James Van Pelt

Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Science Fiction Prompt Night

I lead a prompt night for the Western Colorado Writers Forum this Thursday. It was a unique event for me on a couple levels. First, I haven’t been to any kind of public gathering since March. Non-family members in the same room with me, even masked, felt odd. Second, the presentation was a hybrid of Zoom meeting and live audience. The whole time I didn’t know if I should pay attention to the computer screen or to the people in the room.

Science Fiction, Sci Fi, Futuristic

Overall, though, it went well. They asked me for prompts bent toward science fiction, but most of them don’t write in the genre, so I felt like I was breaking in novices, even though most of them have been long-time writers.

I over-prepared, writing out the complete script of what I would say. A detailed script encourages me to read instead of teach, so I worked hard not to keep looking at this.

Here is the entire script. With 20-minute writing sessions and discussion after, this took exactly two hours:


Zach Berkson said, “Science fiction, perhaps more than any other modern genre of fiction, is often written with a social purpose or a goal. 

“Reading science fiction enables us to reflect on the ways people interact with each other, with technology, with our environment. A good science fiction work posits one vision for the future, among countless possibilities, that is built on a foundation of realism. In creating a link between the present and the future, science fiction invites us to consider the complex ways our choices and interactions contribute to generating the future. 

“Why do we read science fiction? The immediate answer for some is escapism: to enter into fantastic worlds that are more exciting than mundane reality. But that’s a simplistic answer that fails to explain why we’re drawn to science fiction, which, while speculative, often nods to realism and presents a thoughtful perspective on the future – frequently one that’s informed by scientific and technological reality. The draw of science fiction is more nuanced than a desire to escape the mundane.

“Science Fiction expands the mind, considering ideas and possibilities outside our normal experience.  It explores not only what is, but what might be, or could be.” 

Ray Bradbury said, “”Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. Ideas excite me, and as soon as I get excited, the adrenaline gets going and the next thing I know I’m borrowing energy from the ideas themselves. Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.”

One way to think of what makes a science fiction different from non-science fiction is the setting. A science fiction story has something in the setting that does not exist today or in history, but is scientifically possible.  The change in the setting is what the story is about, really, in the end. How does that difference in the setting reveal the human condition, or comment on today’s conditions, or warn us about the future?

A love story during a trip to Mars isn’t much of a science fiction if the trip doesn’t impact the love story in some way. If the love story is no different than the same story told on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, for example, where every place in the story where you could have said “Jamaica” you replaced it with “Mars,” you haven’t done much with the setting. Putting a ray gun into the holster and making no other changes doesn’t turn a Western into a Science Fiction.

So one technique to create a science fiction story is to incorporate the change or changes in the setting that make it a science fiction, and then write your path into it.

Dialogue Prompt:

One strategy is to just have a pair of characters talking. This is a dialogue prompt. Dialogues that are good reading often have a tension in them, otherwise they’re just two people who aren’t really talking or who are just agreeing with each other. To make the dialogue pop, start with some kind of tension. Maybe the two characters are fighting. They have a disagreement that displays itself in the dialogue. Maybe one character is trying to convince another character of something. Maybe one character knows something that they want the other character to understand. Maybe the two characters are talking about a subject that is so sensitive to them that neither one is willing to name the real subject of the discussion. Maybe one character is trying to sell something to the other, or convince them to change a political position. Maybe the discussion is a disagreement in parenting styles. 

Whatever. For this prompt, write a dialogue between two characters that takes place in a science fictional setting. Their discussion needs to either be about the science fictional element, or be impacted by the science fictional element. In other words, this dialogue could not exist without the science fiction in it. You can show the science fiction within the quotes, or in your description of the characters’ thoughts and actions outside of the quotes. Don’t agonize over anything! Close your eyes. Let them talk. Don’t worry about where the discussion will end up. You have fifteen minutes.


Setting Prompt:

Setting, of course, is where your story takes place, and we’ve already said that what makes science fiction what it is is setting, so clearly you’ll need to give it some thought. Also, there’s a convincing argument that one reason we read is to be taken out of our reality and into another. Most writers know this, so they spend considerable amount of time describing setting, some of them to the detriment of story. Just like when we wrote dialogue with tension, setting should be a part of the action in the story. Description of setting should be tied to what your characters are doing. People hardly ever just stop and inventory the world around them, and reading about people who do that can create a boring story (unless you are just brilliant in writing descriptions that are worthy all by themselves—Tolkien seemed to be able to do it).

For this prompt, give your character, maybe you could use one from the dialogue you’ve already written, something to do. Maybe your character is doing their job. Maybe they are trying to hide. Maybe they are looking for something. Maybe they are discovering a place that is new to them. Maybe they have a plan to change the setting they are in, drastically, and they are thinking of the contrast.

Remember two constraints:

  • This is a science fiction setting. Make sure you included details that make it one.
  • The setting shouldn’t be static. Your description should include your character’s actions and reactions. The story shouldn’t stop because you are describing. You can include dialogue.

