Creag Munroe On How To Write Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories

An Interview With Ian Benke

Ian Benke
Authority Magazine

--

Conflict. More conflict! When you think you have enough, add more. Multiple characters with overlapping conflicting desires? Good, that’s compelling. Now have everything blow up at once.

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 Creag Munroe.

Creag Munroe is the founder and editor-in-chief of Elegant Literature, a digital publication focused on promoting aspiring fiction writers worldwide. He is an avid reader who inhales novels at an alarming rate, preferring SF/F as the main staple of his diet. He resides in Toronto, Canada, but dives with sharks and drives motorcycles in monsoons whenever duty allows.

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?

Thanks for having me! Here’s an anecdote many readers may find familiar. As a child I was gifted my first fantasy novel, The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. Naturally, I stayed up until 3 am every night trying to finish it. There I am in bed, with a shirt draped over the lampshade so the light doesn’t betray me to my parents, fighting to stay awake and giving up only when I drop the book on my face for the third time. When I finally put it down and close my eyes, I picture the map from the inside cover and visualize the route the heroes journeyed. I memorized that map. I can still draw it today.

The stories hooked me. Fantasy, Science Fiction, any grand epic I could get my hands on. I devoured books at an alarming rate. It helped that for a two-year period we put the family TV in storage. These days I’ve broadened my horizons and enjoy a variety of genres, but the frenetic pace remains the same, despite the increasing responsibilities of adulthood.

I still drop books on my face every other night.

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?

We should really call me an editor. An entrepreneur in the writing industry would be most accurate. I studied creative writing at the University of Toronto, but penning tales has long taken a back seat in favor of other pursuits. I’m most passionate about discovering new stories, and reading is faster than writing for the purpose.

However, certain character traits leading to my success as an editor and entrepreneur are equally useful for a career as an author. Determination. Creativity. A studious mind. These are the top three, and the most generic on the surface, but when taken seriously can have a massive impact on the quality and output of one’s work.

Studiousness is often thought of as hitting the books, but there are other aspects of the word. My favourite definition of studious is “assiduous in the pursuit of learning”. A studious mind simply perseveres in its quest for knowledge. People watching from the park bench? Listening to regulars chatting at your local bar? These are both opportunities to learn about human nature, about how people interact, and if approached with the right attitude are every bit as indicative of a studious mind as reading up on medieval history.

Approached in this manner, every situation holds an opportunity to learn, no matter if we are directly involved or merely an observer. We can train our brains to seize these opportunities through the simple process of note-taking. As the famous quote from Mythbusters goes, “The only difference between science and blowing stuff up is writing it down.” Keep a quickly accessible note on your phone to jot down observations. Reflect on your day for ten minutes before bed and write point-form takeaways. Using specific tactics like these will help this studious approach to life become habitual. The more knowledge you have the more broadly you can think about your work, whether it’s writing a novel or building a business.

Creativity as a trait is essential to success when working with stories. Clever twists and new approaches to tired tropes make compelling tales. Anyone reading this is likely to already be creative. Did you know Psychology has found reading the fantasy genre, even watching fantasy movies, actually makes the brain more creative? That’s good news for all SF/F fans!

But what to do if you don’t feel your imagination is up to the task? Train it, of course! I suggest two tricks.

The first is list-making. Sit down each day and come up with a list of ten things around a given topic. It can be anything — a bucket list, books to read, disasters to inflict on your characters. Putting items on paper will often be difficult and you will strain to get to ten. That’s okay. This list is for you alone and is allowed to be ridiculous. The more ridiculous, the more creative, and in time it will become easier to think broadly. Increase your list to fifteen, then twenty items. Create a list of possible lists. This trains the brain to think creatively and will aid imaginative thinking across all areas of life. As a bonus, you will have a repertoire of ideas to draw on for those times you are well and truly stuck.

The second specific tactic is to double-watch movies in the genre you like to write. I would recommend double-reading books, but who’s got the time? The first watch-through is purely for entertainment. Take a few minutes after the credits roll to jot down the bits you liked most and least. Immediately restart the movie, notebook in hand, and watch it from a storyteller’s perspective. Pause often and make notes. What scenes worked, what did not, what would you have done differently? This activity will help you dig down into the meat of a compelling story on a structural level and in turn improve your own writing. You will develop a broad knowledge of characters and scenarios, and begin to recognize common patterns within your genre. Similar to list building you will also have a bank of ideas to aid in crafting your own work.

