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Five Reasons You Should Write Contemporary Fiction

I love speculative fiction. The first movie I remember seeing (at about age three or four) was the movie Them. I had a Darth Vader poster looming over my bed, and glow-in-the-dark vampire teeth on my bedside table. The first […]
| Aug 5, 2011 | No comments |

I love speculative fiction. The first movie I remember seeing (at about age three or four) was the movie Them. I had a Darth Vader poster looming over my bed, and glow-in-the-dark vampire teeth on my bedside table. The first short story I ever wrote (in high school) was about a guy who invented time travel, but neglected to take into account the movement of the Earth in his calculations and found himself floating in Earth orbit when he (successfully) tested his time machine. For some reason unclear to me today, he had an Irish accent, I suppose in an attempt to make him interesting.

However, my favorite writing professor in college, Percival Everett, refused to let us turn in speculative fiction for our assignments. No fantasy. No science fiction. No slipstream or cyberpunk or alternate histories. Contemporary fiction or nothing. I remember one of my classmates defying him and turning in a fantasy story. He returned it to her and said, “No dragons.” (As I recall her next story was set in modern day but had a girl with a dragon tattoo … I bet she wishes she had run with that now!) I gave him a vampire story once and he called me into his office, stood up, and let it slip from his hands into the waste basket.

I was surprised to discover one day, reading some of my professor’s published stories, that he occasionally wrote speculative fiction. I confronted him (of course! Because I was in college! And I needed more drama in my life!), and he laughed at me and said something to the effect of, “So?” He went on to explain to me that I needed to be able to write “real life” before I would be able to write convincing speculative fiction. The more I thought about it, and the more I practiced it, I realized he was right. So, here are five ways that writing contemporary fiction will strengthen your speculative fiction:

1) It will make your stories more compelling.

It’s easy in speculative fiction to distract people with the special effects. If you have a mutated alligator chasing your hero through a museum, it’s simple to keep people turning the pages. Whole novels can be written with stock characters who have no reflection in real life. You can get away with it. In fact, people may applaud you for the great ride. And if you’re able to pull that off in your fiction, it’s no mean feat. But if you can take that same ability and also bring in meaningful, moving character moments that cause your readers to reflect on their lives and the world around them, you’ve taken it up a notch and people are going to remember your work as more than a getaway from a fifty-foot lizard.

2) It will keep you from cheating. 

When you’re writing speculative fiction and someone asks you a question about a character’s motivation, it’s tempting to say, “Well, that’s just the way things are done in Faerie Land.” Yeah, but why are the faeries stealing children from the humans? “Oh, that’s just something they do.” And what do they do with the children? “Um. I don’t know. Hide them away where they never grow old.” And this is because? “Faeries are capricious.”

That’s cheating. Any time you say, “That’s the way aliens think,” or “It’s different in the future,” you’re cheating your reader. We don’t want mysterious, unknowable motivations. They can be alien motivations. They can be strange motivations. They can even be hidden motivations. But at some point you have to reveal why the Morlocks are serving the Eloi, and why the Eloi sleep inside.

Imagine, now, that you were writing literary fiction and in your story you had a group of people who went around stealing babies. There’s no way you could get away with saying, “Well, that’s just what this group of people does” because we all know that people don’t do something horrible like that for no reason. “Real life” fiction shows the holes more readily when an author is being lazy or cheating on character motivation, and learning to shore up those holes will help you in your character development and your world building.

3) It will keep your reader better engaged in the story.

Let’s be honest, even books that are basically showcasing some world-building (Dune comes to mind) are, at the core of it, about the people. Dune without Paul Maud’dib would be a lousy story. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is essentially an epic filled with stock characters from epics with really two exceptions … the hobbits and Gollum. Many of the memorable scenes of the books, of course, come from those characters.

