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Spec Fic Writing Pt 1

Take Us To Your Reader by Michael Tippett

Let’s address the oliphaunt in the room, shall we?

Speculative fiction is finally getting the respect it deserves.

Not too long ago there was a stigma attached to being a genre writer—more so if you huddled under the ‘spec-fic’ umbrella of horror, fantasy, and science fiction.

Thankfully, all this is changing. Speculative fiction is pushing into the mainstream.

Some would argue it’s been doing so for years.

Long before a certain boy wizard came out of a cupboard under the stairs, Shakespeare was writing about ghosts, fairies, and witches. Shelley penned the nightmare vision of her modern Prometheus over two centuries ago. Then there was Kafka, Huxley, Orwell, and—in recent times—the likes of Atwood and McCarthy. All these literary giants have lent their weight to genres that some would proclaim as escapist fiction.

I get that change doesn’t always come easy. No doubt there are still readers who regard speculative fiction as nothing more than cheap entertainment; just as there are those who deem literary fiction to be pretentious or elitist. Personally, I’ve never bought into this tired debate.

But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered ditching elves and orcs in pursuit of literary esteem. I tried it during last year’s NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge.

After two stages of intense competition, those of us who made it through to the final round had just 24 hours to write our crowning piece. Unlike previous rounds where random genres were assigned, we now had the freedom to choose our own. I decided to do my homework.

Reading through the winning stories from previous years, it became obvious that most of the pieces had a literary bent. I can do literary, I remember thinking. Something poignant, profound. Perhaps a dysfunctional family saga with a metaphorical title?

I had a solid game plan. But when Round 3 started, I was feeling uninspired and miserable. This lasted for the first few hours until, in a fit of frustration, I ditched the literary angle and went with a story I wanted to tell: a horror piece set during an alien invasion. It felt liberating to go this way, even though I was bummed that I had blown any chance of placing in the competition. So, imagine my utter disbelief when I was later informed that I had taken first place.

I learned a great deal from this. It was recognition. Validation. Not just for me as a writer, but also for the genres I love. For the tales of rocket ships and strange planets. For monsters lurking under our beds or inside our hearts. For post-apocalyptic landscapes ravaged by zombies / robots / plague / climate change.

Speculative fiction has earned its seat at the adult table. Yes, it can be cheap entertainment (don’t make that sound like a bad thing), but I also believe it has the power to explore the human condition as deeply as any literature…even if the characters themselves happen to be somewhat more—or less—than human.

Michael’s short story, Cherub, won the Hunter Writers Centre Members’ Prize and People’s Choice Award in the 2015 Grieve Project. He was also a top ten finalist in NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2017 and winner of NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2018.

Michael Tippett, writer