How to move from writing “realism” to “speculative” genres
It’s hard out here for a fantasy writer, after all; there’s all these ‘rules’ I’m supposed to follow, or the Fantasy Police might come and make me do hard labor in the Cold Iron Mines.
— N. K. Jemisin
A Twitter friend recently asked me to do an article on how writers can switch between genres — between writing “realism” or literary fiction and speculative genres like scifi, fantasy, and horror. One of the biggest things I want to emphasize before I jump in with some tips for this is that genre itself is a myth.
What I mean is that when we talk about genres, we refer to marketing labels that publishing has created in order to sell books. They are things that belong in a query letter. Talking about What a Genre Is can be reductive because it forces us to acknowledge that someone else is making the rules, and that person may not actually be concerned with story or what readers want. We end up in an argument. An argument which often emphasizes a canon that marginalizes people of color and women — a canon that is by nature exclusionary.
I don’t believe in genre as it applies to the act of writing. Concerning yourself with what “genre” your piece might be classified as does not help the writing process. This worry should be put aside when drafting. The questions of “where will this piece fit in?” or “who will want to buy this?” are revision and submission questions.
The truth is that some of the most successful authors out there have built their career on breaking genre rules. e.e. cummings destroyed poetic rules of grammar. Kazuo Ishiguro explores literary magical realism in a cultural aesthetic. George R. R. Martin’s use of switching POV changed the way we view epic fantasy. Why does genre-blending work? Because it is refreshing, it excites readers, it breaks down expectations that are ingrained in readers as a result of our inherent desire for storytelling.
So, putting aside all of my obsession with blended genres, there are some writers who want to learn how to play outside their sandbox.
Writing in a New-to-You Genre
I tend to prioritize emotional realism above the known laws of time and space, and when you do that, it’s inevitable that strange things happen.
— Helen Oyeyemi
If you’ve been writing realism or “literary” fiction for a while, you may be at a place where you want to try something new. There is a long history of writers who have come from the literary world entering into the world of speculative genres and making it big.
I think some writers of realism are worried about switching genres because they are afraid they will upset the very dedicated fans of genre who Know All. The truth is, there is always going to be someone you will upset with your writing. I once brought a manuscript to a workshop and offended a reader because there was cursing on the first page. You can’t please everyone. But you can do research, practice, read widely, and become a genre fan.
Here are some tips for switching to writing weird stories:
- Use What You Know: Realistic fiction has tropes that translate fantastically well to weird stories. Divorce, illness, small towns, coming of age, regional stories, cultural satire. All of these are equally rife with speculative topics. If you can write what you know “at a slant” as Emily Dickinson says, then you will have a topic ripe for speculation.
- Start with Myths, Fairytales, and Folklore: Margaret Atwood says of fairy tales “These stories have survived as stories, over so many centuries and in so many variations, because they do make such an appeal to the inner life — you could say ‘the dreaming self’ and not be far wrong, because they are both the stuff of nightmare and magical thinking.” Reusing mythology can be a fantastic way to get into writing speculative stories. Pick a fairy tale you know or don’t know, and use the fantastical elements of that story to inspire you.
- Read Widely: It’s important when considering writing in a new genre to start reading in that genre. Check out which books and stories are winning awards and read them. But also, read diversely. It can also be helpful to read the classics — not just Heinlein and Asimov — but Le Guin, Butler, and Shelley.
- Learn the Rules So You Can Break Them: There are people who are convinced that by writing in a certain genre, you have to follow the rules of that genre. Fantasy magic must have limits. Science fiction must be based in solid science. And for the most part, a lot of these rules make sense and can be useful to a writer. But if you don’t learn what the rules are, i.e. what readers want, you will have a really hard time breaking those rules. And breaking rules is what writing is all about.
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
— Pablo Picasso
- Look to the News: Umm, have you noticed that our world is weird? If you want to get into writing science fiction, magazines like Discover and Science Magazine can provide great fodder for ideas. Good science fiction is often also good science writing.
- Look at Our World at a Slant: Our reality can be quite strange. All writers have to be observers. But SFF writers take those observations and they hone into the strange, the odd, the weird, and the magical. They explore the “what if” questions that take our world and place it at an angle. They allow themselves to dream.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant
— Emily Dickinson
- Use and Recycle Metaphor: Many SFF writers will tell you that all speculative stories are ultimately metaphors. The Handmaid’s Tale can be taken as a modern-day allegory. Star Wars is about the Hero’s journey. The Lord of the Rings has been called a biblical metaphor. While I don’t think that this is the purpose of all SFF stories, I do believe that readers interpretations can be stronger when you leave an opportunity for metaphor in your work. Think about what message the speculative element of your story is sending.
- Build a World: One way to approach writing in the speculative genres is to focus first on worldbuilding. If you’ve never tried to think up an entirely different world than our own, it can be a challenging and rewarding exercise. Check out Chuck Wendig’s tips for worldbuilding for ways to get started.
- Practice the Art of Stealing: Okay, don’t really plagiarize your writing. But one way to try out a new genre is to copy an author you love. Look at their writing. How does it work on a sentence level? Try literally retyping one of their opening paragraphs for practice. Then, apply their techniques to your own unique story. You’ll be surprised how this changes your approach to the page.
I’ve chosen to gear this story towards lit fic authors who want to switch to writing spec genres because I believe there are a lot of people on that side of the fence. We have a writing community that’s mostly geared towards MFA students and people who already know/understand literary fiction. But I’m considering writing a sequel for spec writers who want to switch to realism too, so if you want that, tell me in the comments. (I’ll try to think up something that’s not just “well, literary fiction can be speculative too,” I promise.)
As always, my final note is: You Do You. This article prescribes tips to help you boost your imagination. But in the end, writing in a different genre may not work for you. The goal here is to discover what does work and hone your writing career by exploration. Being open to discovery is pretty much what speculative writers do by trade. So be gentle with yourself, dear writers!
Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor based out of Houston, Texas. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best. Find her on Twitter or visit her website.