Set yourself some goals while writing this:

  • Use at least three of your senses more than once (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell)
  • Include some ferociously specific details. It shouldn’t just be the forest; it should also be a single leaf, brown and dying, stuck to the porch rail from the last rain.
  • Make sure the reader knows through the description what mood your character is in. Do they like being there? Are they afraid? Are they mad? Are they tense? Don’t forget emotion.


Character Prompt:

For the third prompt we will focus on character. Character comes out in a variety of ways. Here are the nine most common:

  • Appearance
  • Mannerisms
  • Actions
  • Speech
  • Thought
  • Contemplation of their past
  • How they control their own environment
  • How others react
  • What the narrator tells the reader directly (avoid using this one unsupported from the others)

My guess is that if you used the same character in the dialogue and setting prompts that you already have done some work toward creating a character. Write a scene with that character or start a new one, where your character has a moral quandary. This is a situation where the character has to take an action that no one else will see or know about. How the scene plays out will reveal to the reader a world about your character.

A good situation might be to make a science fictional version of an old favorite: your character is walking down the street alone. On the sidewalk in front of them is a wallet. What does your character do? Write the scene. Use all of your writerly tricks. This is an introductory scene. Your narrator can describe the character if you want to (self-descriptions are tough in first person!). Use at least five of the techniques listed above to write the scene.


Colorado Public Radio Interviews James Van Pelt about Covid-19

Actually, what they wanted was a science fiction writer’s angle on possible impacts of the pandemic, and since I’d written a pandemic novel, Summer of the Apocalypse, they chose me. I suggested that a short story of mine, “Friday, After the Game,” was a better fit for the topic, so we talked about that instead.

Here is the interview.

The Best of James Van Pelt

This is the BIG project I’ve been working on for the last few months. Sixty-two stories chosen from almost three decades of publishing, including some previously uncollected work.  Only 200 copies will be released in a signed, numbered, limited edition hardcover with gorgeous wrap-around art. Available at Fairwood Press right now!

Available for preorder now for a November release

Promoting The Experience Arcade and Other Stories

Promoting a book is an interesting activity, and a separate one from writing the book or selling the book to a publisher. Marketing a book is a third challenge, or a third hobby, depending on how you think about it. It requires skills and a mindset that don’t seem related to the first two activities (and those two aren’t related either).

Image may contain: one or more people, possible text that says 'SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE JAMES VAN PELT'

I’ve been playing around with FaceBook ads to see how they impact book sales. Last month my son and I built a campaign for SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE. We noticed there was a lot of interest in pandemic related stories, so the timing was right. Other than a couple indignant notes from people who thought we were trying to capitalize of death and suffering (I’ve donated all money that came in from the book to relief organizations), I thought the campaign went well. We definitely moved the needle on book sales while we ran ads, although we spent more than we netted.

A nice feature of FB ads is that you can fine tune what audience will see the ad, and then note what works best. There’s a bunch of control for the author.

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For the next month we are working on marketing my last collection, THE EXPERIENCE ARCADE AND OTHER STORIES. This is a collection instead of a novel, and there are features in the book that point it to different audiences than SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE. Also, the book is not tied to current events, so our approach is impacted by that (also, I’m unlikely to get letters from people accusing me of profiting from a catastrophe).

Doing this experiment with FaceBook makes me want to learn more about advertising on other platforms. Amazon and Goodreads seem like possibilities. I’ve done some with Goodreads, like doing a giveaway when the book was released, mostly in the hopes it would generate reviews (not as many as I would hope), but I think there’s more to learn than I have discovered.

Free Van Pelt Stories at Curious Fictions

I have been posting about a story a week at one of the best online resources for short fiction you can find, Curious Fictions.

Authors can hide their stories behind paywalls for their subscribers, or offer it for free with the hope for tips and subscribers who would like to support the work.

If you follow an author there, you’ll receive a notification when your author posts new work.

You can also “like” the work, comment on it, and/or tip the author.

I’d love to see you there. Explore the work from over 600 other authors, and if you’d like, check out the collection of my stuff, stories that have appeared in numerous of the major magazines, been reprinted in several World’s Best anthologies, and also my Nebula Finalist story, “The Last of the O-Forms” (which are offered for free).

James Van Pelt at Curious Fictions.

“Finding Orson” at Curious Fictions

My latest piece is up at Curious Fictions, “Finding Orson,” which appeared originally in STRANGERS AND BEGGARS.

It’s one of my teaching stories–I easily have an entire collection’s worth of stories about high school from both the teachers’ and students’ point of view.

This one takes place in a world that looks exactly like our own except that everyone has a super power of some kind that kicks in during adolescence. You can imagine what it would be like to teach a classroom where some students have already received their “gift,” while others are waiting for it to kick in.

Well, you don’t have to imagine it–you can read about it in this story.

The other item of note here is that I wrote “Finding Orson” in 2001 while attending The Colorado Writing Project at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, which was a very cool program. Connie Willis was a guest speaker. I introduced her to the group of teachers in the program. That gave me an opportunity to absolutely gush about her achievements.

