As part of the process of writing The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, I interviewed a few key players in the SF/fantasy community. Their wisdom and generosity is liberally sprinkled throughout the book, but I couldn’t use every word—and wanted to do some follow-ups. This is an expanded interview with science fiction and fantasy author Mike Resnick, presented with my sincere thanks for all his help.
Mike Resnick, according to Locus magazine, is the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for speculative short fiction. A 53-year veteran of the professional writing game, Mike sold his first article in 1957 and his first book five years later. His first published SF novel was 1967’s The Goddess of Ganymede, which also happens to be the first of his books I actually read. He’s also been an active SF/fantasy fan since 1962. His daughter, Laura Resnick, is herself an accomplished author of fantasy and romance novels, including The Purifying Fire, which I had a small hand in publishing for Wizards of the Coast.
The first question was one I asked everyone who completed an interview for The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction:
Athans: Please define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.
Resnick: Fantasy is fiction that purposely and knowingly breaks one or more of the known laws governing the universe.
Athans: Please define “science fiction” in 25 words or less.
Resnick: Science fiction is concerned with an alternative past, an altered present, or an imagined future and obeys the known laws governing the universe.
Athans: What advice can you give an aspiring fantasy author on how to approach action scenes? Is there such a thing as too much action?
Resnick: I’d tell him to study the particular market he’s considering, and put in a little more or a little less action than the competition—not so much or so little that it doesn’t fit the format—to make his story stand out a bit.
Yes, you can have too much of anything. Look at the movie Van Helsing. One supernatural creature can be fascinating and/or terrifying; hundreds of them are simply boring. As for action scenes, you have to make them subjective. Getting hit or cut hurts, and hero or not, if your character doesn’t feel pain, there’s no reason why your reader should feel apprehension.
Athans: How do you approach the creation of monsters and/or aliens? When do you know you’ve created something worthy of exploring in greater detail?
Resnick: First, they have to fulfill the needs of the story. Second, I try to create monsters or aliens that are not quite what the reader is expecting. Mainly, I try to keep them from ever being considered generic.
I try to make my non-sentient life forms fit the ecology in which they have evolved. As for aliens, they have to be alien; they can’t just be men and women in funny costumes.
Athans: Is there one magic ingredient that makes a character a HERO?
Resnick: No. But there is one thing that makes him a boring hero: no flaws.
You start by making him as real (as opposed to heroic) within the context of the plot and setting. And you try to remember that if your Protagonist, a word I much prefer to Hero, doesn’t have doubts and fears and misgivings to overcome, it’s a lot less heroic to face an enemy of any type or proportion.
Athans: Care to offer examples from your own work?
Resnick: Sure. The Forever Kid (Soothsayer) has lived too long and wants to die in battle. Wilson Cole (the five Starship books) is incapable of following a stupid order, even though he knows that not following it will cost him his command. Thaddeus Flint (the four Galactic Midway books) has no loyalties and no empathy. And so on.
Athans: Do you look to history for inspiration in creating future or fantasy political systems, nations, or leaders? Are there other sources for inspiration for SF or fantasy political structures?
Resnick: Of course there are other sources, and the more unusual and the less-used the better. I won the Prix Tour Eiffel [and at the time he was the only American, the only English-language writer to win it] for my novel The Dark Lady, told in the first person of an alien whose entire society was extrapolated from the matriarchy and herd instincts of the African elephant. Which is to say: source material is everywhere, and if you don’t just look where everyone else is looking you’re more likely to create something unique and memorable.
Athans: Any advice on avoiding clichés?
Resnick: Yeah: avoid ’em. Seriously, read your story aloud, even if you’re the only one in the room. You’ll spot clichés and awkwardnesses that get past you when you’re proofreading and editing on paper or screen.
Athans: How do you approach research and note-taking? Do you establish a set of “rules” for your setting?
Resnick: If it’s science fiction, the universe has already established the rules and I try not to break them. If it’s fantasy, I decide what few rules I plan to break, and then figure out what the consequences are. If it’s all in a contemporary fantasy New York, as my three recent novels for Pyr are, I can keep track of it all in my head; if it’s a world that’s invented from the ground up, then I make and keep as many notes as I need.
Athans: What’s more difficult, getting your first book published, or maintaining a career after that debut?
Resnick: Selling the fourth book is always more difficult than selling the first. You sell your first on promise; you sell your fourth on your track record, and your publisher probably hasn’t poured any promotional money into your first few.
Athans: You’ve written at least one tie-in novel—what was the most difficult part of playing in someone else’s playground?
Resnick: In the case of Battlestar: Galactica (this was the 1980 version, not the current one): Keeping a straight face. That was close to the silliest, stupidest teleplay I’ve ever seen. I did a Lara Croft book in 2003, but that required almost no research; I had to get her across Africa (where I’ve been many times) from the end of one game to the beginning of the next, with no other continuing characters.
Athans: If it’s possible that anyone reading this hasn’t yet read any of your work, where should they start? I know that could be like asking which of your children you like best, but assume they’ll read and love them all eventually, and get them started!
Athans: We’ll consider it an assignment to read all three! And we’ll keep and eye out for Blasphemy, from Golden Gryphon; The Buntline Special, from Pyr; and The Business of Science Fiction, with Barry Malzberg, all coming this year!
For much more on Mike Resnick, look for Mike Resnick: An Annotated Bibliography and Guide to His Work by Fiona Kelleghan.