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 […]
on 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.

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the comedy-theology novel Imaginary Jesus and 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. His blog is at and at his website, you can read the first chapter of his newest book.
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  1. Andy Poole says:


    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….

    • Okay, Andy, sure, we could land on “all fiction is speculative.” Yes, in many ways that is true, though I’m sure our friend C.S. Lewis would point out that we were using different terminology. 

      I suspect we agree more than it appears, because when you say “I figure it out by analyzing it as if it were real life” you’re making essentially the same point as me, I think. 

      Also, maybe I need to clarify that I’m not saying you MUST write literary fiction or about “real life” to  grow in writing compelling characters. You could learn about it, as you mention, from an acting class. You could learn about it by observing people around you or by reading literary fiction (which both Tolkein and Lewis did a great deal of). Poe, by the way, wrote plenty of fiction with no supernatural bent to it, so maybe that’s a definitional difference but in my opinion he wrote some excellent stories that do not have the supernatural aspect which he is so well known for. What I AM saying is that forcing yourself to write a story without the advantage of the supernatural or super-scientifical (yup, I’m making up words to sound smart now) can be a tool that will help you to create characters who are interesting in and of themselves, and that inserting characters like this into your spec fic can make it stronger.

      Lastly… maybe you don’t have any experience in the “real life” situations of the writing prompts, but you do have the advantage as a writer of being able to research and talk to those who have, which will allow you to explore more deeply things about the human experience (i.e. what is the normal human response to losing one’s hair in the leukemia treatment process and what are the normal coping mechanisms for this) that will be translatable to your spec-fic in situations that are not researchable but may be comparable (i.e. what is the normal human response when sprayed with a compound that causes one to shed one’s human skin and take on the shape of an alien creature).

      So… basically I’m saying this could be a tool to put in your writer’s toolbox, not that it’s a necessary action to be a writer worth reading. 

      • Kaci says:

        What I AM saying is that forcing yourself to write a story without the advantage of the supernatural or super-scientifical (yup, I’m making up words to sound smart now) can be a tool that will help you to create characters who are interesting in and of themselves, and that inserting characters like this into your spec fic can make it stronger.

        Which is actually something I’m trying to break myself of. It’s really easy to just to use a genre device as a crutch. Bad habit. (And I neither grew up on sci-fi & fantasy nor read nearly as much of it. I’m a late-comer.)

      • Andy Poole says:

        Hi Matt,
        Sorry this is coming late–I was out of town without wi-fi.
        I do research and even write some non-fantasy–I plan to work on a series of stories about a soldier in the Thirty Years War this winter–but I feel much more at home with the past than the present as far as writing goes. I could write little with interest about current things outside of the realms of academia, the sport of fencing, and heavy metal music. I could certainly research the prompts–but if I write historical fiction and historical fantasy, wouldn’t my research be more profitable in the issues of the day and, in the case of the fantasy tales, period folklore and myths? More relevant, in my opinion, would be exploring what life was life for a mercenary who was often accompanied by his wife and children on campaign, who lived in a camp that was a city of canvass whose stench could be smelled before seeing it, who often had to go underpaid and undersupplied, and who often had to live off of both friendly and hostile towns on the march. How does a man of faith confront such problems? How does he justify taking food from a local village? What does he think about his fellow soldiers’ atrocities against civilians on both sides? Research for a Thirty Years’ War fantasy has led me to period German beliefs about werewolves. This sort of information explores how people in a certain setting perceive and interact with their world–even in worlds as alien to us as a Renaissance religious war.

  2. Galadriel says:

    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.

    • Hi Galadriel–

      I agree with you completely. My point is that when we are writing speculative fiction we can use all the dragons and elves and faster than light travel to prop up poor writing and distract people from a lack of characterization.  I’m saying that if you use the tool of writing straightforward “real life” stories, you can find holes in your own craft because you can’t suddenly make the reader interested in the story by saying something like, “And there in the clear water of the pool he saw the ancient, holy sword of the Hylbergini.” If your characters aren’t compelling in “real life” fiction, the story can’t stand. That’s not true in speculative fiction… the point being that if you can write characters who are interesting on their own, they can only strengthen the story of the search for the Hylberginian sword.


  3. 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.

    • Hi Nissa–

      I wonder if you could explain to me why the point of view and observations of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome would be less valid than someone without Asperger’s? I personally think that your insights and observations would be really fascinating… with or without dragons. Not that I don’t like dragons, I’m very fond of them.

  4. Andy Poole says:

    Miss Nissa, your post made my day! 😀

  5. 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. 

    • I agree with what you’re saying about many professors, but not mine in particular. As I said, he wrote some speculative fiction himself. 