What I notice most about this story now is how far grading practices have changed in less than twenty years. When I wrote it, teachers still kept physical gradebooks where they wrote down students’ progress. When I had to determine grades each quarter, I would sit with my hand-written gradebook and calculator, entering the numbers and figuring averages. Now, grades go straight into the computer where parents and students can see a constantly updated, running record of their progress. When the grading period ends, I press a button, and all the figuring is done for me, saving a couple hours of manually entering everything.

I don’t think anything else has changed in the classroom other than that in the last twenty (or sixty) years.

Read the story.

An Occasional News Post

I have been spending much of my online time in two venues. The first is Curious Fictions where I try to post a story a week, generally on Wednesdays. The site contains a ton of free fiction. Readers can also subscribe to writers they like or give them tips.

Of course, I like tips. You can also follow writers who you want so when they post new stuff, you are notified. There’s a place to “like” stories or to comment on them. My latest contribution is “The Small Astral Object Genius,” which appeared the first time in Asimov’s.

I also have been posting short fiction reviews at Black Gate. Those also appear every two or three weeks and are free to read. The column is called “Stories that Work.” My mission is to comment on stories that I think are successful and what recommends them. I’m not searching for a “best of” necessarily, nor am I reviewing the stories I don’t think work. Here’s my latest for Black Gate.

Of course, I also hang out at Face Book regularly.

Keep safe! Social distance responsibly.

Becoming a Writer

A Goodreads member asked me a while ago what my advice was for aspiring writers. This was my reply:

This is an interesting question. I’m doing a 45-minute presentation at a local comicon that’s entitled, “Becoming a Writer.” It’s an intimidating topic for only 45 minutes! I think that I have to start with a rock-solid basic to answer the question, which is to read, read, read and write, write, write.

I know, that sounds unhelpful and stupid, but it’s actually the formula. You read to get story and language running in the back of your head, and you write because most of us have a lot of crummy writing to get through before we start getting to the better stuff. Writing is like any other art: you progress. Almost no one starts as a genius from the get go. They start crummier than they’re going to end up, and the only way to get from the beginning to the better is to wade through the crummy.

You read a lot to find your influences, and you write a lot to find your voice. It’s that simple.

Being simple doesn’t make it easy, by the way. If you want easy, inherit a lot of money.

Becoming a Creative Writing Teacher

At the end the last school year, I mentored two teachers who were going to teach Creative Writing for the first time. I put together a syllabus for them and a notebook (and thumbdrive) filled with examples, exercises, quizzes and everything else I could think of to help them get started.

I realized today, though, that no matter what I gave them, especially for teaching poetry to high school students, that nothing would start them down the path to being creative writing teachers better than collecting the first set of poems from the students.

This is about how teachers who haven’t done much creative writing (which neither had), can grow as a helpful guide to other writers.

Here’s what happens to the new teacher with that first stack of poems, or at least what should happen: the teacher reads the first poem. It will be both the best and worst high school poem that teacher has read. It will have almost no connection to any of the poetry the teacher read in literature classes. It will be an artifact all on its own.

Then the teacher reads the second poem. There’s a chance that it will vary so wildly from the first poem that there will be no comparison, like comparing an apple to a racoon. But by the time the last poem in the stack is read, the teacher will be able to roughly divide the poems into categories of effectiveness. A few of the poems, for whatever reason, will impact the teacher as a reader more strongly than the rest.

Now the teacher, if the teacher is going to be helpful to the students, has to be able to do at least two things for the class: first, tell them what qualities he thought the strongest poems possessed, and show the class those poems. Secondly, the teacher has to be able to say something constructive to each student about her/his poem.

That’s all: generalize about the set of poems, and be specific about individual ones. Hopefully the teacher does this in a positive fashion that stresses how writing is a personal, subjective, growth-centered activity. Every student feels their first effort was validated, and that they learned something from it and their classmate’s efforts to write one they like better the next time.

That’s all. This teaching stuff is a cinch. (See what I did there?)

Curious Fictions and Keeping the Word Alive

I see I haven’t posted here for a while. Most of my online time is spent at my Facebook page, which is facing a reality: many people use FaceBook and few visit author’s pages, but, still, I like a dedicated website.

I started my online presence at LiveJournal. I still have an account there, although it’s fairly dusty by now. I haven’t done much with other online media. I have a Linkedin account, but I don’t know why, and I post the occasional video at Youtube. Mostly, as I said, I visit Facebook. Lately, I’ve added Curious Fictions to my activity.

I like the idea of Curious Fictions. It’s a place where authors can reprint their backlist of previously published short stories. Readers can read many of the works in their entirety for free. They they can “like” the stories, comment on the stories, follow authors they enjoy, subscribe to an author (pay them monthly, sort of like Patreon), or leave a tip.

This way, authors can keep their words available and, possibly, generate a little more income from them.

I am posting a story a week there. Since I have over 150 stories to choose from, I have almost three years worth of content. Someone asked me if I was worried that publishing the work online might detract from my short story collection book sales. I’m not. Curious Fictions, if anything, may sell a few books. If someone likes my stuff online, they’re much more likely to look for more of it.

That’s why books exist!

At any rate, if you like short fiction, or you would like to see a sampling of my work, visit Curious Fictions. If you do, leave a comment there, or a “like,” or (cough), money.

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