Writing Craft: On Writing Speculative Fiction
Why write speculative fiction? The answers are varied, numerous and wonderful; speculative fiction is designed to create new worlds.
This article is a living document. It will evolve and change over time. It was created as a writing supplementary document for a speculative fiction class, designed specifically for students of color. I will continue to add useful resources to the document as my time permits. Check back at least one a month. If there’s something you think should be included, please make a note in the side comments.
What I hope this article will do is introduce you to terms, concepts and ideas used to describe speculative fiction. It’s not meant to fully explain any singular concept, but to point you in the general direction.
A Brief History of Speculative Fiction
Speculative fiction is a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements. The popularity of the term is sometimes attributed to Robert Heinlein, who referenced it in 1947 in an editorial essay, although there are prior mentions of speculative fiction, or its variant “speculative literature” (from the History of Science Fiction, Wikipedia).
The literary genre of science fiction is diverse, and its exact definition remains a contested question among both scholars and devotees. There are two broad camps of thought, one that identifies the genre’s roots in early fantastical works such as the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (earliest Sumerian text versions c. 2150–2000 BCE). A second approach argues that science fiction only became possible sometime between the 17th and early 19th centuries, following the Scientific Revolution and major discoveries in astronomy, physics, and mathematics.
Question of deeper origins aside, science fiction developed and boomed in the 20th century, as the deep integration of science and inventions into daily life encouraged a greater interest in literature that explores the relationship between technology, society, and the individual. In recent decades, the genre has diversified and become firmly established as a major influence on global culture and thought.
A LIST OF SPECULATIVE FICTION WRITERS OF COLOR: This list is not definitive nor all-inclusive: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speculative_fiction_by_writers_of_color
The terms “multicultural,” “person of color,” “women of color,” and “people of color,” are generally considered United States terms. A writer of color is generally defined as a writer that is a part of a marginalized culture in regards to traditional Euro-Western mainstream culture.
While writers of color focus on experiences unique to their cultural heritage, many do not only write about their particular culture or members within that culture, the works of many well-known writers of color tend to examine issues of identity politics, religion, feminism, race relations, economic disparity, and the often unacknowledged and rich histories of various cultural groups.
Those Wikipedia entries are nice but what IS speculative fiction?
Speculative fiction is any kind of fiction which creates a world of fantastic fiction which may or may not resemble the world we live in. In most cases, this kind of genre fiction embodies alternative ideas of reality including magic, space or time travel, alternative realities, or alternative histories.
My loose breakdown of the major published genres are: science fiction, fantasy, horror, military/wuxia, pulp and ‘punk. A more definitive list with descriptions follows in the link at the end.
Science Fiction: the most generically known form of speculative fiction. Tends to come in two flavors — hard and soft.
- Hard science fiction is noted primarily by its attempt to adhere to known physical rules of the universe. The most common reference is the limit to the speed of light as the fastest phenomenon in the universe.
- Soft Science fiction tends towards stories where the science is less strictly held to the laws of physic and the stories issues tend toward social, sociological, psychological issues raised by the creation, use or development of technology.
Fantasy: Any story which takes place where the laws of physics are routinely changed with the use of magic or magical technologies. Fantasy also comes in a couple of well-known flavors — ‘High fantasy’ or ‘epic fantasy’ and ‘low fantasy’ or ‘sword and sorcery’
- High Fantasy: Where the tales revolve around entire kingdoms, mighty wizards, ancient machines, supernatural animals such as dragons and multiple species vying for control of the world using magic or other mysterious, generally non-scientific means.
- Low Fantasy: Tends to revolve more around individuals whose lives are spent fighting for or against a particular cause, even if that cause is just getting to one’s next meal. Sword and sorcery, a particular kind of low fantasy usually deals with magic as a undesirable or unreliable tool, used only as a last resort.
