RRT: Fiction Without the Speculation

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On March - 9 - 2010

It’s officially Palanca Awards season again, writers from all genres and walks of life are  gearing up for two months of feverish writing (or hand-wringing). While works of speculative fiction can and have won the Palanca, it’s hard to shake the impression that the prestigious body (and ever changing panel of judges) is more receptive to stories of love lost and regained, when the method of “regaining” that love doesn’t involve the dark art of necromancy. Thinking about a submission for the Palanca Awards is about the only time I even consider writing a story without speculative elements, and it’s always been difficult for me to shift gears. With the 2010 awards opening for submissions this month, I became curious as to how other speculative fiction writers go about writing non-specfic pieces–which meant I finally had an excuse to start the second Rocket Round Table:

How different is your experience writing a story without speculative fiction elements, as opposed to writing Spec Fic?

Yeah, I know, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue does it? On to the answers then, and many thanks to the authors who found the time to sate my curiosity.

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==Marianne is the author of several short story collections, and has been a finalist for the Philippines’ National Book Award. She teaches creative writing for the UCLA Extension Writers Program, and her latest short story collection, “The Lost Language”, was released by Anvil last year.==

Very interesting question!

I’m not a writer of speculative fiction, but I do like to “play” in the genre occasionally –  as I also like to play in the “crime” genre, or poetry, or anything.  Because experimenting is what keeps writing fun!

It always starts, for me, with an emotional trigger.  It’s when I find I can’t end my story properly that I start turning to more non-traditional elements.  Then I go back and start again, but with the non-traditional elements as a fixed part of the story.  Then I see if I can finish it.

So, it’s always how to end that bothers me.  And I’ll try anything, ANYTHING, to see how I can get to the end.  And if I have to throw in some speculative fiction elements along the way, so be it.


==Adam is an indie publisher, published author, opinionated blogger. He was recently awarded the Madrigal Gonzalez Best First Book Award for his book, The El Bimbo Variation==.

Nothing really significant as far as authorial mindset is concerned. I used the same amount of braincells when I wrote *snip* as when I’m writing my 365 Stories book, the same amount when I wrote the El Bimbo Variations when I’m writing my terribly irregular essays on komix kritisism. The language is different in various levels, as well as in their little textual effects and affectations, but all those things are only merely decoration – or at their highest level, gilding – for the real substance of the thing, which never changes no matter the medium, whether audience or producer, critic or buyer: art is something you work on.


==Carljoe is the author of And the Geek Shall Inherit the Earth” and is currently working on his next collection of essays. His stories have been published in Tales of Fantasy and Enchantment and Very Short Stories for Harried Readers, amongst other venues. He is also the editor of Metakritiko, the arts and culture section of the Philippine Online Chronicles.==

For the fiction without speculation, I don’t know how this will sound, but there really isn’t much difference in the process for me. I draw on the same general materials (my life, experiences, things I see and read).  My academic training has been in realist fiction (I only got to take a scifi/fantasy class at the MA level) so I guess I just take the tools that I’ve learned from that, mash them up with stuff I’ve read and what I’ve learned from friends, from listening to people who write specfic and try and come up with stuff that’s my own. The problems in writing are the same, finding time, staying focused, ignoring people who pop up and IM you.


==Nikki has managed to earn two Palanca Awards, a National Book Award, a citation in the international Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and a spot in the Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings. Her fiction has been published in print and online, in venues both national and international. She is a proud founding member of the LitCritters literary criticism and writing group, and is working on her first collection. She is also co-editor of Philippine Speculative Fiction volumes III, IV and V.==

I think I’ve published exactly one story that wasn’t, at least marginally, speculative fiction; and that was waaay back at the start of my writing career, when I was consciously trying to be mainstream in order to get printed. That said, my writing does tend to fall into work that is ‘spec-fickier’, if you will, and pieces that are less so. I don’t intentionally start out with the notion that “This piece will be more realist” or not, but I have noticed that my narrative tone in the more ‘real-world’ pieces is almost a replica of the way I naturally speak, whereas the more fanciful stuff tends to be, well, fancier.

Again, that’s not deliberate, nor is the more high-falutin’ tone necessarily harder. (It’s just one of them voices in my head, only not the everyday one.) So I don’t THINK it’s all that different for me–I don’t like to listen to music at all when I write, and Google is always my BFF–but my eight-year-old daughter does claim that I’m more fun to play with when I’m engaged in writing something more fantastical.


==Dominique is a Davao based teacher and author, and a self-proclaimed geek–before it was fashionable. A fellow at the 2006 Siliman National Writer’s Workshop, a finalist in the 3rd Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards for his story, Leg Men==

Strangely enough, I don’t actually distinguish between writing specific and realist fiction.  It may be because of my relative immaturity as a writer, but I really see the story in terms of the characters and the plot, and possibly the theme.

When I write, I try to get into the head of the main character, and I try to determine his or her reaction to the situation.  I like to think that I’m Chestertonian in my outlook (see the chapter “The Ethics of Elfland” in “Orthodoxy”) and so every situation has its own “strangeness.”  And I think that’s only right, because otherwise, it ain’t worth writing about.


