by Jess Evander, @authorkeller
When most people think spec fiction they picture four-hundred page tomes that have made-up languages, names the reader can’t pronounce, and are heavy on world building. But spec fiction doesn’t have to get bogged down in the details, even when you’re writing complex layers, intersecting plot lines, and many locations.
In my TimeShifters series, the story begins in a contemporary setting until Gabby Creed discovers she’s a Shifter—a person who gets pulled through time to protect humanity and safeguard history. The rest of the series straddles multiple historical settings as well as a fictional place called Keleusma where the Shifters live and train.
Changing locations on top of time travel has the ability to quickly confuse a reader, but with the use of a couple of tricks, it’s not hard at all.
1) Ground the reader with tangible items they can relate to.
If you’re going to tell a story that takes place on a purple planet where the creatures have horns on their face instead of noses, that’s fine, but give the reader a way to bond with the location so they can picture it. Think of it as a flag in the ground that everything else can grow from. Like when you’re traveling in a third world country and come across a bottle of Coke and suddenly don’t feel so lost.
Think of Tolkien. For all the strange names and languages found in Lord of the Rings, the world is easy to imagine because it has forests and mountains and rivers—same as ours. In TimeShifters all of my Shifters obsessed over the pumpkin muffins in Keleusma. It was something a reader could instantly picture without any description, something to make them feel comfortable.
2) Rein in the outrageous.
Spec fiction is the place to let your imagination explode, within reason. Why stop at purple planets and horns instead of noses? Why not have them walk on ceilings and sleep underwater and eat … you get the picture.
At some point (even in spec fiction) we have to pull the reins on our imagination for the sake of our readers. It’s easy to make them feel lost (remember, help them find the bottle of Coke—offer them something normal to hang onto while they absorb everything else). Be choosy. Pick make or break aspects of your story world and highlight those. After that, err on the side of making the reader comfortable in your setting instead of making the setting crazy-different.
3) When you bring us somewhere familiar, use description sparsely.
Speculative fiction is my favorite genre to read (YA spec fiction, to be exact) but the quickest way an author can get me to put the book down is to slow down the plot and character development with huge portions of text dedicated to description dumps and world building. World building is important—imperative—but a cool world doesn’t a story make. Your characters are why we’re reading, so keep the focus on them.
When you bring your characters somewhere familiar (for a reader), use that time to build plot and characters and keep your description to a minimum. In the Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins doesn’t load the first chapters detailing where Katniss lives because most of us have learned about mining and what miners’ lives are like. As an author you have to be in-tune with the preconceived ideas about your setting and use that as a springboard for your writing.
While Gabby is in contemporary time it would be a waste of space to detail her family home because the reader knows what a suburban house looks like. The reader doesn’t need to know the color of the carpeting unless it’s meaningful to the story.
That’s the best question to ask while writing: Is this meaningful to the storyline? If not, leave it out.
4) Use extra detail when you land your character in places that will be unfamiliar to your readers.
This is completely contrary to my last point, but stick with me here. When we drop our characters in a place that is completely unrelatable to our readers, this is when you can disregard everything else I’ve said, roll up your sleeves, and detail to your heart’s desire.
For me, it was when I dropped Gabby into historical situations. I needed her to catalogue the world so she could figure out when she was and what her mission would be—but this also served to help readers connect to the location.
In unfamiliar places we have to take time setting the stage before action and development can happen, or else you risk losing or confusing readers.
By doing these things and balancing world-building details, we can write spec fiction that captures readers with plot and pacing that doesn’t suffer because of details, but instead, shines because of them.
Despite the fact that she acts as a parent to her alcoholic father, Gabby Creed feels pretty normal. But her life is turned upside-down on her seventeenth birthday when a bracelet appears on her wrist and sucks her back through time.
Turns out she’s not even a little bit normal. She’s a Shifter—a protector of humans and of history itself. And she’s not alone. The other Shifters believe Gabby is special, even more special than the mysterious Michael Pace. Oh, and the Shades—seriously creepy creatures who feed off of human despair—are determined to capture her.
It’s all a lot to absorb. So Gabby’s grateful to have Michael as her Trainer—or she would be if she could get her rebellious heart under control. Then again, if the rumors about her blood are true, saving yesterday will be the least of her worries.
Jess Evander is the young adult pen name used by multi-published author, Jessica Keller. Jessica holds degrees in both Communications and Biblical Studies. She writes Young Adult Fiction and Inspirational Romance. Making her home in the Midwest, Jessica lives for fall, farmer’s markets, and driving with the windows down. She firmly believes there’s never a wrong time to eat cake.