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. TWEETABLES
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.
Buy Saving Yesterday Here. Or the Sequeal Capturing Today Here.
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.
Joshua Johnston was raised on science fiction television and film before being introduced, in his teenage years, to the wider universe of science fiction literature. In addition to his daily work teaching American history and American government, he is an occasional writer on a variety of topics, including video games and parenting. His debut novel, the science fiction epic Edge of Oblivion, released with Enclave Publishing in April 2016. You can find him online at www.joshuaajohnston.com
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Anyone who writes fiction for a hobby inevitably reaches a crossroads: do I want to take the next step and try to become a published author? The answer will be different for each person, and there are tradeoffs for each. Ahead are five questions that a prospective novelist should try to think about:
Do I want this to be a “hobby” or a “business?” In general, the IRS views a “hobby” as something that ultimately loses money, while a “business” is something that ultimately makes money (even by a small amount). Some fiction writers are content to pay someone to print their work just as a fun or valuable project, knowing they will never recoup their costs, while others write with the hope that their work sells enough to clear and exceed the investment they put into it.
If your answer is a “hobby,” the next questions are useful. If you answer is a “business,” the next questions are crucial.
Am I willing to surround myself with talent? While Google and how-to books are fantastic resources for answering questions, inevitably every aspiring author is going to need people around them. Depending on one’s skillset, an author may need help building a website, for example, or securing a quality professional photograph. And every author benefits from people who can give them feedback on their writing.
Am I willing to respond to feedback and criticism? No author likes being told to make changes to a novel they’ve worked so hard to craft. It’s our baby, we have a vision for it, and change is both disappointing and time-consuming. And what if, you worry, they give bad advice? Ask any published author of even modest success and they’ll tell you two things: 1) that criticism is hard and 2) that most of the feedback they received made their writing better. My science fiction novel, Edge of Oblivion, went through beta readers (some authors, some just fans of sci-fi) as well as the publisher’s professional macro and line edits; I would estimate that about 90-95% of the advice I got across the board was not only spot-on in hindsight, but was corroborated by other people giving me feedback. That’s a lot more good than bad.
Should I query an agent, pitch directly to publishers, or self-publish? There are plenty of articles espousing the virtues of one single approach, but the honest truth is that each has their own pros and cons. Securing an agent can help access bigger publishers but can make the process longer; self-publishing can shorten the process dramatically but places all the logistics – and their costs – on the writer. What is best for you depends on many things, including your writing credits and your preferences. Whatever course you take, you need to research it carefully: if you submit an unsolicited manuscript to a small publisher, for example, make sure you’ve got a proposal that tells them exactly what they want to know along with a complete, polished manuscript ready to go.
Do I have the time and will to build a platform? For aspiring authors, it can feel a little awkward to establish a platform before you have a product. It’s worth the trouble; whether you’re self-published or under contract with a massive publishing conglomerate, the more ways readers can find and interact with you (including before you have a product!), the more credible and ultimately the more successful you’ll be. If you don’t believe me, try finding a reasonably successful author who doesn’t have some sort of online presence. As with many things, everyone has an opinion on what is “best,” whether it be blogging, specific social media sites, or some special sauce to put into a website. Every author needs to evaluate what they have the resources and will to do, but it’s a given that having something resembling a hub to interact with readers is a given.
About Edge of Oblivion:
Earth has emerged from a cataclysmic dark age with little knowledge of its past. Aided by the discovery of advanced alien technology, humanity ventures into the stars, joining other sentient races in a sprawling, prosperous interstellar Confederacy.
That peace is soon shattered. Without warning, the Confederacy comes under attack by an unstoppable alien force from the unknown regions. With hopes for civilization’s survival dwindling, Commander Jared Carter is sent to pursue an unlikely lead: a collection of ancient alien religious fragments which may – or may not – hold the key to their salvation …
Book one of The Chronicles of Sarco series.
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 Lee – New 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.
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.
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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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
This is true in marriage, of course. But it’s also true in writing.
Novel Rocket’s Launch Pad judges recently finished critiquing the entries in the Contemporary Romance category. But, alas, they deemed none of them quite ready for prime time.
Upon receiving their report, I was curious, so I looked over the entries. I didn’t see any obvious problems – spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, all appeared to be well done. So why did the judges say they couldn’t in good conscience put Novel Rocket’s seal of approval on any of them?
A closer look gave me the answer. The stories were good as far as they went. But they didn’t go quite far enough.
Some of the problems: underdeveloped plot; characters’ goals and purposes absent or obscure; no establishment of setting at the beginning of a scene; and no immediate conflict facing the protagonist.
Other entries had trouble with clarity and/or consistency within the story as well as issues with over-explaining and over-describing.
“Picky, picky!” you might complain. “Didn’t you just say the entries were well written? Those things you mention are no big deal!”
Launch Pad Trophy
Well, I might agree with you except… they are a big deal! For a novel to make it in today’s world, “good enough” is simply not good enough. A successful novel must stand out from the ordinary.
The happy news for this month’s contest entrants is that they’re well on their way; their writing shows mastery of the basic techniques. They simply need to polish their craft. We hope the writers will find the judges’ comments useful toward that end—and we hope they won’t be discouraged, because they’re definitely headed in the right direction.
So where do we go from here? I can’t speak for the writers, but as for us here at the Launch Pad Contest, another panel of judges is immersed in the Speculative Fiction entries. The deadline for that category is this Wednesday (September 10), so if you’d like to take part, please do so soon! Check out the submission requirements on the Launch Pad tab and send your entry to us at NovelRocketContest at gmail dot com.
The worst that can happen? You’ll get two (2) thorough, professional critiques. At best? You just might end up being our Grand Prize winner. (Wouldn’t that glass rocket look stunning on your shelf? Wouldn’t you love a personal introduction to an agent or editor who’s looking for just the sort of thing you write?)
Questions? Comments? Contact us at the gmail address above. We have a real person standing by (okay, I’m sitting, actually) to respond.
Will we have a winner in the Speculative Fiction category next month? Stop by on October 13 to find out, and to read the winning entry if there is one.
Will you be this year’s Grand Prize winner? I don’t know, but the suspense is killing me!
When she’s not overseeing the Launch Pad Contest, Yvonne Anderson writes fiction that takes you out of this world.
The Last Toqeph, the fourth (and final) title in her Gateway to Gannah sci-fi series, releases next month. If you’ve never visited Gannah, you’re missing an amazing experience. But never fear! You can remedy that sad state of affairs by booking your flight to the first stop on the itinerary with The Story in the Stars.