==Isabel has been published in Philippine Speculative Fiction IV (and has a story in the upcoming 5th volume), and has placed in various writing contests here and abroad. She is also one of the English editors of Heights, the literary publication of the Ateneo de Manila University.==

Intriguing question.  The best way for me to answer is to explain my writing process.  When I write, I’m always reading something at the same time – meaning in my computer interface there’s a window that contains the Word file I’m working on, and in one or two other tabs I’ve got Wordpads of other people’s stories that I like, and am trying to emulate for that piece (admittedly fanfiction, more often than not).  It’s the “feel” of the story, rather than the genre of the story, that affects what I write.  So if I’m trying to write something bleedingly sad (whether spec fic or not), I’ll be reading a bleedingly sad story.  If I’m trying to write something more on the lighthearted side, I’ll be reading something similarly lighthearted.  I don’t often listen to music while writing, but when I do it’s usually the same playlist of instrumental videogame music.  Haha.

So, generally no difference when writing something I would consciously dub spec fic, and otherwise.  It’s the story’s mood rather than content that affects how I write it.

Writing poetry is very different from writing prose, though.  I think speculation can very easily translate into poetry – meaning, poems can very easily become fantastic without anything marking them particularly apart from non-”spec fic” poems.  In fact I don’t know if any poems can specifically be called speculative.  (Though I did once write a poem about zombie choirboys.  It was actually workshopped.  It was  hard to explain the dramatic situation – most of the other fellows kept thinking it was one huge metaphor, and I couldn’t explain that it was just…that.)


==One of the co-editors of the first Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler, Mia has been cited in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and been published in Philippine Speculative Fiction and the Digest of Philippine Genre Stories. She’s also as  adept at creative non-fiction as she is at fiction.==

Writing Speculative Fiction makes a writer from the realist tradition write a “fictionalized” story.

Because “realist” fiction, I do find, for most writers are really non-fiction/lived/witnessed stories being passed off as fiction (and right onto the lap of New Historicism). Because writers are really a very shy/sensitive lot so we don’t have the thorns or flowers or this quaint thing called courage (synonymous to stupidity sometimes) to set ourselves up for a firing squad of Judge Dredds on shooting-spree-enzymes so we write/publish these “real” stories under “fiction”. (Or in some cases, some writers just haven’t lived enough so they “imagine” a slice of life’s peachy pie via the talent in fantastic maneuvering of language and literary devices.)

Writing these stories then with “speculative” elements makes the whole writing a matter of crafting fiction. It’s no longer just an exercise in re-telling or translating experience into words unto a text. You craft it into what was essential and yet more; a separate if not generated entity altogether from what is nonfiction/lived/witnessed. It is then really transformed by the imagination.

As for what is “real” or “speculative”, refer to the treatises on the psychoanalytic and post-structuralist perspective on literature. Lacan, especially, had a lot to say about the “real”. Because “real” can be “weird” and can be familiar and yet not known or known yet unfamiliar. We can all go etymology-on-doobie here by incorporating “uncanny/heimlich” or “wyrd/fate” into this quasi-monologue. And the “new weird” can just be too goddamn weird that it elicits “What the fuck?!” reactions. And sometimes not in a good way because the stories are just absurd. Onto the next weird that will be given life therefore doomed to die? Or be killed.

Anyway, I began writing stories in the realist tradition to write life’s crap out. (Requirements and reading materials also have a lot of influence. But that’s Creative Writing Programming for us during our time.) And then it all just got boring because it’s life’s same shit on a different page. Onto my punk-ass venturing into the genres and the in-betweens via the nurturing of Banzai Cat’s Library then.

As for the “healthy helping of the weird” that you see in my published stuff, especially in the past two years, that’s my way of fucking the forms. It’s play! Because the whole block narrative is boring me. And genres can be constricting in their prescriptions. As the Kung Fu master in Kung Fu Panda said, “Know the forms but be formless” hahaha. You slide (or flow) through the whole lot. Charles is calling your label of “healthy helping of the weird” as “slipstream”, by the way. It can also be called Chopsuey when seen in bad writing, you know.

As for the speculative stories being “real” because it can suspend that disbelief of the reader, that’s really up to the crafting of the writer. Or we can all say “Amen” to Cauldwell’s Theory of Identification—- because the reader can identify with the text, usually a character or the theme. Or maybe the writer just has hypnotic juju powers. Or maybe has Baron Von Munchausen or Don Quixote genes.

As for the “writing process”, it takes reading/research for some and sex/drugs/booze/whatever music for others. Sometimes it takes  idolatry or a broken heart or some catastrophe or even a thwarted orgasm. The writing blocks, according to Charlson Ong, happen because people don’t have discipline. According to Carlos Aureus, the blocks are there because you’ve set your expectations too high and your skills can’t reach them yet, so lower the expectations.  But really, all it takes are: FAITH, LOVE, TIME, AND DR. ENERGY. And that is if you don’t write then you and your reality don’t make sense.

And holy shit if you don’t change your vocabulary/articulation/language for each story because that would just make it all static. On good days you call it “trademark” or “voice”, just like cliche being called as trope.

But the task, dear boils and gels, is to make the “truth”—- in the real speculative—- believable.

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Rocket Kapre is an imprint of Eight Ray Sun Publishing Inc. (a new Philippine-based publisher), dedicated to bringing the very best of Philippine Speculative Fiction in English to a worldwide audience by means of digital distribution. More info can be found at our About section at the top of the page.