Tips for Writing Speculative Fiction

Ronie Kendig is an award-winning, bestselling author who grew up an Army brat. After twenty-five years of marriage, she and her hunky hero husband have a full life with their children, a Maltese Menace, and a retired military working dog in Northern Virginia. She can be found at:
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Reviewers call Ronie’s newest release, EMBERS, “Simply amazing!” 

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For some, the term “speculative” fiction may be new. For others, it’s an all-inclusive term indicating stories that are fantasy, science fiction, supernatural/paranormal, etc. I’ve written twelve novels and nearly a half-dozen novellas in the last five years since my first title debuted, but now I’m also delighted for my speculative novels see the ink of publication. In doing so, I’ve become more aware than ever that there is always something new to learn. 

So, I invited several friends, who are writing or have written speculative fiction, to share a tip for writing in this unique genre. It’s kind of interesting, seeing their answers. None of them knew what the other would write, and it might appear that some contradict each other  But I say–Not so!! For each writer, there is a “perfect” way to write. Hopefully some of these tips will resonate with your style and give you a boost. They sure helped me! 

Speculative Writing Tips

Tosca LeeNew York Times Best-Selling author

Here’s the thing about this genre. It’s so easy to get lost in world-building and research (and don’t let anyone tell you there isn’t research in speculative fiction!). But at some point, it has to stop. Give yourself a time limit and stick to it. Go absolutely crazy crafting your world’s culture, technology, history and language—but stop at the end of the allotted time. Setting the stage is vitally important—but it’s what happens on that stage that counts.

R.J. Anderson – YA Fiction
Author of Rebel

My tip for spec fic writers would be that in all the big sweeping, epic events of your story, don’t forget the small, everyday details — the food your characters eat, the clothes they wear, the way they squabble with other family members or banter with friends, and so on. Because it’s those little things that convince readers to suspend their disbelief, and make your characters’ lives and experiences feel real. Even in books as tightly written as C.S. Lewis’s series, for instance, which are a lot shorter than most modern fantasy, we have descriptions of the miserable tedious hotness of crossing a desert on foot, the squelchy way packets of freshly cut up bear meat feel in one’s pockets (Prince Caspian), and a lesson in the importance of cleaning your sword after a battle (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe). Those moments may not seem to advance the story, but they anchor it and ground it for the reader. An ounce of reality is worth a pound of made-up technobabble.

Joseph Bentz – Fantasy 
Author of Dreams of Caladria

Each type of speculative fiction has its own challenges, but when it comes to fantasy, which is the category in which my novel, Dreams of Caladria (Enclave, 2015) fits, the first tip I would give is to not let the world you create get out of control. Rather than telling a story set within a world that already exists, most fantasy writers are creating a new world from the ground up, and the temptation is to want to tell everything about that world and to let the story sprawl. The first draft of my novel was more than 1,200 pages long, not because the story itself needed to be that long, but because I loved this world and wanted to immerse myself and the reader in it in every way possible. I took those 1,200 pages and rewrote the story from scratch, focusing the plot much more carefully. The shorter version made a much better book. The leftover material is not wasted. It’s still there for use—or at least inspiration—for future books.  
J. Wesley Bush – Science Fiction 
I think one key to writing speculative fiction, particularly fantasy, urban fantasy, or superheroic fiction, is to strike a balance between the classic and the new. If a novel relies too much on standard tropes, it feels stale, but if nothing is familiar, the reader can easily grow disoriented and frustrated. In my latest fantasy novel, I’ve included a fair number of classic fantasy creatures, and elements of ancient and medieval cultures, but with a strict rule: any genre tropes have to be given a fresh, creative twist. My dwarves are ‘dweorgs,’ a cursed race devoid of music or joy and covered in rocky exoskeletons. My hero belongs to a nation of horse lords, but they roam a savanna rather than the steppe. It’s great to build your world with classic parts, but be sure to give them a fresh polishing first.

Morgan Busse – Fantasy
Author of the Follower of the Word series

Enjoy “imagining” when writing your speculative novel. That is one of things I love best about writing fantasy or steampunk or even science fiction: asking “what if?” and then placing it in my story. What if there was a race of people who could feel the moods of the ocean and their eyes changed color? What if you could visit other people’s dreams? What if you were the last unicorn? It doesn’t have to be the main part of the plot, it can just be a small aspect of your novel. Maybe dogs can talk in your otherwise contemporary romance novella. Whatever the case, don’t be afraid to open yourself to your imagination and dream!

Serena Chase – Fantasy 
Author of The Sunken Realm

No matter how far “out-there” we go with our settings, characters, and plots, our wild and wily weirdness has to be countered by something relatable to the reader’s concrete reality. This is most easily done relationally, but for a story to satisfy in an emotive and reader-inclusive way, a reader’s known reality also needs to be revisited in moments—in beats and pauses—in which the establishing of daily habits and rituals within the characters’ (or the world’s) reality identify a slightly displaced or mirrored “normal” the reader already knows. Even hardcore high-spec readers who easily adapt to strange spellings and all manner of otherworldliness will abandon a series if they can’t find a familiar door by which they can enter the heart of the world and its main characters. Balancing the far-reaches of imagination with the at-home reality of habit and ritual invites readers into your world.

