Writing Speculative Fiction: Defining Your Niche

Orson Scott Card is one of my favorite Science Fiction writers, and one that I believe I could do well to emulate. Aside from writing the award-winning Enders Game series (among others), he is a professor of English, currently at Southern Virginia University, and has written several books on the topic of writing. One, which I will be discussing today, is How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, from Chapter one: The Infinite Boundary.

When you go to the fiction isle of the local bookstore, you will likely see the shelves sectioned off based on the ‘topic’ of the book. These are convenient distinctions which work very well for most genres, but when you come to the fiction isle, that system starts to break down- and when you come to the Sci-Fi or Fantasy sections, you may be surprised to see what you find there. Some authors have books in both sections, while others have books that seem not to really fit in either. So, is this distinction important? Card would say, from the author’s perspective, not really. Once a writer is established as either a fantasy writer or a science fiction writer, he more or less can call his work whichever he wants and most people would not argue too loudly. However, the publishers are a different story- some magazines, for example, will only publish one genre. Unless you convince them that your story fits their definition, you can expect them to reject it, even if they happen to like it.

Card offers us these basic definitions: “…science fiction is about what could be but isn’t; fantasy is about what couldn’t be” (Card, 22). Worlds containing technologies and cultures that are based on what is conceivable but not known by the laws and theories of science would fall into Science Fiction. If that world contains things that are contrary to known laws (like magic, for example), then it is more suited for the category of Fantasy.

These categories are not as limiting as they sound, and as writers we can ignore them if we wish- however, if you intend to fall into one genre or the other, especially if you’re pitching it to a publisher, you need to keep these differences in mind if you want to be sure you end up where you planned. Readers will have wildly varied expectations for their Sci-Fi or Fantasy stories, but if you do the head work to make sure you fit the basic criteria, and then make it feel like Sci-Fi or Fantasy through your story’s milieu, you should be accepted in the genre you intended.

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About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on September 17, 2010, in Erik Marsh, Fantasy, Orson Scott Card, Science Fiction, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I really like the distinction Card makes between Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I feel like I should add a definition for one of my favorite genres: Historical Fantasy: “What should have been, but wasn’t…” Rather depressing, really. There WERE dragons in the Napoleonic Wars! It was just covered up!

    But I do wonder if that narrows the science fiction genre rather a bit more than it most people naturally would. If science fiction is limited to what could conceivably happen in the future, then where does that leave any science fiction involving alien races? Do we accept that they “could be” in the future? Is Star Wars considered Science Fantasy then? Sci Fi becomes a much smaller genre, I guess, if that’s the accepted definition.

    • At the end of the day, “Fantasy” and “Science Fiction” are just terms; regardless of any definition Card may have published, they mean, for practical purposes, what the general public accepts that they mean. Most all people would agree that Star Wars is science fiction, so in the end, that’s what you’ll find it tagged under on Netflix, and practically, that’s what it is.
      On a separate note, I think it is absurd to limit “Science Fiction” as “things that could conceivably happen, because it’s impossible to see what technology will bring us next. The idea of the internet would have seemed absurd in the 19th Century, the mere notion motorcars as we know them today would have been met with ridicule. Furthermore, the entire concept of Nuclear Physics has come into being over the last hundred years. By Card’s definition, any 19th Century novel with mention of nuclear forces would have been categorized as fantasy. We know not what the future will hold.
      That said, I think a more relative definition (and in my opinion a more useful one) would be to note the use of higher technology as Sci/Fi and the use of “magical forces” as Fantasy. If you’ve got both (or neither) you’ll probably be able to convince people either way.

  2. With all respect to Card I have always liked the delineation of genre’s into Fantasy, Science Fantasy, and Science Fiction. Fantasy being writing which contains things not acceptable to the scientific mindset (I refuse to say not possible as this pretends to be all-knowing) which is placed in a historical setting. Science Fantasy being writing which contains things not acceptable to the scientific mindset while being set in a modern or futuristic setting (Star Wars), which Science Fiction is writing containing only that which is acceptable to the scientific mindset but not doable by present means.

  3. Actually, Card spends half of the first chapter of this book explaining exactly what you just said, hawkeye- “Having carefully explained to you that science fiction and fantasy are merely labels (1) an arbitrary, viselike publishing category, (2) a fluid, evolving community of readers and writers, and (3) a ghetto in which you can do almost anything you like once you learn what others have already done…” (Card, 17). His basic definitions are only a point of reference for figuring out about where your story might fall- and help you to see what other writers have done in the general area.

    It all comes down to how the story feels, and Star Wars definitely feels more sci-fi than fantasy, even if it does blur the lines pretty heavily in some areas

  4. I think that’s also one reason why we’re trying to start this press: We like stories that expand the boundaries and frankly most publishers don’t like things that don’t fit into neat, little boxes.

    Take my current book, Waverly Hall. In many ways it starts off as a fantasy story based on some very sci-fiesque concepts. The first world that Meg and Reep visit, Relois, is very much sci-fi. Its a big multiverse out there, though, and so they are very likely to end up in a fantasy world for book 2.

    So, like Lewis, in the absence of people publishing the things we like to read, we’re just doing it ourselves. The next step is a bit bigger in terms of logic–that if we like reading books like this, other people might too.

  5. Well, that is the hope at any rate.

  6. Yes, definitely check out that book- another good one by Card that I’ve read is Characters and Viewpoint, another book in the Writer’s Digest series.

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