Roger Levy's writing tips

More writing tips! Another celebrated author joins us to help you on your way! Aren't you lucky? You can't have failed to notice that in SFX we continue to deliver advice for entering this year's Pulp Idol short story-writing competition. To help you on your way, we spoke with author Roger Levy, and here's the full interview.

SFX: Science fiction is at times portrayed as the fiction of ideas rather than character. If this is even true, to what extent do SF short stories work best if they have a big idea to propel them forward?
Roger Levy: "I rather think of Philp K Dick as the king of the SF short, which dates me. Generally SF is an ideas medium for me, but the ideas need to relate to character, to the way people work and interact, in order to interest me. This is less crucial, though, in a short story. One great, if crazy, idea will do it. A short story can surf a brief but glorious wave of an idea and ditch gracefully before it crashes on a reef of credibility. Weird, overstretched metaphor, hmm."

"But this goes on to the question you ask of how much scientific knowledge you need. I have very little anyway, but especially with a short I think a lot [sic] of knowledge is a dangerous thing – you need enough to fire the imagination but not sufficient to douse the dream. In 20 pages you can build and use something that if stretched further will start to creak and fail. I should say here that I actually don't write a lot of shorts. I tend to have suitable ideas occasionally but I try to slip them into my novels."

SFX: SF stories are frequently full of jargon and arcane terminology. How do you make this convincing?
RL: "Jargon is certainly a problem. Drinking coffee, writing with pens – I don't see why stuff that's been around for a great many years might not, even in a changed form, remain for a lot more time. Pens are convenient, fail-proof, coffee will have future equivalents. A matter disrupter is still a type of gun. In a short, my feeling is just use the now word, you haven't the space to do otherwise. Unless you're writing a series of linked tales, in which case you could develop it. In a novel, you still have the problem, but at least you have the time and space to drip-feed terms or else use the story to let the reader access it."

"One real problem I have is with what swear words to use in dialogue. This applies as much in shorts as in novels. Even more effectively than pens and coffee, current expletives do seem to anchor you in the present. In Icarus, I used 'crise', which was assumed by the users, who had no knowledge of our beliefs, to derive from Crisis; this way you get a swear word and develop your story at the same time. I always feel that in any length of fiction, every word you write – or more importantly invent – should, if possible, multitask."

SFX: Are there any particularly fruitful places to look for SF short story ideas? New Scientist? The pub at the end of the street? A pop science article on Mars?
RL: "Sources of ideas, hmm. I get them anywhere, am always think of a use for anything. For instance, something breaks down, it isn't repairable, I'm thinking, 'What if you took this situation to an extreme, what if the environment was also thus?' The idea of story needs always, always to be with you. This would be my advice: always be thinking, and laterally. Think, what if, and then again what if. See potential everywhere. Carry a notebook. Write."

"Pop science articles are a good springboard for stories. If anything, the lack of detail is a help. I'll read something and then think, 'Okay, you have this, but what if, at the same time...?' It's the accumulation of what-ifs, not just a single one."

SFX: Is it any different creating SF characters as opposed to 'here-and-now' characters?
RL: "People will think like we think, so if your characters are people, make them act like people would act in the situation you put them in. If your characters aren't people, make their behaviour credible within the situation you put them in. You may only have to maintain it over the course of a few thousand words, but nevertheless there must be solid internal logic, sound internal credibility."

Interview by Jonathan Wright. For more advice on writing short SF stories, you might like to check out the current issue of SFX magazine.