Stephen Baxter's writing tips

In the latest issue of SFX, we've launched the new Pulp Idol short story-writing competition. To get you started, our Jonathan Wright spoke with renowned editor Stephen Baxter, and here are the resulting comments about writing good SF. Jonathan also had a couple of other authors in the hot seat this month and we'll upload the Q&As later to give you some inspiration, so check back regularly.

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?
Stephen Baxter : "I think a classical conception of an SF story would be that it's all about the idea, and that everything about the story, the plot, the character development, and so on should derive from the exploration of that central premise. So in a sense the characters' role is to give an answer to the old Hollywood question, 'Who's it hurting?' I don't care if an uninhabited planet blows up; I care if there's one person on it. The characters are there so we can explore how we feel about the idea; they have to live in a world perturbed by it. But the characters in themselves have to be strong enough to make us care about them, and hence care about the idea. So, in a great story, characters and idea are intertwined."

"I'd recommend say Bradbury's 'Frost and Fire' as an example. High concept – humans only live eight days – but the story is of how the humans struggle to survive, and in doing so expose every facet of the idea. Fiction is really about emotion; science fiction is about how we feel about a changing universe; the characters are there so we can explore those emotions."

SFX: One of the stock joke SF novels 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 should be avoided? Conversely, I guess, are such areas potentially good ground for anyone who can find a new spin on an old idea?
SB : "Ah, suddenly you sound so 1992. It used to be received wisdom that you couldn't spin stories out of UFO abduction accounts – but then along came The X-Files – or Bible stories coming true – and then along came all that 'Revelation' fiction in the US. I think you're right that in fact if you've got something new to say about the oldest idea in the world then that's fine. On the other hand I'd try to avoid writing about what everybody else is doing right now. Enough with the Singularity, already..."

SFX: Are there any SF short story mistakes you made early on that you'd like to share?
SB : "Well... flawed stories tend not to sell. If stories got rejected I'd try to fix them and send them out again. Boring answer but that's the nature of the profession, I think."

SFX: How much do you need to know about science to write science fiction?
SB : "My particular cup of liquid-helium-cooled iced tea has always been hard SF, that is SF spun off of science concepts. That drew me into science education and a career in sci-tech, in fact, before I became a full time writer. Having a science background helps me look for ideas, understand what's going on, research, and so on. But it's not essential. You don't get much harder than Greg Bear and he's an English major, I think. Similarly I've been doing books with historical settings even though I don't have any history training. I'm out of my comfort zone. I you're interested in a subject you're motivated to learn, I guess."

"Another answer is: we all know some science whether we realise it or not. You could write the greatest time-paradox story ever composed knowing nothing more about time travel than Doctor Who."

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?
SB : "I'd look at science stories that make the news. This is the cutting edge that matters, where advancing sci-tech perturbs people's lives and sets ethical dilemmas. For instance the recent news story about the 'pillow angel', the unfortunate disabled girl whose parents used surgery and drugs to 'stabilise' her at pre-puberty, is a mine of story ideas about the right we have to control our bodies, and others'. And such stories have a good chance of touching people precisely because the pillow angel story touched people."

SFX: If you had to give one piece of advice to someone setting out to write SF short stories, what would it be?
SB : "Try to conceive of stories you would like to read. What makes you drop everything and turn to a story? A grabby first line, good title, hints of a good concept... Write what would hook you."

For more advice on writing short stories, check out the current issue of SFX, or read previous articles here (the launch of the competition) and here (SF editor Stephen Jones's advice).