Today is the first day of the Melbourne Emerging Writers’ Festival! And tomorrow, I’m heading to one of their masterclasses: Speculative Fiction. I’ll hear what some of Australia’s best spec writers have to share about worldbuilding, creating nonhuman characters, and marketing science fiction and fantasy!
So I thought today I’d briefly share a few things I know already about writing these genres, since that’s mainly what I do. For those of my readers not familiar with this world of geekdom:
- Speculative fiction (spec) is science fiction, fantasy and all their subgenres, because they speculate about worlds and times where things are possible that aren’t in our world.
- SF/F or SFF is short for science fiction and fantasy.
- ‘Hard’ sci-fi is that which is grounded solidly in what science can already do or has found – think ‘Gravity’, ‘The Martian’, etc.
- High fantasy is your sprawling epics in imaginary worlds. Low fantasy is when fantastical things intrude into our world. Urban fantasy is similar to low: it’s when werewolf truckers and bartending witches and vampire AA meetings exist alongside the rest of us.
- Steampunk, which we’ve discussed before, is in a weird boundary zone. It often involves magic, and is more often based on past technologies or discoveries than current ones. I tend to put it with SF, because the one thing all steampunk stories tend to have in common is, well, steam. Without machines, it’s not steampunk – and without meaningful social commentary, it’s not steampunk either. Stories with a steampunk aesthetic but no steam and no punk might be called gaslamp fantasy, clockpunk or something else, depending on what elements do appear in the story.
1. Make the spec elements essential to the story.
This would seem an obvious one, but it’s surprising how often aspiring writers trip up on it. The imagined elements must play a key role. If the magic or the mutants could be cut out with no harm to the character development, plot or message, they’re only so much window dressing – and what’s more, window dressing of a style that plenty of people dislike.
In an early draft of one of my stories, the heroine’s hydrokinesis was this. Sure, she could use it to make her life more convenient – she could wring out her hair and clothes pretty fast – but it didn’t help her solve any major problems. Eventually, though, a problem presented itself that could not be solved any other way but with her powers. Now it’s one of my, and my beta readers’, favourite scenes.
Spec elements should never be included just to raise the coolness factor – especially because spec has huge potential to make a political statement when done right. That has been a part of science fiction from the beginning, and perhaps fantasy too, considering its roots in fairytales and mythology, which often have a moral at their core. Mary Shelley wrote about the need to face the moral consequences of scientific experimentation. HG Wells’ titular Time Machine wasn’t used for fun adventures: rather, it showed the horrors of a world where unequal distribution of wealth and labour had caused humanity to evolve into two new species of dumb little puddings and the subterranean carnivorous gorillas that preyed on them.
So be sure to ask yourself why you need this story to be the genre that it is, and give yourself a well-argued answer.