      His preference, certainly, was for literary fiction. But I have to say, honestly, that my fellow students produced better fiction when he forced them to stop creating Tolkeinesque clones. Their fantasy became better when they returned to it, as well.

      I feel from looking at the comments that maybe my post came across as saying speculative fiction is bad? That’s not what I intended to communicate. I read a lot of it, and I write it. I’m just saying that as writers of speculative fiction we need to be broad in our reading and writing… and I would certainly encourage people who don’t read any speculative fiction (an increasingly small population almost certainly) to branch out and try it.


      • Kaci says:

        I feel from looking at the comments that maybe my post came across as saying speculative fiction is bad? That’s not what I intended to communicate. I read a lot of it, and I write it. I’m just saying that as writers of speculative fiction we need to be broad in our reading and writing… and I would certainly encourage people who don’t read any speculative fiction (an increasingly small population almost certainly) to branch out and try it.

        Well, I didn’t get that out of it; I got what your comments clarified.  But for me,  like I said, I’m coming at this from someone who’s a late-comer to the genre (unless the Christian spiritual warfare stuff counts – but those are contemporary settings, mostly).   And I can also say that I’ve a friend who normally doesn’t care for fantasy who says he likes mine because it doesn’t read like fantasy – a point I’m only using to underscore yours.

        It’s not that speculative is lesser; it’s that it’s easier to cheat, I think, when you’re making up the rules instead of abiding by “real world rules.”
        At least, that’s my take-away.

      • Thanks for the clarification. I suppose that part of what I was trying to say was that mainstream writers could learn as much from speculative genres–this isn’t a one-way street. Your article makes good points (people who copy Tolkien by definition copy one or two aspects, whereas people who depart from Tolkien often better emulate his success), but I guess I’m sensitized to the meme, repeated endlessly in discussions of genre, that associates naturalistic fiction with complexity and merit. There is little naturalism in Gene Wolfe’s The Wizard Knight series; that is not a flaw.

        Fantasy, for instance, allows for an engagement with human desires. Just look at  The Orphan’s Tale by Valente or Invisible Cities by Italio Calvino (both admittedly authors whose style owes much to literary fiction and poetry.) Or for a fun time, look at Robin McKinley’s Deerskin, which gives contemporary fears and desires a textured, lived-in feel without drowning in contemporary facts. In my experience, it can complement more literary fiction, which tends towards a more detailed (but condescending) depiction of motivations as presented by a faux-objective, godlike narrator who smiles smugly at human foibles. Of course, I exaggerate, and you can do anything with any genre, but genres have their own tendencies.

        I guess I’m not saying that  I felt that you were saying speculative fiction is bad, but that you were repeating the tendency that says “real writing” is learned through naturalism, and then you gussy it up with genre fun. I’m not saying that you believe that, but I think enough people believe it that the field of speculative literatures suffers as a result. I prefer the attitude of Niel Gaiman, which is–write everything, from cozy murder mysteries to noir-black crime, from mythic elegance to depressing naturalism, from magical realism to horror. There is no magical goodness about naturalism, though, that makes it especially useful for fiction writers–it is one mode among many.

  6. Kaci, I might have you write my guest post next time. 🙂 

  7. Galadriel says:

    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

    • Galadriel, that’s a great point. I suppose the title could have brought people in with a defensive posture about spec fic. But given that I started out the article by saying I love and have always loved speculative fiction, and that each of the points was how writing contemporary fiction could make our speculative fiction better, and given that my forthcoming novel has a main character who is a werewolf, I’m not sure how in context it came across as anti-speculative fiction. Is it possible that maybe there’s a little bit of sensitivity on the topic?


  8. 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.

    • Thanks, Stephen!

      Your point reminds me of Becky’s post earlier in the week about whether we are writing stories to discover truth or convey truth… it’s an interesting question, though I think there’s room of course for both types of stories.

      I would agree for sure that nonfiction can and should be a big part of writing well, and especially in speculative fiction. Most of the professional science fiction and fantasy writers I know read a lot history (and, of course for the sf gang, a good amount of science).  

    • 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!



      • Andy Poole says:

        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.

  9. Ken Rolph says:

    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.

    • Hi Ken!

      If your definition of science fiction is the existence of teenagers with handheld gaming devices, then, yeah, I’d have a more restrictive definition than that. But I think there’s plenty of room for something like The Inheritors, though I’d probably put it in the category of alternate history and I suppose there are people who wouldn’t consider it “speculative” at all, putting it in a historical fiction category. Genre in general is largely a personal definition, I suppose, since almost any work can be placed in a singular genre (i.e. it’s own… “a book precisely like this book”) as well as multitude of others based on its similarities to other works (so Harry Potter can be classified as YA, as fantasy, as epic, as serial, etc.).  Certainly there is room for disagreement on what counts as spec fic… sticking with Golding, the “Lord of the Flies” technically takes place in the future, which is only referenced in any significant way in the final scene, so many feel that the sci-fi aspect of it is not central enough to make it truly speculative. But I think there’s room for a fight depending on your definition.

