Writing Tip — Guest Blogger, Michelle Levigne

michelle-levigne-LR-2Because I am focusing this month on speculative fiction, I have asked several authors who specialize in that genre to guest blog. First up is my friend Michelle Levigne. Michelle writes in many genres, not just speculative fiction, but in that category she covers steampunk, fantasy, and science-fi.

Me: Which usually comes first when developing a story – characters, setting, or plot?

 Michelle : Plot — but even that isn’t right. Usually the story starts as an idea, an image that comes into my head, a spin-off from another idea, a chance remark someone makes, a joke, a “Hey, what if THIS happened instead of what happened in the movie/book?” or sometimes a reaction to a cool idea that was badly done and I think about how I could do it better — or at least differently. C.S. Lewis said the Narnia books started with just an image he had of a faun carrying parcels, walking through a snowy wood. Just yesterday, I remarked to my mother that all the Hallmark “royal wedding” stories are soooo cookie cutter, so I dreamed up an idea that was the opposite of the checklist they offer. For instance, my royal wedding (If I ever wrote it) would have a princess, not a prince. He breaks it off because he is a threat to the kingdom, not just to a bunch of social rules. She would abdicate her throne for him. Someone conniving is trying to throw them together instead of tear them apart. Someone wants to hurt her tiny kingdom, instead of allegedly “protect” it. See what I mean? 

Me: Since you write in multiple genres, do you have a favorite? Have you ever started a story in one genre and switched it to another?

 Michelle: I can’t say I have a favorite genre. The requirements of the story sometimes pick the genre. For instance, magic would work better than superhero/telepathic powers (although some might claim they are actually the same thing) or the social situation I need for my story works better in a past culture rather than futuristic, or vice versa.

And yes, that just happened to me. In fact, I’m still working on the switch. I wrote a book a few years ago that was the first in a planned 4-book series, science fiction, near-future, taking place on a farming colony set up on an alien world — Earth is starving and it’s worth the expense of setting up alien colonies to feed the planet. I am changing it to fantasy, where it’s not an alien world but a series of worlds on the other side of a magical doorway. Instead of rebel colonists and alien creatures, I have very angry denizens of Faerie who were driven from Earth and want their planet back. Even if they have to kill off all the nasty mortals. I had to gut large portions of the setup for the SF series to make it fantasy, but I think it’s a better book. And hopefully a better series someday.

 MeWhat are some unique challenges to writing speculative fiction?

 Michelle: The world-building — which is the fun part, sometimes — but it’s tricky because you’re building a WORLD. How much do you make like the modern, terrestrial biology, society, technology, politics, and how much do you change? How much science do you have to know, to keep people who know more in those areas from throwing the book against the wall because you broke all sorts of laws of science? How much can you get away with by having your characters either ignorant of the physical/scientific/magical laws, and how much do you have to explain, and where does vital information stop and info-dump begin?

There’s a little bit of a challenge to try to make it unique, and not follow trends that have gone on so long they’ve become cliché. Because as Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun. You can work so hard creating a totally unique setting — you believe — and then just after you turn the book in to a publisher, a book is released to critical acclaim that makes you swear someone was hacking your computer every night, to steal your story.

This actually happened to me when the TV show “Beauty and the Beast” was on. I had just finished a script and had requested the release form, to send it to the production company. That week, an episode aired that had my general idea {drugs invading Down Below) and even some of my lines, starting with, “That’s not the Vincent we know.” Yeah, right, like Ron Koslow needed to spy on our writing group that met at McDonald’s every Tuesday night?

 Me: What do you do to renew your inspiration when you’re running low?

 Michelle: I take a break. I read. I watch movies. I go do chores, because usually the low point of inspiration is just a feeling of, “Okay, I thought I knew what happened next but I can’t find it,” and I give my brain a break. Usually when I’m busy doing something else, the solution shows up. I can’t count all the times I’ve been driving or sitting in church or doing something else and I get the “fix” for a problem in a story, or I get an idea for character background, or I get a new tangent for the plot that is a lot more fun than where I planned to go originally. I’ve learned to always have paper and pen ready. I feel sorry for my Sunday school teacher, who must think I’m taking notes all through class, but I’m actually replotting the current story, or brainstorming as I work through a new idea for a new project.

A good stimulus for creativity is to go watch a movie or TV show or read a book that is just ludicrous, and you have to wonder who wasted the money to produce the wretched thing and then inflict it on the watching/reading public. If the idea is good, but the execution stinks, naturally you start thinking about how it could have been changed and fixed. And sometimes come up with a completely new, original story. Or at least a bit of inspiration for a character or background or piece of technology or a side story or just a fun tangent to explore.

And when all else fails, chocolate lubricates the mental and creative gears.

 Me: What advice would you give to someone interested in writing speculative fiction?

 Michelle: #1: Have fun. Unless you have incredible luck and a faerie godmother or you’re disgustingly talented right off the bat, it’s going to take years to produce something someone will want to publish. So make sure you’re writing what makes you happy and feeds your soul, because that is what will keep you going until the day “the call” comes.

#2: Play in other people’s playgrounds, first. Meaning write fan fiction. There are hundreds of fandoms out there, for anything you can think of. Fan magazines. Online sites where people post bits of stories and artwork and homemade videos. Get into fandom and find people who will be honest and kind, and who will grant you the freedom and wiggle room to explore your own vision for the fandom you love. You want people who will give you feedback on your use of established characters, situations, settings, customs and technology. This is a place where you can practice writing stories without having to spend time and energy creating the worlds. Like walking into a theater full of costumes and a full set on the stage, and you’re free to make up a play that goes with the costumes and set.

Then when you’re ready to launch, and write in your own worlds, you might just have friends and followers who will cheer you on and come explore your playground with you.

Me: Thanks so much for stopping by! To learn more about Michelle and her books, check out her bio and links below.



On the road to publication, Michelle fell into fandom in college (she is a recovering Trekker, and adores “Warehouse 13,” “Stargate SG-1,” “The Dresden Files,” and “The Librarians.”), and has 40+ stories in various SF and fantasy universes. She has a BA in theater/English from Northwestern College and a MA focused on film and writing from Regent University. She has published 80+ books and novellas with multiple small presses, in science fiction and fantasy, YA, and sub-genres of romance. Her official launch into publishing came with winning first place in the Writers of the Future contest in 1990. She has been a finalist in the EPIC Awards competition multiple times, winning with Lorien in 2006 and The Meruk Episodes, I-V, in 2010. Her most recent claim to fame is being named a finalist in the SF category of the 2018 Realm Award competition, in conjunction with the Realm Makers conference. 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.




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