a story. We just have to ask the right questions.

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?

I have so many projects in the works. Some of these projects already exist in some tangible way, and some of them are just beginning to take shape. First, I have a third novel set in the same world as the previous novels that is slated to come out in Fall 2022. That novel kicks off something of a trilogy of novels, which is the largest explicitly-connected story I’ve undertaken so far. I’m also playing with a southern gothic horror story, but I can’t say much more about that at this point.

I have designs on a full production of a stage play that I wrote just before the pandemic shut things down. The play, which is called The Boy Who Kissed the Rain, received a staged reading as part of the Independence Theater Reading Series in Fayetteville, NC, but I still want to see it in a full production.

I would also like to revisit songwriting. I released my debut record of narrative-driven songs last year (Of All the Things I’ve Ever Said, I Mean This the Most), and I had a ton of fun putting that together. I can see more music in my future. Otherwise, I have just the earliest of all possible thoughts regarding a fictional radio drama produced as a podcast and a short narrative film.

I’m interested in exploring storytelling across as many mediums as possible, but my home will always be on the page.

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?

I’ve always seen “speculative fiction” as this nearly all-encompassing umbrella term. To me, speculative fiction is marketing short-hand for “magical or otherworldly.” It’s a mega-genre that is home to any story that doesn’t fit into romance, realistic fiction, or nonfiction. Speculative narratives are thought-experiments. They ask the question “what if,” as in “what if this thing that governs the world as we know it was different?” So, it’s obvious that science-fiction and fantasy stories all do that to differing levels, but so do horror, alternative histories, and a slew of other genres.

As for the specific definitions of science-fiction and fantasy, I think they can vary wildly from subgenre to subgenre as well, but I would place most of the definitional emphasis on the sources of the speculative elements in these stories. In science-fiction, the speculative elements are rooted in science. Stories like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Connie Willis’s Crosstalk and subject matter like time travel or intergalactic space travel are examples of speculative fiction with roots in science. Fantasy’s speculative roots are in magic and myth. Stories with an emphasis on magic, which is not always performed with a wand, include Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.”

You’ll also notice here that there is some overlap between these and other genres — like horror or romance. It’s important to remember, I think, that discussions of genre are all really discussions about marketing. Frankenstein is often repackaged as a horror story when it is adapted for the screen, and there is certainly a love story playing out in the pages of Crosstalk. Still, when we are discussing these stories as they appear on the page, they would almost always be considered sci-fi because those science-fiction aspects of the narratives outweigh the presence of horror or romance elements.

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 it could be a number of factors. Your question is worded in a way that I think implies something about the evolution of technology being a contributing factor to the popularity of written sci-fi, and I think you’re probably right. We have seen some of the wildest technological advancements in the last several decades — the Internet, pocket computers, and the prevalence of video calling, to name a few. These technologies feel like they walked out of the pages of classic sci-fi stories. As we see more real tech being predicted by sci-fi narratives, I think it stands to reason that those narratives would grow in popularity.

I would caution against using this as a blanket explanation, though. As we know, correlation does not equal causation, and there is always a myriad of factors at play in the rise in popularity of a genre. I think science-fiction is just more accessible to more people now. This expanded accessibility is fed by a general movement in publishing to include more diverse voices and stories in all genres, and it would make sense that the potential readership of the genre has expanded, which would directly correlate to more readers. Regardless as to what the specific reasons are, all of this is very good news. More readers is always a positive thing for writers.

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

First, I think that consuming stories in any medium is most excellent. There are few feelings that can compare to the silence that falls over a movie theater just before the Star Wars fanfare kicks off the opening scroll. Movies and television can tell some truly compelling stories.

But I do think that there are benefits to reading. To start, reading is a more active way of consuming stories. To read is to take action. It is consumption with purpose. When we read, we are responsible for the creation of the world in our own imagination. We create the characters based on their descriptions. We are immersed. To watch is to be a passive participant. Watching a film is to have all decisions about setting and character made for the viewer. The viewer has no stake in the action. The viewer is a spectator. Not only are readers more fully immersed in the stories they consume, they are also active collaborators with the writer. The two — reader and writer — work together to create the experience. The experience of a reader is limited only by what they can form out of their imagination based on the words of the writer. The experience of the viewer is limited by what is on the screen.

All of that is not to say that books are better than movies. There are movies that make excellent use of that medium’s capabilities. All I’m trying to say is that reading is a more active process than watching. Make of that what you will.

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

When I’m asked this question, I think about the books I read as a child. I’ve been writing for as long as I could hold a pencil or hunt-and-peck keys on a typewriter. In second grade, I wrote a story on lined notebook paper about a scary dog in the neighborhood. I put it in a three-prong folder, drew and colored a cover for it, and still consider it my first experience with publishing. Since I’ve been interested in writing since I was so young, I think the books I read in those formative years probably had a major influence on me, whether I realized it at the time or not.

