December 22, 2010

On Editing Speculative Fiction


I edit speculative fiction (SF) because I love reading it -- and also because it’s what I know best.

SF is an umbrella term for fiction genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism. The common thread is the question “What if …?” What if humanity populated multiple galaxies? What if some of them were home to intelligent aliens? What if some people could use magical powers? What if those magical powers only worked for children younger than 13?

In advice to genre writers, Jennifer Crusie suggests reading numerous books in the subgenre of interest -- especially books written within the past few years, because the genres change.* Good advice for editors as well?

I’ve been reading SF since I was 5 years old. How does this help? I’m likely to have read or at least know of the book a client says she most admires. If I’ve not read it, I’m thrilled for the recommendation and will happily read it on my own time. And when I read it, I’ll have some understanding of how it relates to the history of SF and why it stands out -- thus what my client is aiming for in her own writing.

In contrast, I’ve read a few mysteries. So I have a basic understanding of the distinction between cozy mysteries and thrillers. But I react intuitively to innovations in science fiction, steampunk, and space opera.

Several years ago, seven freelance editors spent a few weeks of an Author-Editor Clinic seminar discussing issues in editing different genres of popular fiction. Many issues in developmental editing are the same in any genre. Plot, structure, conflict. Some issues tend to present differently in each genre. Audience. Characters. World building.

I thought it would be fun to do something like that again, online. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting more commentary and conversation on editing SF novels. Please post your questions about SF, but also, I know there are editors reading this blog who have expertise in mysteries and suspense and thrillers. So let’s also talk about the similarities and differences between SF and other genres of popular fiction.

To set the stage, here’s a condensed version of a handout on SF that I created for the seminar:

Theme: “What if …?”

Mood: Curiosity and wonder

Subgenres: Hard SF, soft SF, space opera, military SF, cyberpunk, steampunk, alternate reality, alternate history, utopia, dystopia, western, far future, near future, magical realism, horror, high fantasy, epic fantasy, dark fantasy, urban fantasy, comic fantasy, romantic fantasy, science fantasy, sword and sorcery … this list is not exhaustive.

  • SF Signal asked a few people in the field to share their favorite subgenres of speculative fiction. I note that people don’t say “I like space opera,” but instead, “I like science fiction stories set thousands to millions of years in the future, where the science is so advanced that it is indistinguishable almost from magic.” 

Future topics of conversation at The Editor’s POV may include:


I convinced fellow editor Marta Tanrikulu to help me out, but we’re still unlikely to get to all of these topics in the next few weeks, so please speak up: Which of these topics (or others) would you like to talk about in the final days of 2010?



*I apologize, but I can no longer find the precise page on which Jenny Crusie made this recommendation. However, I do recommend a visit to her website for her excellent columns and essays on writing romance, which I find useful for thinking about any genre of popular fiction. And her books are funny and a fast-paced and a pleasure for an editor to read. (Yes, I will recommend some SF books this month, too.)




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