So we are left with determination. You must nurture the ability to do your work. I know people who, during the worst of the lockdowns, spent days drinking in front of the TV. It became an internet meme, to gradually become more and more unproductive as the months dragged on. To be successful you must overcome the desire to give in, to give up. I spent the time teaching myself business principles and working on projects. Others created a habit of going to the gym and emerged healthier. Countless new authors released their first books. To my eye, there are two groups of people, and the dividing line is how determined they are to better themselves.

So to wrap up an exceedingly long answer (thank you for sticking with it!), cultivate determination, train creativity, and stay studious for life.

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?

Absolutely. My entire life is dominated by my publishing company Elegant Literature. I set out with the goal of publishing as many new authors as possible and promoting fiction writers worldwide. Every month we award $20,000 to one aspiring writer and purchase a dozen other works at professional rates.

The business grew from the realization that traditional short fiction markets are insanely competitive, self-publishing short stories isn’t usually viable, and competitions and awards have a poor entry fee to payout ratio. In fact, many of the larger prizes do not even allow unpublished writers to enter.

It’s a long-standing understanding in the industry that a new writer must collect hundreds of rejection letters before breaking in.

I aim to change that. Elegant Literature is for aspiring writers only. We ask anyone considered a professional not to submit work so we can focus on and reward new talent. It’s something I’m passionate about.

My goal is to help new talent go pro, award life-changing prize money, and promote fiction writers worldwide. If it’s something readers would like to know more about they can have a look at our website, linked in my bio at the top.

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 think it best to start with an understanding of speculative fiction. My understanding, anyway — I’m aware there is debate on the exact definition. I like to think of spec-fic as asking the question, “What if…” on an elemental level. This is different than asking, “What if my character reacts angrily?” or “What if the heist fails and the team goes into hiding?” Those are examples of character and plot questions, respectively, which all fiction is made of. Speculative what-ifs are changing what we know to be true.

What if dragons replaced airplanes? We can only speculate on what travel might entail. Boarding, seating, take-off, altitude protection, emergency landings, layovers, and refueling would all be drastically different, but in ways we can only guess at. This change to consensus reality is the defining principle of speculative fiction.

This definition encompasses all of fantasy, as the genre inherently takes place in a fictional universe, or our own with an unreal element such as magic or supernatural creatures.

Sci-fi (and horror) can be speculative, but not necessarily. It depends on if the story is based in our reality or not. A horror about a serial killer hunting a victim in the forest is not speculative because it can really happen. As soon as the author asks, “What if… the killer was a werewolf?” it becomes speculative. Likewise, science fiction is not speculative when it uses currently existing technology.

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 the written word will always be popular. There is a connection between author and reader at work on the page you don’t find on the screen, possibly because movies and TV are the result of such massive collaboration while novels are one to one. There is an artistry to language and the cadence of words unlike anything found in other mediums, and I believe it will remain popular until stories can be beamed into the brain.

As for written science fiction becoming more popular, I would say it’s due to the increased popularity of the genre across all mediums. The Game of Thrones TV series spiked sales of fantasy books overall, but that doesn’t mean the trend of adult book-readers is increasing over time. I think we as a society read less than ever, but I do not believe the novel will cease to exist.

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

The main benefit I see is stretching the imagination. Many people visualize as they read, like watching a movie in their mind. If an author writes the character passing a woman walking her dog, the reader will imagine it. But what kind of dog? What was the woman wearing? Was she stooped and shuffling, or maybe out for a run? It’s entirely up to the reader!

Now contrast that with the same scene in a movie. The character passes a woman walking her dog. Boom. There’s the woman; there’s the dog. The viewer might hardly notice. Their imagination can engage with the high concepts (who’s the killer?) but everything of a lower-tier is shown to them.

Science fiction on television is fun to watch because it solidifies these interesting things we don’t see every day. Spaceships, androids, Scotty beaming people up. These are details we have difficulty imagining in full, and I love to see them brought to life on screen.

