Dear Story Nurse,
I primarily write contemporary romance and erotica. I was solicited to write a speculative fiction story, and I find myself a bit overwhelmed by the prospect. I’ve dabbled a bit in speculative fiction, and read it some, but I am feeling both intimidated and underskilled in the kind of worldbuilding needed to write this story, even if I put speculative elements in a contemporary setting (which feels like the best choice).
I have written to a specific market before, that’s generally when I’ve dabbled in speculative fiction, but this feels different somehow. Or perhaps I feel different in it? More thin-skinned, less certain of my footing, more aware of the importance of being careful in how I worldbuild.
I am struggling at the starting point. I have an idea, but I am not sure how to develop it, what the work is I must do to get to the making words part. Not sure if it’s the right idea, or the idea I can make into a story by the deadline. I am wading in uncertainty and doubt, and generally feeling stuck. If this were a contemporary story, this is when I would start researching, or developing character, or just get some words on the page to get a feel for where I’m at and where I might go, but I am floundering with this.
Thanks for your help.
—Feeling Stuck (they/them)
Dear Feeling Stuck,
It’s very understandable that you’d feel hesitant when working in a new genre. A good first step might be to accept that this is a normal, ordinary feeling, not a sign of some lack on your part. If you’re judging yourself for being a little uncertain of your footing, let that judgment go. Transitions, even very abstract ones like this, can be challenging, and any writer will want to go slowly at first in unfamiliar terrain.
You may also need to accept that this is a project you will need to write while feeling out of your depth. That’s not always the most fun, but it can be done, especially if there’s a deadline in the mix. It’s hard to push forward through the doubt and tempting to try to wait until you feel more confident, but the way to get more confident is to do the thing; confidence comes with experience. Build whatever guard rails you can, absolutely, but eventually you just have to step out on the bridge over the abyss of the unknown. You have undoubtedly needed to do this before, writing works that challenged you in some way or another. How did you get through that? Can you apply some of what you learned on those projects to this project?
It sounds like you’re concerned about meeting genre standards in some way—that you have an idea in your head of what speculative fiction is, and you want to live up to that idea, and you’re worried that you might not be able to. But speculative fiction can be any number of things, just like erotica can be any number of things. The only requirement is that it be at least one degree removed from our world. Some speculative fiction is plot-driven, some is character-driven, some is solid and well-anchored in its setting, some is ethereal and surreal. It’s fine for your worldbuilding to be minimal if that’s not your strength. Speculative fiction readers are very comfortable with suspending disbelief; we are credulous, eager to buy whatever you’re selling. Tell readers that this is just like the present day but with vampires or robots or magic spells, and we will, generally speaking, nod along with it. Trust readers to trust you.
You sound like an experienced writer and I think your instincts are good. If this is the point in the story when you feel like you would start developing character or doing research or getting some words down, then do that. You should be able to integrate your what-if into any of those things. As you build your characters, ask how they’re influenced by the speculative element of your setting; as you do research, look at it through a speculative lens; as you write, give yourself permission to deviate from reality a little, to play fast and loose and write things that wouldn’t usually be possible in your real-world contemporary stories.
Usually I’d suggest doing some reading in the genre that you’re writing in, but it sounds like you may not have time. That said, if you have a friend who does know the genre well—especially the flavors of it that are similar to what you’re trying to do, with a contemporary setting that has some speculative aspect grafted on—I recommend running your ideas past them and getting some reassurance that what you want to try isn’t outlandish by most readers’ standards. You can also talk with the person who solicited the story. They believe in you and want to see what you want to write, so if you have the kind of relationship where you can show them your outline or concept before you start writing, they will ideally be able to provide both personal encouragement and genre knowledge. You don’t have to cross that abyss alone; there are plenty of people who’ve found sound footing on the other side and can throw you a rope.
And as always, I encourage you to get excited about what you’re writing. Find something about it that really hooks you and makes you want to dive in, even though it’s also challenging and scary and hard. No amount of intellectual theorizing can take the place of that emotional investment. If you can awaken your hunger for this specific story, you can find a way to make the story happen.
You can do it! Just keep putting one word in front of another, and you’ll be in the groove before you know it.