The single most influential writer to me during my childhood was R.L. Stine. I read Goosebumps constantly. I bought every new book as soon as it was released, and I had it finished by the time my head hit the pillow that night. Stine introduced me to speculative fiction when I was just a kid. I think those books definitely inspired my willingness to explore the speculative sandbox once I grew up and started seriously pursuing writing.

I would also point to the authors I was reading when I first began to develop my style — the writers I was reading when I was first starting to write. I’ve already mentioned Mary Shelley, whose use of the epistolary form (a novel written in letters) influenced how I would frame my first novel. I have great admiration for Virginia Woolf’s use of stream-of-consciousness and her attempts at accurate representation of thought.

The writers that most significantly influenced my style and inspired me to write contemporary fantasy are the authors I read in college who wrote in (and largely invented) the magical realism tradition — Gabriel García Márquez and most notably, Salman Rushdie. I read nearly all of Rushdie’s work in graduate school while I was drafting my thesis about his novels Midnight’s Children and Fury. His ability to merge the real and the fantastical absolutely inspired my work.

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

I think I would ask them how they know whether or not a story idea has potential and how they learned to recognize that. Abandoning a story before you’ve seen it through to the end can be a difficult thing to do. Stories come out of us in a lot of different ways. Sometimes, you begin to write, and the story falls out mostly complete in a way that indicates the initial idea was solid. Sometimes, the writing reveals the idea may not have had as much potential as originally thought. I wonder how writers with tons of titles under their belts know the difference between an idea that feels good in the moment and a legitimately promising idea. As a follow-up, I would probably ask about how to salvage those weaker ideas

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?

Aside from genre concerns, which we have discussed, I hope that my writing strikes a balance between the poetic and the vulgar. I don’t stray from adult language or adult subject matter. I think the job of the artist is to examine all of human experience.

I believe that sometimes the perfect word is the ugliest word, and as a writer, it’s my job to find the perfect word in all cases. I don’t know that I always succeed — I probably don’t — but it’s still my job to try.

I also believe that language can be powerful when ugly language is married to more eloquent language. Maybe it’s an attempt at finding the sublime in the grotesque. I’m not sure where it comes from or why it appeals to me. A poetic turn of phrase can be strangely moving when a reader doesn’t expect it, though.

This is a passage I always come back to from the first chapter of my debut novel. Here, the protagonist is remembering the night he found out his father died of a heart attack. I believe it exemplifies the marriage of the ugly — the death of a loved one and physical manifestations of grief — and the sublime — his father’s favorite chair and his mother’s willingness to hold his father as he passes on, in spite of her own breaking heart.

Two weeks later, my father died. We were asleep when the phone rang. We had fallen asleep to the sound of the rain hitting the window pane over the bed, and when the ringing phone pulled me out of that sleep, I noticed the rain was still falling hard. Still groggy, I picked up the phone. On the other end of the line, my mom — through quiet whimpers — told me that the heart attack had come on quickly. They couldn’t get him anywhere fast enough. He died waiting on the ambulance.

I put the receiver down, and you asked if I was alright. I just asked for a glass of water, and you said sure babe and disappeared into the hallway. When you had gone, I moved to the bathroom, bending over the toilet. In the rippling water, I could see him collapsed in his chair — I hope he got to die in that chair. He was grasping at his arm and his chest and my mother — his eyes, the helpless eyes of a deer in a bear trap, watching the dark window for the reflection of red lights that would never come. I saw him pull my mother down to him in his final moments — his hands shaking, his chest aching. I imagined that they embraced until the end, as they must have known that would be it — the final moments of a forty-year marriage.

I can’t even imagine what I must have looked like when you came back in from the kitchen, holding a glass of tap water. I remember looking down into the toilet, afraid I would vomit, but all I could do was cry. And all I could tell myself is This isn’t what dad would want. Stop crying! I looked up at you standing in the door. You had just put the glass down on the counter. You stepped toward me with a hand out, tentatively. You touched me, and I turned in to you and let you hold me as I kept crying and crying. I was so far away, and he was just so dead. No one ever really knows how they will respond to a parent’s death. Shit. No one knows how they will respond to anything. But I sure as hell didn’t think I would crumble like that — that I would need someone to hold me while I wanted to vomit but could only cry.

A Year Since the Rain (Snow Leopard Press, 2016)

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.