And yet. Productions are limited by budgets. To be fair, budgets are going up and technology is getting better, but movie-makers must choose which elements of a scene are important. What to show the viewer, what to focus on. They are limited in ways an author writing a novel is not.

Personally, I prefer watching a 10-hour movie in my mind.

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

Pick any of the big-name fantasy authors, I love them all. But more than the authors, it’s the stories themselves that inspire me, draw me in, and show me wonders I could never find otherwise.

To get specific, I read Stephen King’s Night Shift, an anthology of short horror stories. Previously I’d only considered epic tales and ten book series worth my time. Boy, was I wrong! Short, bite-sized stories to be read in a single sitting are fun and work wonders for the imagination. I’d pin this as the moment that would eventually lead me to found Elegant Literature. My magazine deals exclusively in short stories of 2000 words or less. It is fantastic what wild and wonderful tales a writer can pack into such a small package.

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

I would have liked to ask Douglas Adams, “42?”

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?

My claim to fame is as the editor of Elegant Literature, and a lifetime spent consuming novels, so I don’t have a passage of mine to share with you as such, but I can tell you about myself as a reader and editor.

Who is more important than what. Characters, and their interactions with others, are more important than the backdrop. I cheered for Rand, Matt, and Perrin (Wheel of Time) because I enjoyed reading how they handled themselves and grew as characters. Rand’s choices as he unified the lands were so interesting I drafted an essay evaluating them through a Machievellan lens. The characters compelled me through the tale.

Would the characters hold my interest sitting in a tavern night after night? No. The what gives the who context, shaping the choices and giving the reader a reason to care. Who is more important than what, but only within reason. I will shut a tale of momentous world events quickly if the characters are not engaging, but I’ll give the reverse more time to pick up speed.

Creating a compelling story is a complicated dance of entwining character and plot. It’s not good enough to have a great character and drop them into events, nor can you throw anyone into an epic and expect them to hold the readers’ attention. Both must be crafted with care, but in the end, it will be the character we connect with emotionally.

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.

  1. Conflict. More conflict! When you think you have enough, add more. Multiple characters with overlapping conflicting desires? Good, that’s compelling. Now have everything blow up at once.
  2. Originality. What? Nothing is original, everything’s a remake? Take the best bits from your favourite stories and smash them together. Pick up the broken pieces and smash them again. Now fit them together like a puzzle and flip the table. Ideas are everywhere. It’s your experiences, your perspective that give a new angle to an old trope.
  3. Keep the story moving. Especially with short fiction. Starting with a strong, action-forward scene should not be followed by the character thinking about how it all began when they were a kid. Similarly, all actions must either a) advance the plot or b) reveal character/emotion. As an example: pinching the bridge of your nose shows frustration and impatience. Quick-stepping into a shadowed alcove is a plot-related action. The character is hiding… will they be seen? Phrases like “stepping forward” or “I walked down the street” do not create tension, advance the plot, reveal character, or show emotion. Always ask if the action description serves a purpose and you will eliminate unnecessary words and create a tighter, more compelling story.
  4. Multi-faceted characters. And not just the main ones. The unnamed guards in the king’s stuffy throne room? Show me the sweat through the visors. They’re overheating, but they’re still standing. Maybe it’s loyalty and pride, or fear of execution. Even minor characters have conflict, and while it may not be important to the plot, it will immerse the reader and make everything real. Real is compelling.
  5. A notebook. Whether paper or an app on your phone, it doesn’t matter. Always be taking notes. Brains can’t be trusted and will forget things beyond the next doorway. Every thought gets written down immediately. This habit will lead to more thoughts being had and an ever-growing archive of ideas. Statistics and probability say some of these will be good, and a few will be great. Studious, creative, determined.

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 would love to sit down with Stephen King. I was gifted his book, On Writing, for my 19th birthday and I must have read it 10 times now. I also consider the Dark Tower series one of my all-time favourites. I wonder, would he be interested in awarding a new writer twenty thousand dollars?

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Do check out Elegant Literature, especially if you are an aspiring author. If you’re already a pro you might consider contacting us about a judging opportunity. If you just like to read compelling science fiction and fantasy stories, well, the magazine will always be free to read.

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

--

--

Ian Benke
Authority Magazine

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