      I would agree that romance writers would also benefit from writing outside their genre, but since this isn’t a romance writers website I didn’t think it necessary to say so. For that matter, I think it’s good for contemporary fiction writers to try other genres (like science fiction… Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” is a great example of a literary and western writer trying his hand at science ficiton) and many of the writers I find most interesting experiment in multiple genres (Bradbury, for instance, or Gene Wolfe, would be great examples of this).  Note, by the way, that I never said to “ban” speculative fiction. I said that writing outside the genre would strengthen our writing within the genre. I’m not talking about a ban, I’m talking about making our writing better.

      Lastly, Ken, I think you could write a compelling story about that kid on the train. It would require some research though, right? Getting to know that kid or a kid like him, learning to speak his language, figuring out what is important to him, what his worldview is, how he operates in his world. Would it be harder than writing about an alternate universe? Maybe. But I would argue that it shouldn’t be. If we can’t write convincingly about the people sitting across from us on the train because they seem alien to us, how are we able to write convincingly about actual aliens from another galaxy?


      • Kirsty says:

        If we can’t write convincingly about the people sitting across from us on the train because they seem alien to us, how are we able to write convincingly about actual aliens from another galaxy?

        The thing is, the book may be read by people like the one in the train (or those who know them). It is fairly unlikely to be read by aliens from another galaxy. 🙂
        As an illustrator I always aim at accuracy in my illustrations. But I found it much more difficult illustrating a book set in contemporary Malawi than biblical illustrations. In both cases I was illustrating a culture I was not part of – but the contemporary one would be read by real people who were part of that culture, and would know if I got even a tiny detail wrong. 
        But I think I agree with the gist of what you’re saying.

  10. 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!  

  11. Kaci says:

    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 says:

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

      • Kaci says:

        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 says:

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

      Indeed. 😀


  12. Matt

    I write daily through 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! 

  13. David Umstattd says:

    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.

    • We have differing definitions of speculative fiction, I think. I don’t think adventure is a necessary aspect of speculative fiction. So, would you count, for instance, Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” as good speculative fiction? Or Lewis’s “Til We Have Faces?” What do you think?

  14. David Umstattd says:

    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.”

    • 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.



  15. Justin says:

    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.

    • Thanks, Justin!

      I’ve had the Stolen Child suggested to me several times, but I have a sort of bitterness against it because it came out just as I finished my first (unpublishable) novel about a child who had been stolen by the faeries. It sort of rubbed salt in the wound. 🙂 It’s been long enough now, though, that I should probably check it out. Thanks for the suggestion.

      Also, I’m fine with an action movie or mindless sci-fi rambler every once in a while. I like books where the soldiers line up and kill toothy alien monsters. And I think “Attack the Block” looks absolutely great and I’m looking forward to seeing it. But I definitely prefer a “District 9” to a “Green Lantern” if I have the choice. But, yes, I’m a fan of Independence Day and Jurassic Park (JP had some great characters in it, actually… everyone in the story is put in danger because of laziness, greed and ambition. Hammond is fascinating conflicted person with his billionaire philanthropist side and his messing with nature and cutting corners. Grant taking care of the grandkids… Nedry and his willingness to sacrifice everyone else for his money… Malcolm’s creepy pessimism about the whole project… there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on human-interaction wise in the novel and the movie).

      LOVE Dostoevsky. Not a big Faulkner fan. Big fan of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  I’m reading American Gods right now, but got distracted by Urusawa’s “Pluto” series which has become my introduction to manga. It’s really quite stunning and well written and drawn!

  16. […] Kirsty: If we can’t write convincingly about the people sitting across from us on the train… 10:30 am, August 8, 2011 […]

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  19. SoniCido says:

    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!


    • Andy Poole says:

      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.

  20. Galadriel says:

    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.

    • Galadriel–

      You could always cheat. 🙂

      For instance: a group of teenagers decide to experiment with LSD and have fantastic visions which appear to be supernatural.’

      Or: homeless man with strange visions (a la The Fisher King)

      Or: A speculative fiction writer who is dried up and washed out tries to find supernatural events in the every day life around him, including writing a story-within-your-story that reflects on his everyday experience

  21. AND I misspelled your name. Sorry.

What do you think?