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Author Tanya Gough On How To Write Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories

An Interview With Ian Benke

…An honest and childlike desire to explore your story and your characters’ lives, even if your story isn’t for kids. Neil Gaiman is the master of wide-eyed “wow, look at this.” Jonathan L. Howard clearly delights in the absurdity of his protagonist in Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, which makes it so much fun to read.

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 Tanya Gough.

Tanya Gough is the founder of StoryBilder (storybilder.com), a creative writing platform for new and aspiring writers, which she built entirely herself. She is the author of two middle-grade fantasy novels, Root Bound and Water Works (the first two books in the Emma & the Elementals series), and her short story “T-Minus” appeared in Amazing Stories Magazine. She has also contributed to the Sourcebooks Shakespeare series and numerous textbooks.

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 love story in all of its forms, but writing has always been my creative home. I was born into an Anglophone family in Quebec in the early days of the French separatism movement, and we later moved to New Hampshire, where I was very much a cultural outsider. Books were an easy and available way to escape into other worlds, so it was only natural that I would be attracted to writing as a mode of self-expression. Also, writing allows me to take my time and consider my thoughts, so it has always been my preferred mode of communication.

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?

Well, let’s see. I suppose a love of reading factors high on the list for any fiction writer, and I’m no different there. I read everything I could get my hands on, starting at a very early age. I did my university degrees in English Literature and ended up teaching English in Japan, which gave me time to finally catch up on the doorstopper classics, like Dickens and Tolstoy.

Next up would have to be imagination. Spending so much time alone, both as a kid and later in Japan, a strong imagination and ability to self-entertain became a survival mechanism. I was also quite active in theatre as a kid and used to put on plays and make up stories to perform. But imagination isn’t really enough for a writer; it needs to be paired with a drive to create, rather than consume, new worlds out of nothing. And it forms the basis for creative problem-solving, which is how you figure out how to tie all the bits of your story together and make it work.

Persistence and discipline round out the group. I’m counting them as one because I don’t think you can have one without the other. It’s easy to sit around imagining places, inventing characters, and thinking up crazy things that happen, but sitting down and actually writing the thing takes time and stick-to-itiveness. Finding time has always been a challenge for me, but once I’m committed to a story idea and put words on paper, I don’t generally stop until it’s done.

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, most of my time is currently going into StoryBilder, a creative writing platform I built myself to support newer writers who may lack the necessary education or resources to do it themselves. My most recent piece of fiction is a story about a woman experiencing a multitude of quantum realities. It got short listed five times at the major SFF magazines when I sent it around, but there were no takers. So frustrating. I can’t quite drop the idea, though, so I’m now reworking it as a novella. I have a couple of novels percolating in the back of my head that I’ll get to once my schedule settles back down.

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 follow the commonly held definition that sci-fi investigates hypothetical, but plausible worlds that are based on science (real or theoretical), while fantasy takes place in an imaginary world that runs on magic, the supernatural, or the unreal. But there’s a pretty big grey area in-between. Is it still science fiction if the science defies the way we think things actually work? Is it fantasy if they use magic that is actually derived from real science? I think that depends on the book and the author.

I generally consider speculative fiction to include all forms of non-realistic or non-real-world fiction. That includes both sci-fi and fantasy, but also horror, ghost stories (which aren’t always horror), folk and fairy tales, anything set in an imaginary world, or anything that brings imaginary elements into a realistic setting. Technically, that would mean that romance is also fantasy, and it is, but it’s not speculative fiction because it still operates within the bounds of what we consider the real world.

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?

Rapid technological change creates social discomfort and insecurity on one hand and broadens our idea of what is possible on the other, and I think that’s truer now than ever before. Fiction helps us come to terms with things we don’t understand in the world around us, and as writers, it gives us a safe place to explore potential outcomes, for better or for worse. What’s going to happen when AI becomes prevalent in society? We don’t really know, but we can think about it in books and explore futures that help us learn how we feel about it today. It gives us a sense of security in the face of the unknown.

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

Written sci-fi is still able to dig deeper into both the mechanics and the repercussions of a future-science environment. Film and television have to gloss over specifics such as how technology might work or ignore the price humanity has to pay when things go wrong to keep the plot moving forward. Written stories can explore the details, delve into the cracks and crevices, and get into the minds of its characters in ways film simply can’t reproduce. Film lets us experience events vicariously. Books make us an active part of the story and allow us to feel what characters are feeling in a far deeper and more person way.

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

Ugh, I never like this question. There are always too many to list.