Now, it’s pretty easy to keep people entertained with stories about messiahs and saving the world. But what if you could do the same thing with a story about a man and a woman watching a television show together and wondering, without ever saying it, whether their marriage was going to work out or if it might be over? If you can hold attention with that story, I guarantee your next speculative story will be better. Because that same couple will realize, of course, that their strange infant is actually a changeling left by the faeries, and when they journey into Faerie to save their daughter they’ll also be discovering whether their marriage will survive. The reader will have a lot more to hold on to and to care about.

My second novel, Night of the Living Dead Christian, which comes out this October, is the story of a man named Luther who is wrestling with being a werewolf. Of course a werewolf hunter is chasing him, as well, and really that’s all you need for a nice speculative fiction novel right there.

In college that would have been the whole story for me. But because Professor Everett forced me to write other types of work, I knew I needed more than that. I needed to look at how Luther’s condition had effected his relationship with his wife and daughter, how the neighborhood looked at him, how his father had reacted when he first became a werewolf and how that impacted his adolescence. Those things make it a richer story, and make the reader understand the deep pain and loneliness that Luther is experiencing.

4) It will keep your reader from becoming distracted when you make character and world-building mistakes.

I recently watched a movie where the plot revealed a lack of understanding of human nature, economics, world politics and really pretty much anything in real life. In this film, people had embraced a new technology which allowed them to use remote control humanoid robots to live life, and the humans would stay safely ensconced in their bedrooms. Supposedly the entire world bought into this technology over the course of three years. And, although the technology was so expensive that most people even in the U.S. could only afford one robot (i.e. they didn’t have multiple bodies), somehow 99% of the world’s population used these robot surrogates.

I couldn’t enjoy the movie because there are so many holes in these few statements (and, believe me, there were plenty more in the movie). How did the third world countries all get their robots if they’re so expensive? What sort of resources were depleted in making BILLIONS of humanoid robots? How did they manufacture them all in three years? These sorts of questions don’t have to be answered, but I have to trust that the author at least considered them. The movie got worse … the few conscientious objectors to the robot-body idea had been forced to live on reservations. Nobody wanted them wandering around the cities with all the robots for some reason. Why? I have no idea. How did those people lose their right to travel in regular society? I don’t know.

A little more practice in looking at how human beings interact would have certainly made it a better movie. And, a small bit of thought would have introduced a more interesting plot … instead of dealing with a reservation of conscientious objectors, our hero could have crossed paths with impoverished people who had no ability to get robot surrogates … the moral complexities and potential complications for the hero would have been much more interesting.

5) Understanding other genres and how they work will make you a better writer within your own genre.

Okay, I’ll make a confession. For much of my life I stuck pretty closely to speculative fiction as the main staple of my reading life. I would take a break from it for superhero comics, which, okay, is pretty much the same thing. I learned a lot about world building. I read amazing novels which dealt with issues no one else was willing to touch, in a way that was both insightful and entertaining. What I wrote when I only read speculative fiction was basically an echo of what I read. It was carbon copies of someone else’s world, someone else’s ideas and stock characters moving through a quasi-medieval landscape trying to do something or other with some elves.

I’m guessing everyone here knows, loves and understands the speculative genres. We’ve all put in a lot of time and work toward understanding it. But if we stick too closely to our own genre (like, as I say, used to be the case for me), your work will seem derivative and in-bred. Breaking into some new genres expands our horizons as to what is possible in fiction, and shows us techniques and connections we may not have made within our favorite genre. I’m not saying you don’t already do this … I’m saying that it might be time, whatever you read, to pick a genre you’ve never been fond of and try it again. Get the absolute best Western you can find. Get a recommendation for a good Romance novel. Read a historical novel. See what you can learn from them and how that might impact your speculative fiction.

I realize that it’s difficult to make my point here in a way that is convincing without you actually trying your hand at it. So here’s an experiment. I’m going to give you five “real world” writing prompts. You choose one and write a short story using that prompt. AFTER you’ve written that story, take a character from your “real world” story and put them in a spec fic story. Be sure to put links in the comments so we can read your stories. I think you’ll be pleased by the results.

