Alastair Reynolds writing tips

With his new novel, The Prefect, about to be published, Alastair Reynolds takes time out from a busy schedule to offer his thoughts on writing science fiction short stories. More essential reading for anyone entering Pulp Idol !

SFX: To what extent do SF short stories work best if they have a big idea to propel them forward?
Alastair Reynolds: “In some respects, big ideas can be a bit too big for a short story – especially if you’ve only got a couple of thousand words to play with, and you need room for other stuff, like character, description... I’d argue that the most effective stories often turn on a rather small idea, but one which is polished to a high gleam and examined from an unusual angle. But you do need an idea.”

SFX: One of the stock joke SF ideas is the one where an apocalypse leaves one man and one woman – Adam and Eve y’see? – to begin over. Are there any SF short story ideas/clichés that have just been done to death and should be avoided?
AR: “No idea should be discarded completely, but – as one might imagine – it does take a degree of ingenuity to find a new spin on something as hackneyed as the ‘Adam and Eve’ story. But if you think you’ve got the chops for it, there’s no reason not to try. On the other hand, might it not be better to operate in part of the narrative space that wasn’t already crowded? If you’ve hit on a genuinely new idea, you can get away with a lot of other things (prose, characterisation) being a lot less than optimum.”

SFX: Are there any SF short story mistakes you made early on that you’d like to share?
AR: “One thing I did early on, and which I shy away from now, is to use novelistic techniques (multiple viewpoint narrative, complex chronological structure, etc) in a short story. You get away with it if you’re great, but you’ll have a much easier time of it if you focus on one character and tell a linear story.”

SFX: SF stories are frequently full of jargon and arcane terminology. How do you make this convincing?
AR: “I try and immerse myself in the invented world and see things through the eyes of the characters. When you get on a plane, you’re likely to notice surface textures, the plastics, metals and fabrics, the muzak on the PA, the musty smell of the cabin air, but you probably won’t dwell on the composition of the alloys, the way the engines work, the stress-loading in the wings. Most people don’t need to know that stuff. As a rule, I keep the jargon and terminology to a minimum (at least, it’s what I strive to do).”

SFX: How much do you need to know about science to write science fiction?
AR: “Not as much as people think. In fact, you can get away with not knowing any science at all. But I think your SF will all be the stronger if you do know something of how the universe works. That doesn’t mean having a degree in physics or biochemistry. It just means reading a bit of popular science now and then. It’s not much to ask, though, is it? Keeping up with science shouldn’t be seen as a chore, like some really boring aspect of research, it should be something you do naturally because it’s intrinsically fascinating. At the very least, bookmark the science section on the website of your favourite newspaper.”

SFX: Are there any particularly fruitful places to look for SF short story ideas?
AR: “Ideas have a certain gestation period that can’t be forced. You can get the seed of an idea from a magazine article, or a TV documentary. But more than likely, a story requires something else, some other input, that you just have to wait for, be it weeks, months or years.”

SFX: If you had to give one piece of advice to someone setting out to write SF short stories, what would it be?
AR: “Write a lot. Finish one story and start another. Don’t keep rewriting and polishing something if it isn’t setting the world on fire: start something new instead and consider the earlier story a learning experience.”

Alastair Reynolds was talking to Jonathan Wright. The latest issue of SFX is on sale now and features more writing tips for people hoping to enter Pulp Idol this year. Read about Reynolds’ new book here .