Author interview: Stephen Baxter

Over the weeks we've been honoured to get some of the best authors and publishing insiders to offer their tips on writing SF. This week we're honoured to have a short Q&A with Stephen Baxter, author of dozens of books, winner of some 15 literary awards, and the vice president of the HG Wells Society since 2006.

We quizzed him about his writing experience and asked him some practical questions on behalf of those of our readers who aspire to put fingers to keyboard like him.

SFX: Writing a short story requires a different approach to writing a longer work like a novel. But how different are the creative skills involved?
Stephen Baxter:
"A worthwhile sf story turns on an idea, ideally brand new, or a new take on an old idea - nothing wrong with that, the way we feel about stuff changes as the world moves on. If it's a short fiction idea it needs to be quickly and clearly expressed - it can be big, even a way to end the world, but it should be a bang rather than a whimper sort of end-of-the-world. But a story also has to be about some kind of turning point for a character (or characters). An uninhabited planet blowing up isn't interesting; put one person down there (or better yet a kitten) and you've got a story. You've got your central idea - who has a problem with it?"

"Come up with somebody who wants something related to the central idea - survival, riches, knowledge, to save that damn kitten. Then in telling that person's story the idea is revealed. In a short story you can express very small ideas, see for instance Ray Bradbury's 'The Pedestrian', which is about nothing much more than a man who likes walking and is treated with suspicion in a world where everybody stays in to watch TV. Or you can express very large ideas, like Bradbury's 'Frost and Fire', astronauts stranded on a world where the radiation makes you grow from birth to death in just eight days. With a short story you can get off stage before awkward questions about your big concept occur to the reader - such as, wouldn't you have to spend your whole eight days just eating? So you can explore edgy ideas that mightn't sustain a whole novel. Distract the readers with the plight of your damn kitten, and they won't think of hard questions until you've left the building."

SFX: Is it a good idea to join a writer's group, a local workshop, or go on a course? Read a book on writing? Can you teach writing talent?
Stephen Baxter:
"I'm a bit of a workshop sceptic. I've attended a couple and given a few, mostly for schoolkids. I guess they can be motivational, and fun of course. But they have a whole social dynamic which has nothing much to do with the real work of writing, which is you alone with your idea."

"I once did a correspondence course on short story writing which was quite useful; I was actually writing stories, alone, and getting individual feedback from a tutor, so it was a genuine writing experience. More generally I'm always suspicious of anything to do with writing which isn't actually writing, it's too easy to tell yourself you're doing something useful when you're just avoiding the pain of hard work. Blogging for instance - I'd say that a fiction writer's stories should be your blog, your view of the world, put your creative energies into the stories and not into ephemeral chit-chat. Mind you that's probably just me showing my age."

SFX: What advice do you have for somebody starting out as a writer who's had nothing published yet, perhaps is getting discouraged by rejections?
Stephen Baxter:
"Keep going. You're doing exactly the right thing. If you're getting rejections, you're trying to place your work in markets where there is somebody in a position to do the rejecting, that is an editor or publisher, rather than just showing it to your pals or posting it on the net, which anybody can do. The holy grail is to have somebody actually pay you for your work. Whether or not you're interested in writing as a career, and no matter how nice your friends are about your story about the kitten, or how many gold stars you get from some tutor, there's no accolade from a reader that beats having her hand over her hard-earned cash."

SFX: Thanks Stephen!

Find out more about Stephen Baxter at his personal blog . See you next week on www.sfx.co.uk for more Q&As with novelists and editors.