Okay, story prompts:

1. Two people who were best friends in high school meet after ten years apart. One of them has discovered s/he is gay and can’t quite get up the courage to tell the other friend. Show us in dialogue (but without ever directly saying it) the strength of this friendship and the underlying realities in each of their lives.

2. A young woman dying of leukemia has married a man old enough to be her father. Her husband’s daughter thinks she married him for his money. In an attempt to create peace between her husband and her step-daughter (who is the same age as her), she invites her step-daughter over to dinner without telling her husband.

3. A pastor realizes that after many years he has been serving God without interacting with God. He knows his congregation would never understand, and finds himself outside the church, trying to catch his breath, where he finds one of the junior high boys playing hooky and smoking a cigarette. The pastor, in his moment of weakness, finds that the junior high boy is the one person in the church he feels he can trust with this information ….

4. Two siblings take their miserly father out to pick a Christmas tree, and realize that their recently deceased mother had hidden the cost of Christmas trees from their father for years.

5. While helping her married neighbor clean out her garage, a woman discovers a packet of recent love letters that were not written by her neighbor’s husband ….

– – – –

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the comedy-theology novel Imaginary Jesus and the forthcoming Night of the Living Dead Christian. Being introduced to science fiction at an early age by his father, Matt grew up thinking that if he got too angry he’d turn into a monster, that Stonehenge could become blood-sucking rocks during the night and that you should never, never look in a mirror unless the bathroom light was on. Be sure to come hang out at his blog and his website, where you can read the first chapter of his new book.

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Andy Poole
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Andy Poole

Sir,

I cannot agree with your argument. I cannot think of any “real life” fiction that Tolkien, Lewis, or Poe wrote. They wrote what they excelled at.

You really lost me on your points about character motivations. This is basic storytelling, not exclusive to literary fiction. A story is a story, and all good stories involve people and settings that have their own individual POVs, wants, and motivations, no matter the genre. I often rewrite and discard scenes because they didn’t make sense; I figure it out by analyzing it as if it were real life, and realize “this doesn’t work or needs further development.” Some of the best tips I learned for character motivation came from an acting class in college, not from writing literary fiction. (Ask what one overall want each character has in the scene, ask how they go about getting it in literal and essential actions, and peg it on to an “as if” from your own life–substituting the action for the closest relatable experience in your own life and drawing on those feelings as you act out the character).

As to the holes in the science fiction movie you mentioned, you are right–that doesn’t make sense without fleshing out historical, societal, and economic factors. But I learned this as a history student in college. History has taught me that the world is not static, but in constant change as people come up with and share new ideas and interact with other cultures and make scientific discoveries. I did not learn this in literary fiction.

There is no “real life” in fiction. Literary fiction is no more than imaginary people on a printed page. The same goes for fantasy. Indeed, fantasy fiction and literary fiction are their own kinds of fantasies. To write on your prompts, I would be making up fantasies as big as my spec fic, because I can’t write any of it from personal experience. I don’t have gay friends, my dear mother is still alive, I don’t have a loved one leukemia (I don’t even know the leukemia treatment process), I know of no affairs in my neighborhood, and I don’t have kids. To call this “real life” would not be true in my case. I would be…speculating. Hmm….

Galadriel
Guest

While I can see what you are trying to imply, I find myself more in sympathy with Andy. If characters are well-rounded, with motives and personalities, they are ‘realistic’ whether they deal with dragoons or dragons,  lawyers or light-speed travel. While three of the last seven books I read were set in ‘the real world,’ (admittedly with spiritual elements), I value fiction because it shows us  more than reality, allows us to see more than our eyes notice in the everyday world.

