Lessons Learned in Writing Speculative Fiction

I’m always excited to introduce a new author to my readers, so it’s a pleasure to welcome new novelist Dana Li as a guest blogger. Her first novel, The Vermillion Riddle, released in March, gave her a graduate course in the craft of writing, and she’s here today to share lessons learned in writing speculative fiction.

Fantasy and science fiction were the first genres to really hook me on stories. When I felt the itch to start writing my own, I naturally wanted to tell the fantastical, epic kind of tales that captivated me. Turns out, it takes more than a burst of enthusiasm or inspiration to finish writing a novel, let alone one where I’m building an entire world. My writing endeavors began in fanfiction, and honestly, I think that’s a great place to start – I was playing in someone else’s sandbox, with an already defined world and characters. Leveling up to writing original speculative fiction was hard: I needed to build the world from scratch, and introduce characters that would win readers over. I published my first fantasy novel, The Vermilion Riddle, this year, and it’s been a long but worthwhile journey. These are just some of the lessons I learned along the way!

Create the characters that inspire you. 

Even if you’re writing in a different world with different rules and reality, you want readers to connect with your characters. As a reader, the fantasy and sci-fi stories I loved most were largely due to the memorable characters. They’re relatable, yet brushed with strokes of heroism. In a fantasy, we get to send characters on epic adventures and have them face seemingly insurmountable trials. Take advantage of this! It’s an opportunity to tell stories with a lot of heart, showcasing qualities like courage, loyalty, and nobility. The stakes are high – let the characters rise to meet the challenges. These are the moments that stay with readers for a long time.

Commit to extra world-building. 

For The Vermilion Riddle, I created a calendar, map, and thought through the political and religious system. Not all of it was critical to the plot, but having it at my fingertips to reference in a passing remark or description enriched the story. It makes readers feel like there really is an entire world hovering in the background, and there’s more history, geography, and lore to explore beyond the confines of this particular story. Just don’t hit readers with a deluge of information. They shouldn’t need to read a primer on your magical system as a prerequisite to understanding your novel. Let them uncover bits and pieces of how things work as the story progresses.

Don’t sacrifice the plot for the sake of being preachy. 

Most speculative fiction has a point, or a moral behind the story. As a Christian, telling a good story is not the same as preaching a sermon. We’re not writing a theological treatise; we’re seeking to tell good, thought-provoking stories as Christians, and our worldview will display itself in how we portray good and evil, the nature of humanity, and more. We also don’t want to gloss over the reality that we’re plagued by sin and a broken world, and not all stories wrap up with a bow and happily ever after. Good stories will face the darkness and acknowledge our brokenness, but reject nihilism. Our stories may not talk about Christ and the cross explicitly, but let’s show that good prevails against evil, life has dignity and value, and our hope is not in vain.

Thank you so much for all the wonderful advice! Learn more about her debut novel and how to connect with Dana below.

*****

“To enter Faerie’s blessed demesne

four secrets must be found:

the land unbound by time and space

opens only to the one who knows

the Light, the Song, and Mortal Gate.”

In the sheltered town of Carmel, women do not have a future outside of a good marriage. That future is threatened when Leah Edwards’ father gambles away the family’s livelihood and estate. She and her sisters must hurry to find husbands. Then August Fox, a Guardian from Cariath, comes to town and purchases a supposedly haunted manor. Charged to keep the peace between mortals and Faerie, the Guardians are the stuff of legend. After he stuns her with a marriage proposal, Leah reluctantly journeys to Cariath, discovering there is more to August and the legends than she guessed.

Nimrod and his Oath-breakers betrayed the Guardians, seeking to solve an ancient riddle that would unlock the Faerie realm. Not all his followers share his desire for conquest. Benedict Fox, his second-in-command, has different motives. But as he continues fulfilling Nimrod’s plan, Benedict hurtles towards a choice between saving his family and settling a personal vendetta.