Sure! First, a writer who wants to write compelling science-fiction or fantasy must have follow-through. Maybe you think of this as too “basic” to count as sound advice, but nothing can be compelling that doesn’t exist. I’m not the kind of writer that urges “daily writing” or specific word count goals. I understand that there are a million ways to accomplish something. For me, I wait to write a story until I have ample time to fully immerse myself in its telling for hours at a time. Others may not have this luxury. For some, daily pages may work. The important thing is finding the writing habits that make you productive and sticking to them. Make these writing habits your ritual. If you’re serious about telling your story, your process should be sacred. Respect it and follow it accordingly.

Second, the creation of compelling science-fiction or fantasy depends on a deep understanding of the craft of storytelling. This isn’t a rule just for sci-fi and fantasy writers, of course. This rule applies to anyone who is trying to write. In his seminal text, On Writing, Stephen King says “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” This seems like obvious advice, right? You wouldn’t try to prepare Beef Wellington for an important dinner party without eating a Beef Wellington (probably). You would at the very least read the recipe a number of times, and you would probably even practice the preparation of the cuisine.

Writers should be no different. You want to write well? Then you should read and write. But this reading and writing shouldn’t be for plain pleasure. Writers are forever students of the craft. Every story we consume is consumed with the goal of understanding more clearly the magic trick that sound storytelling executes.

As the first two points here are all advice I would give any writer, in spite of genre, these final three points are more specific to speculative genres.

The third thing writers need to create compelling science fiction or fantasy is a willingness to question everything. We’ve talked about how speculative fiction explores a variety of “what-if” thought-experiments. We’ve also talked about how essential the possession of a curious worldview can be to a writer. I like to think that L. Frank Baum saw a tornado swirling across an open field and asked himself, “What if a tornado could transport people from this world to another?” For the speculative writer, everything that is represents something that could be. What if a car could be evil? What if a young girl was possessed? What if a spider bite could give a person superhuman powers? What if a man slept through the American Revolution? Question everything, and everything can be a source of inspiration.

Fourth, writers striving for compelling sci-fi or fantasy must completely understand the world they are building. World-building is a cornerstone of speculative fiction. Writers must know everything they can possibly know about their fictional worlds before they begin writing. Think about the vast worlds of sci-fi and fantasy. These worlds can contain different forms of intelligent life from what we know on Earth. They can be governed by systems, philosophies, faiths, or institutions that are unlike anything we’ve seen in human history. When George Lucas drafted the screenplay that would become Star Wars, he invented a spiritual energy that he called the Force as well as warring religious sects battling over how that spiritual energy should be used. These sects were the Jedi and the Sith. Lucas had to understand these concepts before he could sculpt Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader into their physical embodiments. None of this is to suggest that the worlds we build and the myths that govern them are fixed and unchanging. As with most things, you have to know the rules before you can break them, and creating a world that supports the evolution of its systems is especially important to stories that you hope will have a long life. No matter how you slice it, a deep understanding of the world your stories inhabit is an absolutely essential aspect of creating compelling speculative fiction.

Finally, compelling sci-fi and fantasy should always remember the humanity of it all. These stories can focus on inhuman characters set in worlds that feel incredibly foreign to our own, but the goal of all good and honest art is to give voice to the abstractions of human experience. What does it mean to fall in love? How does it feel to suffer injustice? How do we grieve or overcome trauma? How do we fall with grace? How do we rise above? Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel about the fall of civilization. This is a speculative story based on a simple “what-if” thought-experiment, and it could have lost sight of the humanity of it all. Station Eleven could have focused too much on how the world fell apart. Instead, it focuses on the survivors of that collapse, how they cling to each other in spite of their differences, and how they turn to art in their darkest moments. It is an exploration of the human will’s tenacity in the face of adversity.

Admittedly, there are stories that are rooted much deeper in fantasy or science-fiction than Station Eleven, but any story — no matter its focus — is an exploration of what it means to be human. Even if the main character is a Hobbit tasked with destroying an all-powerful ring — perhaps especially if the main character is a Hobbit tasked with destroying an all-powerful ring.

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’ve given this question a lot of thought. Even though this is a longshot, and even though this person doesn’t have really anything to do with contemporary fantasy fiction or what we’ve been talking about here, I think I would want to meet Donald Glover. I admire Donald for many reasons. He’s one of the most compelling artists working right now. His series, Atlanta, is a surrealist masterpiece. His music is unapologetically his. He has such a clear vision, and he executes that vision without compromise. I admire that, and I would love to talk to him about that artistic confidence that his work radiates.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Folks can find me on all major social media outlets: @ThatShaneWilson. I’m especially active on Twitter and Instagram. Additionally, my website (www.shanewilsonauthor.com) is the place to find up-to-date information about events and publications as well as keep up with my totally random blog, Virtual Napkins.

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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