The rules of speculative fiction

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Photo: Taiyo FUJII

I haven’t written a blog post for the last couple of weeks – I’ve had my head down responding to line edits on the manuscript of Baby X. Overall it’s been an affirming process – I like it when my editor says ‘Alex wouldn’t say that’: it encourages me that the character’s voices are real enough for her to hear when I slip up.

I’m discovering that I use a lot of commas, more than are strictly necessary. It turns out that just when you thought you knew everything there was to know about punctuation there’s this whole other level (like working your way up to a black belt in karate, and suddenly discovering the Dan system.)

And there’s the (occasional) joy of seeing an entire page without any changes or comments, and breathing a sigh of relief.

My editor is also asking questions about the text, reminding me that just because something seems obvious to me, it’s not necessarily clear on the page.

Questions like, Where the dorm is in relation to the lab? and, How does the key card system work?

And, most challenging of all, Does the science stack up?

Photo: Blake Patterson

Although I’ve done a fair amount of copy-writing about health issues, I’m not a scientist, and I didn’t do a scientific degree.

And this is fiction, after all. An entertaining thriller, not a text book. Just how realistic does it need to be?

My editor feels that it should be realistic, and that’s ultimately an issue of genre. That is to say, in science fantasy you might be able to make stuff up about future technology. But this isn’t science fantasy, it’s not really even science fiction.

Baby X a high-concept thriller (like Gone Girl, or The Girl on the Train) that borrows from the conventions of speculative fiction (like The Handmaid’s Tale, or The Carhullan Army).

In speculative fiction, it is permissible to speculate about the direction of future technological developments. It is absolutely not permissible to make shit up.

When I did my initial research I didn’t make shit up. Or at least, not much.

I read a great deal, online and off, about fertility treatment, genetics, pregnancy, breastfeeding, stem cell medicine, and medical ethics. I wasn’t just interested in the hard science, but the effects on real people, which meant that on the one hand I read discussion threads by patients and parents and at the other extreme I read scientific papers so dense I barely understood them. I also read quite a lot of stuff in between (Genetics for Dummies is about my level, it turns out).

Although I’m embarrassed to admit it, when I wrote my first draft of this book, I put a lot of this research into the text. Just one of the many, many things that were wrong with it.

In later drafts I stripped out all the exposition, realising it was getting in the way of the story, and slowing down the pace of the action.

But that meant when my editor asked questions about how exactly, person A got into the lab, or how many hours a particular journey takes, or whether my suppositions about stem cell medicine hold water, I found I couldn’t remember.

Which meant going back and drawing that map, or timeline from scratch, rereading the protocols on egg harvesting, reacquainting myself with synthetic immunology and stem cell medicine. I’ve even been pondering details I can’t really understand (like just how naïve exactly are the lymphocytes in umbilical cord blood!?)

Very little of this information is making it’s way back into the text, but it’s making me more confident about my original conclusions.

I’m enormously grateful to my wonderful editor for being so thorough and conscientious – I know it will make a big difference to the final product and is helping me feel more and more excited about the book.

And if, by any chance, someone asks me a difficult question at a signing, I might even be able to answer it!


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20 thoughts on “The rules of speculative fiction

  1. Alice @ The Filling Glass

    What a great feeling that your character has such a strong voice your editor knows when its ‘gone missing’. I am excited by the idea of your book, I love both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Carhullan Army (although not the other two, that’s what small children do to you!), so I look forward to reading the final edit. x

  2. Sara | mumturnedmom

    This is so interesting to read! I read a lot of fantasy, so I’m used to suspending disbelief and just letting some of the odder things float past, but when I read any other genre (even sci-fi) I find glaring impossibles/inconsistencies/errors/holes frustrating. Your research sounds very worthwhile and your editor sounds wonderful 🙂 #whatimwriting

    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Sara, I agree with you about fantasy, I think it’s that the rules are different for different genres. I get really annoyed by what I see as inconsistencies, particularly in sci fi films.

  3. Maddy@writingbubble

    Baby X sounds right up my street – I can’t wait to read it! I do enjoy medical thrillers – Tess Gerritsen is a fave of mine in that department. I know she, and some similar authors have medical training and reading this now, that makes sense. You’re right to take out the medical detail but also to understand those details yourself to some degree. I imagine it’s a fine line to tread – the reader needs to not to be distracted from the story either by unnecessary exposition or the nagging feeling that it’s not realistic enough! Fascinating post. Thanks for linking to #WhatImwriting x

    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Maddy, and thanks for the heads up on Tess Gerritsen. I haven’t read anything by her but I will now.

  4. Tara Borin

    Your editor sounds fantastic! Sounds like you’re finding a balance of letting the research inform the story without interrupting it’s flow. I really enjoyed this post!

    Also your comparison to the Dan system made me chuckle!


  5. Zoe

    This is fascinating. I’m just doing my second draft and can not WAIT for the time when it’s just punctuation that I’m concerned with. Ha! I love how your editor works with you and the book sounds really interesting. Well done on it all so far!

    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Zoe. It has been brilliant working with an editor, it’s definitely challenging me to push myself, but I’m learning a lot. Hopefully it will all pay off!

  6. Nicola Young

    You definitely need to know where your coming from but I agree that it doesn’t all need to be in the story. It’s hard to get the balance I guess, but necessary to make it believable. Sounds like it’s going well.

  7. Sophie Lovett

    Really interesting post. It’s always fascinating to see how someone else engages with the editing process – as others have said your editor sounds great, but it also sounds like she’s got great material to work with! I don’t think the question of how realistic the science needs to be is an easy one to answer… Ultimately you want it to be grounded in truth – which it sounds like yours is – but I would have said that a little bit of creative license is part of what it is to be writing fiction rather than fact. Having said that, you need it to be believable – both to those who know about the science behind your topic, and to those that don’t. And quite often the bare facts of the matter can actually be less believable than a made up version! I have no doubt you know all this but it’s interesting to work it through… 🙂 xx

    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Sophie, you’re right that fiction can be believable – and truthful – in ways that bare facts can’t. I think the process I’m going through right now is about making sure the foundations are firm enough to support the imaginative leaps I’m making…

  8. K.D. Jennings

    Sounds like a very interesting story and that you have a fab editor.
    On the subject of commas, I hear you!
    I tend to use too many too, perhaps because my mother tongue is French and we use many, many commas.

  9. Belle Amatt

    Fascinating post Becky, what a journey! In terms of the science, I feel many readers will flow with the fiction of your content but there will always be Science boffins with complex knowledge in the area who are looking for accuracy, so it’s important to keep it real! I am intrigued that your editor knows your characters better than you do, enough to change their language. How did you feel about this? X

    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Belle, you’re right there are people out there who will want it to be accurate and will notice if it’s not! I didn’t take it so much that my editor knows the characters better than I do, more that everyone slips up sometimes, and an outside eye can be super helpful for noticing things you can no longer spot in your own work. I’m grateful to her for noticing these things – partly because it’s nice she’s invested, and partly because it means the characters’ voices must be well developed enough for the slips to stand out. Thanks for commenting 🙂


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