For Leah, August, and their allies, it is a race against time to solve the ancient riddle before the Oath-breakers, and reunite the Guardians to save the mortal realm. The war is never really over, and this time, the battle lines cut through blood ties and brotherhood.

*****

Dana Li

Dana Li is a software product manager by day, and a novelist by night. She holds an MS in management science and engineering from Stanford University and a BS in computer science from USC, but she’s always been better at writing stories than code. Her writing misadventures began with a dozen now-deleted Star Wars fanfiction tales. She loves good fantasy/sci-fi, classy cuisines, and roller coasters (but not all at once). Dana currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and The Vermilion Riddle is her first novel. 

You can follow Dana on Instagram and Facebook, or learn more about her work at www.penandfire.com

Could We? Should We? Part 2

“Could We? Should We? Part 2” is the second half of the guest blog written by author/editor Michelle L. Levigne. To read the first part, click here. She discusses at greater length and depth about Christians writing speculative fiction in her book To Eternity (and beyond).

St. Augustine:

[No help is to be despised, even though it come from a profane source.]

But whether the fact is as Varro has related, or is not so, still we ought not to give up music because of the superstition of the heathen, if we can derive anything from it that is of use for the understanding of Holy Scriptures; … For we ought not to refuse to learn letters because they say that Mercury discovered them; nor because they have dedicated temples to Justice and Virtue, and prefer to worship in the form of stones things that ought to have their place in the heart, ought we on that account to forsake justice and virtue. Nay, but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found it belongs to his Master;[1]

[Whatever has been rightly said by the heathen we must appropriate to our uses.]

Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in the spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life — we must take and turn to Christian use.[2]

[1] St. Augustine. On Christian DoctrineGreat Books of the Western World. Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor in Chief. (Encyclopedia Brittanica, Inc. Chicago 1952) pp. 646.
[2] Ibid. pp. 655.

Essentially, Christians are commanded to plunder the “treasures” of the non-believers and turn them to God’s service and glorification. Countless times, the Israelites were commanded to plunder their conquered enemies and keep what they took. And there were always instructions for what and how much went to the Tabernacle and the priesthood.

Yet, there were also occasions when the Israelites were ordered to destroy all the possessions of the enemy, and not keep even one small coin of the spoil. This can be extended to modern times to apply to Satan’s tools of drugs, pornography, profanity, and anything that is not profitable for God’s service. These things are perversions, warping away from the true intent of their basic drives. Such twisted things only distract from the truth and must be totally wiped out.

Just because some science fiction/fantasy seems to promote occultism or immorality does not mean all the rest is bad. Certain cults use the cross as part of their symbolism, and others use the Bible, with their own twisted interpretations. Does that mean Christians should stop wearing the cross and reading the Bible? Of course not. It must all be redeemed and used for the good of society and the furtherance of the Gospel. People must be trained to want the good over the evil, to tell the difference between the two opposing forces, and to find the side of light to be more attractive than the side of darkness. 

Science fiction/fantasy is stepping in and filling the needs in people’s lives that the church and other institutions are not filling, or if they are, not meeting the need adequately. Such as the need for wonder, and fostering the imagination, and hope in desperate, dark circumstances. Don’t condemn the genre for doing this — condemn the ones who are not doing their jobs. Christians should study and get involved in science fiction/fantasy and all the sub-genres associated with it, so that the uses and abuses can be understood, and either redeemed, turned to their proper uses, or guarded against.

There will always be those who say something is wrong for Christians because they don’t feel comfortable with it. God works differently with everyone. All His people are individuals. A story will have a desired effect on one group of people, a sermon will have the same effect on a different group of people, and a song will be designed to have the same effect on yet another group of people. God uses many tools. He used Balaam’s donkey, so who has the wisdom and authority to dictate His choices in either tools or methods?

Thank you, Michelle! Wonderful insight into writing speculative fiction as a Christian. To connect with Michelle, check out her bio and social media links below.


