What kind of research goes into developing a sci-fi world?
It varies depending on the project. For example, for the Ecosystem Trilogy, I had to learn a lot about (big surprise) ecosystems so I could create my own, sci-fi version of one. But for Freefall, which is set on an exoplanet, I had to research space exploration and colonization. I don’t write “hard” sci-fi, so I always end up taking liberties with the facts, but at the same time, I want the world I’ve created to be plausible enough that readers can lose themselves in it and not say, “hey, wait a minute!” on every other page.
Do you draw on other fantasy worlds to help develop your own?
Oh, for sure! The Ecosystem books have little parts of Dune, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, the Thomas Covenant series, and other stories I’ve loved over the years. I don’t think it’s possible to avoid being influenced in that way, and I don’t think it would be a good thing even if you could avoid it. Each imagined world gains depth and complexity from its points of contact with other imagined worlds, so as long as you’re not outright plagiarizing—setting your novel in a magical school called Warthogs with a wizard main character named Perry Hotter—I think you’re enriching your story-world by paying tribute to others.
What authors/books inspired your writing? Do you read the same genre that you write?
I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life, starting with books that would have been called YA if the category existed when I was a kid—such as the novels of Judy Blume and S. E. Hinton—then graduating to “adult” fantasy and sci-fi, along with the “classic” literature I read in college and grad school (and still read today). To give you an idea of how wide-ranging my reading is, this past month I read the historical novel Giants in the Earth, the contemporary YA thriller Following, and the nonfiction book on baseball analytics, Moneyball. Next up is Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which I’m re-reading for a class I teach. Everything I read is inspirational, because everything I read goes into my brain and comes out in odd and unexpected forms. That’s why writers have to be readers: not because any particular book or genre teaches you “how to write,” but because every story you read adds to your ability to tell your own.
What is your ideal writing setting (outside, at a desk, etc.)?
Sadly, I find myself desk-bound most of the time when I’m writing. I wish I could venture into the great outdoors, or take my laptop to some cool, funky bookstore and type away while soaking up the book-vibes, but the truth is, I can’t write unless I cut out every possible distraction. That means no music, no social media, no food or drink or other people while I’m writing. The only problem is that I write at home, so occasionally I do have to interact with my wife and kids!
Do you have any writing exercises or habits?
I’m not much of a planner, because I find that I make my best discoveries as a writer when I don’t know what’s coming next. Setting is very important to each of my stories, so I do like to draw a rough map of my imagined world before I start. I also jot down brief chapter summaries, but usually only after I’m midway through a manuscript and want to make sure I tie up all the loose ends. What this approach means is that I tend to produce really messy drafts, which is okay since I’m a good reviser. I think every writer has to find the habits that work for them, with the only requirement being that if you want to be a writer, you have to write.
Any advice for aspiring authors?
The best advice I can give—and I learned this the hard way—is to focus on what you can control, not what you can’t. Look, there is ultimately nothing you can do to assure yourself of commercial success as a writer: you can write the best book you’re capable of, and you can market it all you want (or all you can afford), but there’s still no guarantee it’ll hit the bestseller lists. The publishers have a formula, which involves pouring most of their promotional dollars into a few “big” books each year (usually the ones written by the already established authors who least need the support), but even that formula doesn’t always pan out, while occasionally, a book no one expected to hit it big goes viral. The one and only thing you can control as a writer is your writing. So write, and dream, and have fun, and maybe you’ll make a splash. But even if you don’t, you’ll still have written. And dreamed. And had fun. Which is what the whole thing should be about.
Joshua David Bellin has been writing novels since he was eight years old (though the first few were admittedly very short). A college teacher by day, he has published numerous works of fantasy and science fiction, including the two-part Survival Colony series (Survival Colony 9 and Scavenger of Souls), the deep-space adventure Freefall, and the short story collection Ten Tales of Terror and Terra. The Ecosystem series—Ecosystem, The Devouring Land, and House of Earth, House of Stone—is his latest work of speculative fiction. In his free time, Josh likes to read, watch movies, and take long nature hikes with his kids. Oh, yeah, and he likes monsters. Really scary monsters.