Nissa Annakindt
Guest

I can’t write contemporary fiction because writers are supposed to write what they know.  As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome I know a lot more about space aliens and vampires than I do about the real world.
But you are right that fantasy/sci-fi genre should not be used as an excuse to create a world that doesn’t hang together properly. People like me have to LIVE in worlds like that. They need to be very firmly constructed so they don’t collapse when a dragon sits down on them.

Andy Poole
Guest
Andy Poole

Miss Nissa, your post made my day! 😀

Chestertonian Rambler
Guest

I still disagree with your professor.

There is a difference between saying “we need to do different writing assignments.” One could, for instance, require a story of a middle-aged husband who isn’t contemplating adultery (violating a core tenant of literary fiction). Or one could write a story in which aliens have conquered earth, but are never seen or directly mentioned.  There are lots of ways to jar readers out of their perspectives.

My problem is that professors largely think that fiction that takes place in Earth without speculative elements is magically superior. Yes, every author should read and try their hands at things outside their genre. But they should also study and consider–and even learn about in a collegiate context–the unique elements that speculative genres are able to bring to bear.

As far as I know, only one major college (BYU) does this. Not surprisingly, there is a preponderance of excellent SF and fantasy authors who tend to be Mormons, live near Utah, and either took the class or know those who did. 

Galadriel
Guest

Matt, I think the misunderstandings started from the post title. I can see why you would have thought it was a good idea, but maybe a different one (ie ‘Five Lessons from Contempary Fiction” or ‘Five Tools from Contempary Fiction’) might have clarified things

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Great post, Matt. I look forward to finding more of your material, and I’m enjoying the discussion — opponents and otherwise.

My thought is that even better than reading contemporary fiction, a speculative reader (and especially writer) should also plunge his mind into nonfiction. For the Christian, this is even more essential, for it’s in nonfiction like the Bible (duh!) but also works of systematic theology and doctrine overview, that we gain means of personal growth from the inside out, and in-depth ideas that will work themselves naturally into our storytelling.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

Stephen, I thought of non-fiction when Andy made the point about C. S. Lewis not writing anything other than speculative fiction. He wrote a considerable amount of non-fiction.

I think Matt’s point about us growing in ways other than writing — reading, acting, observing — is excellent too, and certainly the Masters were great readers!

 

Becky

Andy Poole
Guest
Andy Poole

Miss Miller,

Sorry, I wasn’t clear enough. I was writing about Lewis and Tolkien’s fictional writings only. As professors, it is virtually a requirement for them to write non-fiction in their respective fields.

Ken Rolph
Guest
Ken Rolph

I was puzzled by this post. You seem to have an unnecessarily restrictive vision of what speculative fiction is. Perhaps this is common today. I recently saw a TV panel discussion where participants claimed that speculative fiction must include magic. There does seem to be a proliferation of works full of elves and dragons and quests and magic. They seem to be scripts for some CGI loaded epic with lots of action figures to sell. I have difficulty fitting something like The Inheritors by William Golding into this small room.

There is also the problem of what is contemporary. For those of us born before 1950 we are now beyond the magical Year 2000 and thus in an SFnal world already. I came home on a train recently sitting beside someone who brought out a flat device about the size of a large paperback. He made it emit all sorts of sounds and pictures, just like something out of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. I don’t think I live in the contemporary world anymore. For me to write something involving teenagers would be equally as speculative as if I wrote something about an alternate universe. Probably harder. I’ve just taken a decision to write no more about contemporary life, because I would represent it so badly none of my readers would believe me. I tried recently to write something and a young editor thought I was deliberately writing historical fiction.

Your complaint seems to be that writers use the excuse of speculative fiction to write badly. That does seem to be true. I recently indulged myself with a Kindle. There were claims that millions of books were available. About half of them seem to be the multi-volume epics and sagas about badly conceived worlds and characters with odd names that you hint at. I manage to avoid almost all of these, so they don’t bother me.