Shannon Dittemore – YA Fiction
Author of Dark Halo  

When you feel like the least creative soul on the planet, when sitting and writing feel like a waste, give your fingers a chance to prove you wrong. 
We absorb so many moments in our day-to-day living and when filtered through the unique sieve we each carry between our ears, it’s often the simple commitment of time that proves we do, in fact, have a little magic stored up inside.

Sharon Hinck – Contemporary Fantasy
Author of The Deliverer

Writers of historical fiction are familiar with the hazards of gathering piles of fascinating research — so fascinating that they want to include it all in the novel. The best writers are careful to ration the details to those that directly enrich the story without bogging down the pace or showing off the research. Speculative fiction has a similar hazard. We create complex worlds with their own geography, politics, science, and cultures. We draw maps for ourselves, develop richly woven histories. But if we include too much of that detail in the story we can lose the engagement with characters and the emotional impact of the story. It’s wonderful for the author to create reams of detailed information–and then NOT include it all in the book. Include only the details that serve the story and the reader.

Ronie Kendig – Speculative Fiction 
Author of Embers

RULES. It might seem counter-intuitive, but make sure you have rules to the unique world you’re building. For example, in Embers, my characters can harness and wield heat/fire, but there are rules that guide their wielding, both how and where. I confess when I first starting writing this story, I simply wanted to enjoy the story, so much of the editing process with my amazing editor (waving to Reagan!!) was pushing me to define the rules of the world my characters live in. So, now, I encourage writers to define those as you go and save yourself heartache (and desperate need for chocolate and Starbucks) later! 

Sarah E. Morin
Author of Waking Beauty

Draw maps. I resisted the urge for years, even though many fantasy novels I read began with gorgeous, oldey-timey maps. Why? It felt – pretentious? Maybe I was simply intimidated. But building your world includes geography. My two main kingdoms were at war over an enchanted forest. Well, what stopped the mightier one from simply invading? A mountain range? Lack of seaports? A cold climate could affect what plants and animals thrived there, therefore what they wore, ate, their houses. Midway through writing Waking Beauty, I slapped together a map with purple triangles for mountains and green circles for trees, and slid the shapes around until the plot points meshed. Would my map ever appear in a book? No. But the exercise made me rewrite some key details. You don’t have to be a cartographer to benefit from this exercise. And don’t forget to throw in the occasional, “Here there be dragons.”

John Otte – Science Fiction
Author of The Hive

When you’re writing a speculative fiction story, you’re going to create a fantastical world filled with wonder and awesomeness. If you’ve done your world-building right, you’ll want to share your incredible creation with your readers, every single little corner of it. In a word, don’t. Resist the urge to explain every little facet of your magic system, world history, culture and language. Let the readers explore it on their own and figure out how it works. Brandon Sanderson did this in his Mistborn trilogy. He showed us mistborn and metalminds at work before he gave us any sort of explanation. Do the same thing. Let your readers go on a journey with your characters and discover the world you’ve created with them.

Paul Regnier – Science Fiction 
Author of Space Drifters – The Emerald Enigma

Instructional books on speculative fiction writing can be a valuable step in your writing journey. However, sometimes all the “rules” can leave you a little dizzy. If you’ve ever tried to implement the litany of techniques needed for a perfect baseball or golf swing and ended up with a rigid, mechanical effort, you know the feeling. 
Sometimes writers have that same rigid feeling with their stories. The desire to follow all the recommended techniques is daunting and leaves the stories sounding a bit too assembled. 
When that kind of “writer’s stiffness” sets in, I recommend returning to that state of mind you had when you first started writing. The pure joy of diving into a story before you knew all the rules.
I’m not suggesting discarding the guidelines for proper and powerful fiction. Just don’t forget to stick close to the reason you started writing in the first place.

Jill Williamson – Fantasy 
Author of Darkness Reigns (free e-book)

The point of writing fiction is to entertain. Readers won’t care much for your amazing storyworld if you don’t have interesting characters and an engaging plot. So build storyworld elements around plot and characters, and write your story as if your reader already knows your world. This should keep you from info-dumping storyworld elements. You might have to add some details here and there during the rewrite stage, but starting with less should keep you from overdoing it. 

When you rewrite, make a list of elements that still need to be added in, then brainstorm ways that each might tie in with characters, the overall plot, or subplots, then work in those that feel natural. But keep in mind that some elements might not find a place. And that’s okay. Use what fits naturally and doesn’t feel forced. Leave the rest out.

Are you a speculative author and have a tip? Please share in the comments!