Horror/Supernatural: Tales of the unknown and the unknowable. Often these are legends retold under modern circumstances, other times they are the application of new technologies and how these technologies can go horribly wrong. Horror bridges both science fiction and fantasy as the source of the unknowable can be either scientific (aliens) or legendary (vampires).
Pulp: Tales of swashbuckling, daring and adventure.
- A particular type of speculative fiction known from the 1920 to the 1960 characterized by their production onto low-quality paper. The stories were often considered low-quality as well, hence the nature of the world having pejorative connotations.
- Today, however, pulp or neo-pulp is enjoying a resurgence as the heroes of those eras move into modern tales characterized by over the top adventures, larger than life legendary heroes. If James Bond, came to mind, he would be an example of a modern pulp hero.
Military/Wuxia: These are stories which revolve around military life, warfare, warlike heroes of mythic stature. These tales emphasis the military aspects of the story far more than most speculative fiction and the main protagonists tend to be soldiers, warriors, martial artists or other military-themed individuals.
Steampunk and all of its derivative genres: The ‘punk genres are all related to a set of protagonists not at ease with the status quo, whatever period that is.
- Steampunk, for example, deals with an era where steam technology develops and is used to push the world forward with larger steam-powered machines and clockwork devices. In many of these worlds, computer technology does not develop the same way it did on Earth, making for strange automatons, both capable and yet primitive.
- The other ‘punk genres are generally counter-culture, meaning they fight against whatever the primary culture deems important because it is also stagnating and reductive, making people in slaves of the mainstream culture.
There are many other genres of speculative fiction and what makes it better than a lot of kinds of writing is you are free to mix and match the genres which suit your writing style and your tastes best. This is one of the great strengths of speculative fiction.
Star Wars is a wonderful example of a science-fantasy universe with: A military-based story, a low magical underlying theme (Jedi and the use of The Force) using a mythic theme (the chosen one and his hero’s journey) in a high fantasy universe with the existence of numerous species on multiple worlds
The Many Genres of Speculative Fiction
- Genres of speculative fiction: Here is a listing of speculative fiction subgenres. Each comes with its own section and explanations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Science_fiction_genres
- National Public Radio’s Top 100 ‘best’ speculative fiction: http://www.listchallenges.com/npr-top-100-science-fiction-and-fantasy-books
- Reddit’s Top 100 ‘best’ fantasy fiction: http://www.listchallenges.com/reddits-top-105-fantasy-novelsseries-of-all-time
Why write speculative fiction?
The benefits of writing speculative fiction are many.
- The freedom to address ideas and themes which may be considered socially difficult or even taboo with most fiction: race, religion, gender, social issues, poverty, extreme wealth, inequality.
- The freedom to imagine worlds completely different from our own. Speculative fiction gives you the ability to create worlds, ideas, themes that have no place in our current reality. Creating internally-consistent fantasy worlds allow writers to experiment with nature in ways not currently possible with science as we know it.
- The ability to extrapolate the future, based on the present: you have the option to take our current world or some past world and change an element of that past/present and talk about a possible future, either more favorable or less, depending on the ideas you are addressing. This is one of the most powerful aspects of speculative fiction.
