Author Steve Bellinger On How To Create Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories
Have fun! You’re writing to entertain. Perhaps the reader will learn something along the way, but remember they bought your story to enjoy it. Don’t get bogged down with a lot of technical mumbo jumbo. I’ve nearly fallen asleep reading pages upon pages of minutiae where the writer is trying to build their world or set up their characters in one big “data dump.” In my novel Edge Of Perception — A Paranormal Science Fiction Love Story, there is a lot of science and technology involved in the attempt to communicate with ghosts. But the characters’ reaction to finally encountering spirits is what makes the story. Creepy, humorous, scary, or heartbreaking; these scenes were the most fun to write and are the ones that readers react to and remember. My favorite review is one where a reader admits to crying at the end. This is the kind of reaction that all authors dream of!
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 Steve Bellinger.
Steve was born and raised on the West Side of Chicago by a single mom who worked nights for a printing company. She would bring home books and magazines to encourage him and his siblings to read. This is how he discovered Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and the other masters of classic science fiction. It didn’t take long for him to get the itch to write. Over the years Steve has written newspaper articles, comic strips, radio drama short stories, fan fiction, and screenplays.
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?
As a youngster, I loved to read. This was something that my siblings and I learned from our mom, who was a voracious reader. A marvelous side benefit of her job with a major printing company was that she could bring home books, magazines, and mail-order catalogs from Sears and Montgomery Ward. We always had something interesting to read.
After reading my first sci-fi novel, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, I longed to write stories like that. In high school, I wrote my own Sci-fi and spy “novels’ filling spiral ring notebooks with handwritten chapters. I’d put them aside and read them weeks later. They were never seen by anyone else.
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?
- Drive. When I was young I would write like crazy. Hand-made comic books, short stories, poems, and “novels” in notebooks. I wrote even though I knew no one else would ever read any of it. As a young man, I dreamed of doing radio plays as I had heard on old-time radio programs. Although radio drama was experiencing something of a comeback in the ’70s, there was no way a Black kid from the West Side ghetto in Chicago would ever get a foot in that door. So, when I finished college I built my own recording studio in my apartment and with the help of some very talented actor friends, wrote and produced original radio dramas. Later, I discovered a website that published “fan fiction,” where I could write my own stories based on my favorite TV programs, like Star Trek and Dr. Who. I wrote several well-received fan fiction stories.
- Perseverance. I’ve authored several things over the years, including a 250-page novel (non-sci-fi), all of which were handily rejected by publishers. I never gave up. I was nearly 60 years old when I finally got my first short story published. This gave me the courage to finally write my first science fiction novel which was completed and published when I was 65. This led to three other novels and an anthology. I’m currently working on another novel and an audiobook anthology. The lesson here is two-fold. You’re never too old to become a writer; but don’t wait until you’re in your 60’s to try!
- A thick skin. The publisher who ultimately published my first novel rejected it initially suggesting I join a writers’ group to help polish it. At one of the first meetings, another writer suggested moving a line of dialog to a different place in the manuscript. I was polite at the meeting but on the way home I fumed. I felt that he was an idiot who didn’t understand what I was trying to do. When I got home I moved the line as he suggested. Not only did it work perfectly, but it is also one of my favorite parts of the story because it is so apropos. I have since learned to keep an open mind and at least listen to suggestions.
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’m working on a fifth novel that involves a global disaster. Hopefully, it will be as good as my other books and a bit different from what everyone else has done. Many people who have read my stories have commented that they would make great movies. So I’ve taken on the challenge of writing screenplays. Using David Trotter’s The Screenwriters Bible as a guide, I crafted a screenplay for my first novel, The Chronocar — An Urban Adventure In Time. After getting some critiques from professional screenwriters, I polished it and submitted it to The Stage 32 2nd Annual Diversity Springboard Screenwriting Contest, where it placed as one of the ten finalists:
I plan to complete screenplays for all five novels this year.
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?
In science fiction, the science, whether it is real or imaginary, must be so central to the story that, without it, the story would fall apart. By this definition, Star Wars is not science fiction, its space opera. The same basic story could be told with wooden ships and metal swords. Outer space is merely the setting and the high tech weapons plot devices. This is not meant as a put-down, the Star Wars series is great entertainment, just not science fiction. Speculative fiction, on the other hand, can meet this criterion, but not all speculative fiction is science fiction. It usually involves things that currently do not exist in the present universe, which could be historical, or even supernatural fantasy.
To take my definition a step further, the science in science fiction, especially if it is fictional science, must be logical and consistent. The best science fiction, in my humble opinion, starts with some real science, then extrapolates to the fictitious. This is a technique I like to use, which I borrowed from Isaac Asimov.
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?
Nothing beats the imagination. Not just that of the writer, but the imagination of the reader, also. When a writer creates an alien world, a spaceship, or some sort of creature, there is always a bit of ambiguity where the reader can fill in the details and create an image in their mind. In the film or TV version, the director’s image of the place or thing may not be as exciting or as scary as the reader may have envisioned. As much as I enjoyed the 1953 film version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the tripod vehicles in the novel were more awe-inspiring and frightening than the flying ships in the movie.
Also, it seems that Hollywood is not always interested in originality. This is why there have been thirteen movies about Batman, not including the television programs.
Finally, there are many, many independent authors out there with great stories that are never going to be made into films. That’s a lot of wonderful, ground-breaking content for sci-fi lovers.
In your opinion, what are the benefits to reading sci-fi, and how do they compare to watching sci-fi on film and television?
A film or television program is the vision of the screenwriters and the director. I’ve seen movies where the filmmaker either did not understand the source material or, in an attempt to make it better, actually ruins it. The similarity between the novel Moonraker and the film with Roger Moore is little more than the title. The filmmakers took Ian Fleming’s James Bond thriller and tried to turn it into Star Wars.