Michelle L. Levigne

On the road to publication, Michelle fell into fandom in college and has 40+ stories in various SF and fantasy universes. She has a bunch of useless degrees in theater, English, film/communication, and writing. Even worse, she has over 100 books and novellas with multiple small presses, in science fiction and fantasy, YA, suspense, women’s fiction, and sub-genres of romance. 

Her training includes the Institute for Children’s Literature; proofreading at an advertising agency; and working at a community newspaper. She is a tea snob and freelance edits for a living (MichelleLevigne@gmail.com for info/rates), but only enough to give her time to write. Want to learn about upcoming books, book launch parties, inside information, and cover reveals? Go to Michelle’s website or blog to sign up. You can also find her at www.YeOldeDragonBooks.comwww.MtZionRidgePress.comFacebook, and Instagram.

Could We? Should We? Part 1

So happy to have author/editor Michelle L. Levigne back to share about speculative fiction, one of the many genres she writes in. Take it away, Michelle, with “Could we? Should we? Part 1”!

Sorry. That sounds a little like Dr. Seuss.

Could we and should we what, exactly?

At one time or another, a Christian writing SF, fantasy or horror will face someone who insists that their chosen genre is inconsistent with their spiritual beliefs. I faced that question to the extreme – a fellow student in grad school insisted that I had invited demons into my life by writing and reading SF. My response? Well, it was several years later, in my master’s thesis, and slightly revised and published last year as To Eternity (and beyond): Writing Spec Fic Good for Your Soul. This is excerpted from the introduction:

Can Christians write, read, and enjoy the science fiction/fantasy genre without compromising their commitment and walk with Christ? Can this genre be used to the glory of Jesus Christ? 

I believe it is only logical that wherever Christians are able to work, take enjoyment and come into contact with their fellow human beings, this is a place where seeds can be sown for God’s glory.

Keep in mind that devotion to a subject depends a great deal on the mentality, personality, and needs of the person involved. Some people enjoy the genre as a light adventure. Others are drawn to the mind-stretching speculation it can inspire. Others devote every particle of their being and energies to it because they have nothing else in life. Should the genre be blamed because people twist and pervert it and let their lives be consumed by it? That’s like burning books because some are pornography. It’s like avoiding bathing because a baby drowned in a bathtub. Science fiction/fantasy, in and of itself, is neither good nor evil: the people who use it, and the uses to which it is put, are what can be labeled good or evil, right or wrong.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, in reference to his Space Trilogy:

 … out of about 60 reviewers, only two showed any knowledge that my idea of the fall of the Bent One was anything but an invention of my own. But if there only was someone with a richer talent and more leisure I think that this great ignorance might be a help to the evangelization of England; any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.

W.H. Lewis. Editor. Letters of C.S. Lewis. (Harcourt Brace Jovanonvich. NY 1966) pp.167

Lewis saw a potential for great good in science fiction/fantasy, if used properly. Just as something has a great potential for good, it can also have just as much potential for evil, and thus great care must be taken. God created all things to be good, but His rebellious servants pervert these good things into evil. Perhaps with prayer, searching, and wisdom, all things may be reclaimed for good.

Please check in next week for the thrilling conclusion. Or, at least, a very thoughtful conclusion, that made me consider why I write as a Christian in my genre. And click here for Michelle’s previous guest blogs.


Michelle L. Levigne

On the road to publication, Michelle fell into fandom in college and has 40+ stories in various SF and fantasy universes. She has a bunch of useless degrees in theater, English, film/communication, and writing. Even worse, she has over 100 books and novellas with multiple small presses, in science fiction and fantasy, YA, suspense, women’s fiction, and sub-genres of romance. 

Her training includes the Institute for Children’s Literature; proofreading at an advertising agency; and working at a community newspaper. She is a tea snob and freelance edits for a living (MichelleLevigne@gmail.com for info/rates), but only enough to give her time to write. Want to learn about upcoming books, book launch parties, inside information, and cover reveals? Go to Michelle’s website or blog to sign up. You can also find her at www.YeOldeDragonBooks.comwww.MtZionRidgePress.comFacebook, and Instagram.

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