Writing and Productivity Resources
- Focusbooster: A countdown clock app, which helps you focus your attention on writing for a specified amount of time. Counts up or down: https://www.focusboosterapp.com/
- Noisli: a concentration enhancer, plays random sounds in the background to help you release your mind to create: http://www.noisli.com/
- Writer: A distraction free writing tool which gives you just a screen and a blank page, no menus or other distractions: https://writer.bighugelabs.com
- Word Counter: A writer’s tool to help you track your story’s statistics including word and character count, grade level, sentences, and word density: http://www.wordcounter.net/
- InkedOutLoud: a primer on the different types of outlining: https://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/the-ever-dreaded-outline/
- The Hemingway App: A program designed to help you improve your writing by indicating how to improve the style and voice in your writing: http://www.hemingwayapp.com/beta/index.html
- Outlining: Snowflake Method: An outlining creation process designed to help writers with creating their novel. http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/
- 750words.com: A distraction-free writing environment which includes statistical information and writing badges for days of continual writing. The more days in a row you write, the more advanced badges you receive. It used to be free, but now costs about five dollars a month. http://750words.com
- Seize Your Creativity: My essay on how you can improve your writing regularly by making it a daily habit: https://medium.com/@ebonstorm/seize-your-creativity-bda56031cc8d
Where to experiment with writing online
- Wattpad.com: The best of the online writing environments. The interface is easy to learn, visually compelling and has an extensive collections of other writers to read and learn from — http://wattpad.com
- Inkitt.com: One of the newer collections of writers with a relatively easy to use interface. The quality of writers varies widely but there are editors and contests pointing out the best of these nascent writers. Contests held here are free and give you an opportunity to have your work actively reviewed by local editors and other writers. http://Inkitt.com
- Fanfiction.net: An old site with a very funky interface, but there are thousands of stories here by varying qualities of writers. What makes this site fairly unique is the nature of the stories being told. Fan fiction are stories told with already existing characters you know in fiction. http://fanfiction.net
- Medium.com: Works only if you have an existing Twitter account to log into. A decent networking, test-writing area where multiple writers can share, edit and coordinate writing documents for publication.
- Writing World: — an excellent website breaking down all aspects of writing from outlining to manuscript production. A goldmine of information: http://www.writing-world.com/sf/genres.shtml
- Dammit, I’m a Science Fiction Writer: Requires A Facebook account — this online forum is a collection of writers who share ideas and information on improving one’s writing skills and publishing opportunities as a writer of speculative fiction. We have several famous writers as members who share their experiences in the industry. The age recommendation is 14+, but there are no pornographic, erotic or lewd information displayed. Moderation is taken seriously and offenders are summarily booted. https://www.facebook.com/groups/471829406194599/
Mushishi (Japanese: 蟲師?) is a manga series written and illustrated by Yuki Urushibara. It was serialized in Afternoon Seasons Zōkan from 1999 to 2002, and inMonthly Afternoon from December 2002 to August 2008. The individual chapters were collected and released into ten tankōbon volumes by Kodansha. Those volumes were localized to North America by Del Rey between January 2007 and August 2010. The series follows Ginko, a man who dedicates himself to keeping people protected from supernatural creatures called Mushi.
I give this series 5 STARS. Unlike a lot of standard anime, this is not an action-oriented series; its slow and placid stories accent its cerebral scripting and thoughtful pacing. As a writer seeking to experience a different storytelling venue, I thought Mushishi was without equal. You can try out this amazing anime series at Crunchyroll: http://www.crunchyroll.com/mushi-shi.
The significance of plot without conflict
In the West, plot is commonly thought to revolve around conflict: a confrontation between two or more elements, in which one ultimately dominates the other. The standard three- and five-act plot structures–which permeate Western media–have conflict written into their very foundations. A “problem” appears near the end of the first act; and, in the second act, the conflict generated by this problem takes center stage. Conflict is used to create reader involvement even by many post-modern writers, whose work otherwise defies traditional structure.
The necessity of conflict is preached as a kind of dogma by contemporary writers’ workshops and Internet “guides” to writing. A plot without conflict is considered dull; some even go so far as to call it impossible. This has influenced not only fiction, but writing in general–arguably even philosophy. Yet, is there any truth to this belief? Does plot necessarily hinge on conflict?
NO. But to understand this, you must read further after the link.
by: Still Eating Oranges: A Tumblr Blog
© Thaddeus Howze 2015, All Rights Reserved
Thaddeus Howze is a California-based author and veteran technology professional whose work has appeared in magazines, including The Huffington Post, The Enemy, Quora.com, Black Enterprise, the Good Men Project, the Examiner.com, Scifiideas.com and Astronaut.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @ebonstorm or on his blog at Hub City Blues.