One of my all-time favorite novels is Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. A few years ago a film version was made that starred Will Smith. The novel was thoughtful, sometimes requiring a little work on the part of the reader to understand what was going on. The film dealt with only a part of the novel and was little more than an action movie. I remember seeing copies of the re-released novel on sale with Will Smith on the cover and thinking how misleading it was. If you enjoyed the movie you would probably not like the book. And vice versa.
As I mentioned above, there is always some ambiguity. No matter how much detail a writer might use to describe a place, thing, or character, there is always room for the reader to “fill in the blanks” and create an image in their minds. That was one of the reasons I loved radio drama. The “theatre of the mind” is always more powerful than anything on a screen or stage.
What authors and artists, dead or alive, inspired you to write?
Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke; the masters of the golden age of science fiction. I would have to admit that Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Kurt Vonnegut had influences also. The greatest science fiction film ever made, in my opinion is 2001: A Space Odyssey. So Stanley Kubrick would have to be added to this list.
If you could ask your favourite Science Fiction and Fantasy author a question, what would it be?
I’d ask Isaac Asimov how he came up with his laws of robotics, which is used in cybernetics today.
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?
I write what I like to read.
That was a big risk in the beginning, but all of my books have earned excellent reviews from readers. My first novel won a few awards. I often borrow attributes of people I know to create my characters; this person’s courage or that person’s sense of humor, but they would never be recognizable. However, in every one of my novels, the hero is based on me. In The Chronocar — An Urban Adventure In Time, the main character is pretty much what I was like in college, while the main character in my novel e-Pocalypse — The Digital Dystopia is Coming is based on who I am now; an aging, curmudgeonly computer geek:
“I imagined how much electronic activity was going on in the house while everyone slept. There were digital clocks in every bedroom, on the microwave, the kitchen stove, and the radio mounted under the cabinets (how the hell can this family be late for stuff all the time?). There were chargers for every smartphone, tablet, laptop, and mp3 player in the house. The little robot vacuum cleaner was hiding way charging its batteries so that tomorrow, while everyone was out, it could automatically clean the floors and give free rides to the cat.”
And everything was connected to the web. Everything. The home security system actively monitoring every door and window was Internet-enabled so it could be controlled and checked on a smartphone. There was a computer screen on the refrigerator that they used for — hell, I don’t know what they used it for. They watched streaming movies on their smart TVs. They even had Wi-Fi in the car, for gosh sakes. Every connection was just another way for some bozo somewhere in the world to tap in and take whatever information he wants. The house was bleeding power and data. And no one seemed to know or care about it.”
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.
- Like any type of literature, good writing is first and foremost. The most clever and exciting story is wasted if not well written. This includes editing. I remember in the early days of the self-publishing boom, my daughter brought me a book that had been written by a friend. He had proudly given copies to everyone he knew. I tried to read it and couldn’t get past page three. The misspellings, grammatical errors, and the amateurish writing were reminiscent of a rushed high school term paper. His book may have contained valuable information, but no one would ever know because no one would ever read it.
- Make the characters as realistic and believable as possible. Then the reader will cringe when they are in danger, cheer when they succeed and even grieve if they die. In The Chronocar — An Urban Adventure In Time, the main character is an African American college student from a protective middle-class family, a combination that seemed to appeal to people of various ages and ethnic backgrounds. Probably because, like many young people today, he had never experienced overt racism. He and the readers together would learn about the horrific racial strife that led to the bloody Red Summer Riots of 1919 in Chicago.
- Keep your science consistent. Use real science when possible. Every novel I’ve written has required considerable research. More than once I’ve discovered that there was a real scientific basis for my fiction. Even if the science of the story is all invented, having a grasp of the logic of science can help to make the fictional science more convincing.
- Learn how to make the complex simple. Not every sci-fi fan is a science or technology nerd. In The Chronocar, the story hinges on some rather elaborate theories of time travel. I feared that many readers would not get it, or find it all boring. I explained it more than once, in small doses, and out of the mouths of different characters, using simple language, making sure the details critical to the story were clear. Some concepts were not required to follow the story, but I knew that the geekier readers would love this information. So I added, as an epilogue, a paper written by the inventor of the Chronocar that was prepared for submission to a scientific journal. The geeks loved it. Those who were not interested in such minutiae could ignore it.
- Have fun! You’re writing to entertain. Perhaps the reader will learn something along the way, but remember they bought your story to enjoy it. Don’t get bogged down with a lot of technical mumbo jumbo. I’ve nearly fallen asleep reading pages upon pages of minutiae where the writer is trying to build their world or set up their characters in one big “data dump.” In my novel Edge Of Perception — A Paranormal Science Fiction Love Story, there is a lot of science and technology involved in the attempt to communicate with ghosts. But the characters’ reaction to finally encountering spirits is what makes the story. Creepy, humorous, scary, or heartbreaking; these scenes were the most fun to write and are the ones that readers react to and remember. My favorite review is one where a reader admits to crying at the end. This is the kind of reaction that all authors dream of!
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 :-)
One of my dreams is to see my magnum opus, The Chronocar -An Urban Adventure In Time, made into a film. I’m not one who follows filmmakers very closely, but there are two directors whom I would love to see take on the project with their unique visions. That would be Spike Lee or Ron Howard. They would each have a different interpretation, but I think one or the other would do an amazing job.
At the very least, I would love to know what they think of the story.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I can be easily found on Facebook and Twitter, but the best place to learn more about me and my work is my website; https:\\www.SteveBellinger.com
Thank you for these excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent. We wish you continued success.