It is certainly true that writers should learn their craft, should try various genres. But you and your professor have overstated your case. Wny not ban romance as well? Most of that genre is fairly unrealistic.

Jeremy McNabb
Guest

My god, this is one of the most helpful nuts-and-bolts articles I’ve seen on plotting and thinking through a storyline. In his spec-fic how-to book, Orson Scott Card goes over a lot of these same points, but this boils them down into a single reading really, really well. I may have to print this out and hang it on my wall.

I think one of the biggest problems I see in the works of aspiring speculative fictionists is that the stories lack the gravity of traditional stories. People tend to write about fantasy, or cyberpunk, or steampunk, instead of writing within those genres.

Excellent entry, sir!  

Kaci Hill
Member

In general:

 
Andy – Some of the best tips I learned for character motivation came from an acting class in college, not from writing literary fiction.

 
Writing’s a passive form of acting, I swear. 

 
To write on your prompts, I would be making up fantasies as big as my spec fic, because I can’t write any of it from personal experience.

 
Well, me either – but there’s ways to compensate for that. I mean, Tim Downs had to research to write the Bug Man and I don’t know that many writers who really are serial killers. But hey. I’ve never had a boyfriend, either; does that mean I couldn’t write a romance if I really set my mind to it?
 
Generic comments in answer to no one:
But then again, I tried writing a sci-fi in high school when my only literary base was some sporadic viewing of Star Trek and the original Star Wars. I’m pretty sure it showed, and wound up including some of the WWII Germany novels I’d been reading. There you go, Han Solo fighting Nazis. (Random.)
 
So I think it works both ways. Never reading the genre you’re writing in has its drawbacks. If you’ve only read the common ones everyone else has, then you’re going to sound like  a bad rip-off. But if you never try your hand at anything else, that too creates limitations.
 
Personally, I developed some terrible writing habits that I’m currently trying to break. (Forgive me for using myself as an example so much – I just feel like I’ve found myself in the middle of what Matt was after.)

Stephen – I agree on reading non-fiction.  However, for me that always seems to turn into either the ‘what-if’ game or into the word picture it creates. Like, last night I was at this mini-concert, and they read Psalm 138. That left me with this image in my head of standing in a great hall of gods, angels, and demons with the Most High on the throne and myself standing there too. Then we sang a song that described God like a hurricane. I’m still not sure what the theological implication of “heaven and earth meeting like a sloppy wet kiss,” but I definitely got the force of a personified Heaven and Earth greeting each other.

Then, we haven’t even gotten to some of the stranger images in Scripture….
Anyway, I’m in a hurry and rambling (gotta love drive-by posting), but I guess I’m trying to say that reading Grudem’s Bible Doctrine (which, yes, I own)  isn’t by default going to work out theological musings. Send the imagination spinning, most definitely.
 
Okay, I”m done. This drive-by post was brought to you by the Church Brat Society. 0=)
 
 
 
 
 
 

Galadriel
Guest

Offtopic: Are you taking membership applications for the Church Brat Society? I’d love to join.

Kaci Hill
Member

If you were born in church, you’re a church brat by default.  If you came later, you get your membership card after you’ve been around long enough to start getting the jokes. 0=) 
 
One of my friends and I had this conversation:
 
Friend: Unlike you and my husband, I am *not* a church brat.
Me: You’re fast becoming one.
Friend: I hope my kids are.
Me: It’s inevitable. They’re going to be the geekiest church brats alive. 0=)

Andy Poole
Guest
Andy Poole

Writing’s a passive form of acting, I swear.
 

Indeed. 😀

 

Daniel Bruce Hennigan
Guest

Matt

I write daily through storypraxis.com. You receive a daily prompt and it is my way of doing just what you suggested. Some days, I write mainstream fiction. Other days I go way out on the speculative fringe. I have developed a lot of good story ideas and characters since participating in this website. It is Christian based and I highly recommend it. What you have suggested is right on the money for any fiction writer. When we push ourselves out of our comfort zone, that is when God can really stretch us and bring out those hidden or undiscovered qualities that He needs to bring the quality of our writing to the best it can be.

