Pro tips for writing and publishing speculative fiction

Seasoned writers explain what speculative fiction is, while literary agents share how you can get it published.

Speculative fiction writers

Adult versus young adult speculative fiction

Though they’re not exactly “genres,” adult speculative fiction and YA speculative fiction are certainly different categories in which age and maturity matter. But where is the line between them? As a writer of either, how can you be sure you’re following the various genre conventions or reader expectations?

According to Bujold, the critical dividing line between the two is the age of the protagonist: “Two works otherwise nearly identical in style and tone might, for example, be sorted into separate markets depending on whether the focus character was 15 or 30.”

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For Adrianne Finlay, whose book Your One & Only was named one of the best YA science fiction novels of 2018 by Kirkus Reviews, there are two critical dividing lines between the YA and the adult form. Like Bujold, she rules out the writer’s handling of particular fictional elements: “The tone, content, premise, vocabulary, and character development within young adult books varies as much in YA as it does in adult fiction, and the category is usually not defined by these considerations.

“What makes a book YA,” she continues, “is partly the assumed age of the audience (around 12-18), and the age of the main character (also around 12-18, though probably toward the older end).” The operative word here is “partly.” The themes taken up in the YA work constitute the second dividing line: “Certainly there are plenty of adult books that feature teenaged protagonists, so what makes a book truly YA are the general themes explored in the story.” These themes relate to “issues surrounding the transition from childhood to adulthood – the formation of identity and self-discovery, searching for one’s place in the world, first love, first loss, and coming of age, to name only a few.”

Older states it succinctly: “Every book is about a crisis at the heart of the book. In YA fiction, it’s about shedding the mythology of childhood.”

Janice Hardy
Janice Hardy. Photo by Karen Nickel

Or, as Hardy puts it: “YA is about making mistakes and figuring out who you are as a person, and that’s at the core of any YA story no matter what the genre. With speculative fiction, the stakes are typically higher, and the price of failure much more costly, so a large percentage of YA speculative fiction is about ‘saving the world’ in some way.”

From a historical perspective, says Silverberg, there’s a notable difference between today’s YA speculative fiction and that of 50 years ago. Drawing on his early experience in writing the form, he states, “When I was writing YA SF fifty years ago, writers avoided dark emotional complexities, particularly of the sexual kind. But apparently that taboo is no longer operative. And much YA SF now seems to be dystopian, whereas writers in my era were encouraged to take an upbeat view of the future.”

Tips from speculative fiction writers

Perhaps you’re normally a writer of realistic fiction and you’re just now branching out, trying your hand at some form of speculative fiction. Or let’s say you’ve been writing speculative fiction for a while, but you’d like tips for improvement. According to the pros, what are some key do’s and don’ts?

Linda Nagata
Linda Nagata. Photo by Dallas Nagata White

For Nagata, if you want to write good speculative fiction, “First and most important, read a lot of good speculative fiction and read widely. Be open to subgenres new to you and read outside the field too.”

But don’t be derivative, cautions Hardy: “It’s important to push boundaries and create fresh worlds and ideas readers haven’t seen dozens of times before.”

“Speculative fiction is a heavy trope genre, so it’s easy to rely on tropes and not move beyond them when developing a story,” she says. As examples of tropes, she includes The Chosen One (e.g., Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Luke Skywalker), The Noble Savage (e.g., Avatar), and time travel.

“Keep an eye on the story’s internal logic,” says Nagata. “Your speculative element needs to be consistent within the rules you set for it, and it needs to be a critical part of the plot.”

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Strong worldbuilding is essential, states Johnson. “A fantasy or science fiction writer has to convince the reader that the story she is telling is set in a world as real as our own. She may not know every detail of her world’s physical and human geography, its assumptions and history, or its scientific and moral rules; but she conveys the sense that she is describing a place that is plausible and complicated, just like our own.”

“I am especially frustrated by science fiction and (non-fabulist) fantasy that isn’t rigorous,” she continues. Writers must get the essentials of that world down in adequate detail: “A nation (or a spaceship, or a galactic empire, or a magic system, or 1810 London) requires resources and resource management. It exists in a world with physics, even if they’re not ours. It is part – perhaps a small part – of a much larger system.” If you’re writing realistic fiction, as she points out, you know “the rules” of that world, or you can research them; by the same token, don’t slight the “realities” of the world you’re creating in your speculative fiction, she cautions.

But in focusing on the speculative element, don’t ignore characterization, warns Nagata. “No matter how amazing your fantastical element might be, your story is about the characters. Show us who they are. Make us care about them. It’s the human element that makes a good story, even if you’re writing about aliens.”

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Daniel José Older
Daniel José Older

 “What brings speculative fiction to life is the anchor it has to the non-speculative elements,” Older says. Ordinary “human actions…make us believe in the reality of the work, and then we can accept the ‘fantastical world.’”

In the same vein, Silverberg cautions against “thinly characterized characters.” Other problems that need to be addressed include “melodrama,” “implausible plot situations,” and “awkwardness of style.”

How about YA speculative fiction?

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Keep your audience firmly in mind, states Finlay. “To write YA science fiction, or any book for young adults, authors should most importantly have a profound respect for their audience. Young adult readers are so often thoughtful, intelligent, empathetic, and engaged with the world around them, and as readers they’re passionate, dedicated, and incredibly observant.” Given these traits of YA readers, Finlay says, “they deserve books that speak to who they are and what is important to them.”

Adrianne Finlay
Adrianne Finlay. Photo by Jamie Orr Photography

What makes good YA dystopian fiction? As Finlay sees it, such works “offer us an opportunity to engage with contemporary problems and concerns through the lens of fiction.” The question to ask yourself, she says, is how does the fictional world you’re setting out to create relate to the real world around you? What kinds of problems do you see in this world that you can address in your fiction? Think of it this way, she suggests: “Any good dystopian story opens up an exploration of fundamental ideas in our culture and tells us as much about the real world as it does about the fictional world presented in the book.”

In fact, according to Finlay, YA dystopian literature can serve a valuable educational function. “This exploration offers a space for the young adult reader to begin interrogating the adult world that they are preparing to join.” Such interrogation amounts to critical thinking, and this higher-order thinking has implications not only for the individual but also for society as a whole: “At their best, dystopian stories lead to reshaping and subverting our dominant assumptions and expectations and offer up a pathway to a better society for young people who are still determining what impact they wish to have on the world.”