Children’s classics are where I started, and they continue to influence my writing today. Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit moved me deeply, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth kickstarted a lifeline love for wordplay and silliness, and Andrew Lang’s colored Fairy Books are all still very much alive to me. Alice in Wonderland is part of my DNA; I collect Lewis Carroll oddities.

On the sci-fi and fantasy front, I was raised on Asimov, Heinlein and Bradbury, thanks to the Sci-Fi Book-of-the-Month Club. As an adult, I came back to genre through horror and a Russian sci-fi kick that took me through Lukyanenko, the Strugatsky brothers, and Glukhovsky. Also, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series and Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series always help me put magic back into my life.

Also, since I’m on the board of Directors for Canada’s Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the fantastic, I have to name drop some amazing Canadian authors who keep raising the bar and challenge me to keep up. Eden Robinson’s Trickster series uses magic and mythology to carry us into indigenous hyper-reality, Silvia Moreno-Garcia keeps making me see fantasy through fresh eyes, and Kari Maaren’s Weave a Circle Round taps right into the child’s part of my brain that fell in love with books in the first place.

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

If I can choose from all authors alive or dead, then I’d like to ask Ursula Le Guin to tell me a story.

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 think of my own writing as literary-infused fantasy, but that makes me sound stuffy, and then people are weirdly surprised when my work turns out to be funny. I’d like to think I skirt a fine line between madness, absurdism, and slapstick, but the novella I’m working on now is more serious.

Here’s a bit from my story “T-Minus” from Amazing Stories Magazine, vol 76, in which I explore what might happen if the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party kept looping until the end of time. The Hatter, the March Hare, and the dormouse are on a space ship run by an AI named Alice, because reasons. Things aren’t going well:

Hatter was screaming something at him.

“Um, sorry, what’s that, Cap?”

“Two days wrong!” Hatter’s cheeks flushed rose red against his space-white suit. “I told you butter wouldn’t suit the works!” He glared angrily at the cadet.

“But you said Betty buttered it!” Hare protested.

“I said make it better, idiot!”

Hare sighed and glanced toward the control console. The underside had been gutted. Dangling wires and component entrails dripped with a golden, gooey fluid that might have been machine oil or, and Hare was beginning to realize this might more likely be the case, hot butter. A fizzle and spark on top of the console drew his eye where it discovered a beautiful, silver knife jabbed into the works.

Where did that come from? What sort of raving lunatic brings a butter knife into space?

“Crumbs!” Dor pronounced in his sleep. His hind leg began to twitch like a dog dreaming about chasing rabbits. Hare tried not to take offense.

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. A well-formed world. Fonda Lee’s Jade City is a great example of immersive worldbuilding.
  2. Characters that keep your readers interested and wondering what they’re going to do next. I am a perpetual fan of Jasper Fforde’s heroine Thursday Next.
  3. If you’re writing sci-fi, there needs to be enough internal logic to support the science, even if it’s hypothetical. Both Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl use loads of detail to bring improbable worlds to life and drive the reader through their increasingly wild plots. Fantasy can be trickier, but your magic should make sense, and there need to be real reasons for the supernatural to occur. Louisa Morgan’s A Secret History of Witches gets magic down to a science. But remember you only need information that matters. You don’t need pages of details if you can justify your physics with one or two lines of text, unless that’s what serves your story.
  4. An honest and childlike desire to explore your story and your characters’ lives, even if your story isn’t for kids. Neil Gaiman is the master of wide-eyed “wow, look at this.” Jonathan L. Howard clearly delights in the absurdity of his protagonist in Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, which makes it so much fun to read.
  5. The Truth. Maybe not your truth, or a truth that has any bearing in the real world we live in, but whatever happens to you your characters need to be true within the context of the story you are writing. The things that happen to them should matter. Tolkien’s hobbits endure because they exist wholly and fully formed in their world. Sci-fi is an opportunity to examine possible futures. Fantasy takes us to places we can only imagine. Make it count.

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 🙂

Ryan Reynolds, please! He’s investing in a wide range of technology companies, and his advertising work at Maximum Effort (now part of MNTN) is beyond brilliant. This is a man who not only understands story, but understands how it can be picked apart, reassembled and reinvented. I would love to discuss all that and show him what I’m doing at StoryBilder. Also, I was in The Music Man in high school, so I’m all set if Hugh Jackman shows up.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My books middle grade fantasy novels Root Bound and Water Works can be ordered wherever books are sold. Amazing Stories Magazine copies can be purchased through their site. If you are thinking about writing a novel but don’t know where to start, find me at storybilder.com (@storybilder on Facebook and Twitter, @storybilderapp on Instagram). We’re still in the early days of the company, but we’d love to help you get started.

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

Author Tanya Gough On How To Write Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.