Thanks for the advice and thanks for writing one of my favorite books this year, Imaginary Jesus! 

David Umstattd
Guest
David Umstattd

Although I agree that interpersonal development and character are obviously the most important parts of any novel I believe that in speculative fiction it is easy to get distracted with action poor scenes. Speculative fiction requires that you build a character in the mist of adventure and chaos. Building a character is such a way is so much different than building a character in literary fiction that it really must be learned from the ground up. You must be able to have an incredible fight scene while also showing the deeper turmoil of a character’s soul.

You cannot seperate the fantasy parts of a story and the literary parts of a story. Both must be married together in perfect harmony. The mystic and novelty of a new world must grow out of the interesting characters and the interesting charters must grow out of the mystic and novelty of the world. You shouldn’t be able to do one without the other.

David Umstattd
Guest
David Umstattd

Your point about the movie Surrogates is moot because it was a financial success.
Also I liked the movie. Its a hardcore allegory so there is less need for accuracy. That’s the point behind “What if?” stories. You don’t want them to be realistic. That’s the point of fiction. As Tom Clancy said “I don’t write realistic characters, I write GOOD characters.”

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

David, I think this might be a semantics issue. Perhaps “believable” would be a more fitting term, though “realistic” doesn’t mean “real.” Rather it implies that those characters behave in a way that isn’t out of step with the way real people behave.

 

Becky

Justin
Guest

Dear Matt,
Just wanted to add my voice to those of Jeremy and Kaci in praising your article. The reasons you stated for call of a more literary voice even in our speculative fiction, human reasons even in the non-human characters is something I really agree with. Might I suggest The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue? It’s a story about a child stolen by faeries, and the faerie that replaces him and lives his life into adulthood. A very powerful, and very human story with fantastical elements. Actually any book by Donohue fits that description.
I think it was Miyazaki and Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth that began changing my mind about what fantasy fiction and science fiction should be. Though I will admit to loving a good action flick (Independence Day is my favorite movie of all time, and Jurassic Park) I love the movies that delve deep into issues, like Solaris, or Moon. Something about them rises above the normal fare into transcendance. And that is something I was taught in college, that our fiction needs to be meaning charged and transcendant. I thank God for my teachers at Belhaven. It was cause of them I began reading the classics, like Dostoevsky, and Faulkner, and literary fiction of today like the epic and genuinely genius spec fic novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Also most anything by Neil Gaiman. But yeah, just wanted to say, great thoughts, and you’ve definitely been put on my list of must-read authors now.

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SoniCido
Guest

I am working on it now, Matt. Thank you.

And, Andy-for those of us who can only hope to be a, “Tolkein”, or a, “Lewis” we need to ‘warm up & work out’ a little. Matt offers some fantastic stretching exercises!

Soni 

Andy Poole
Guest
Andy Poole

Miss SoniCido,
I honestly do “warm up and work out”–I read blogs like this, I subscribe to Writer’s magazines, I read books and listen to podcasts on the subject, I took a college course on the subject (taught by a writer that wrote literary fiction, but he didn’t force a genre on us but rather taught the art of fiction as applicable to any genre), I practice, and seek feedback. It’s an art I study and take seriously. I just haven’t been able to personally subscribe to the idea that literary fiction is a magic ticket to better writing.
 

Galadriel
Guest

I find myself returning to this post in the face of a class like the one mentioned in the opening paragraph.  Not only is speculative fiction denied, but historical and young adult as well. And I am  stuck.
Never mind the distinction between literary and genre fiction. Never mind pyscological realism. Never mind improving my skill.
I can’t stand it. My fingernails are going to grow out of the back of my hands  by the time it’s over.  And I’m only three classes in.
PLEASE pray for me.