Ghost Roads, by Betsy James

Molecules and Metaphor:

Betsy James
On Writing and Teaching Speculative Fiction

On Rewriting Speculative Fiction

The challenge peculiar to SF: You’re trying to show, not tell. But how do you “show” a world that, to one degree or another, is unknown, unique, and may even operate by physics that are different from the laws your reader subconsciously applies?

A piece may be set in a very world-like place. In that case the only point at which a reader may get thrown out of the cart is where a wrinkle happens in its substance.

But some writing is far more ambitious. An un-earthlike world; a different species; a humanoid we don’t know yet; unknown background politics that may or may not be similar to ours, not to mention we’re shown only a glimpse of them. Even the names may be strange. This kind of writing will get more “What the hell?” critique. Its challenge is greater: by slow reveal to help us accept that we’re in a very different place, yet give us enough info that we don’t give up.

At base the question is the same: Will the reader get it? Or will they fly off the road at the curve?

I hold that the answer is always: In imagination you incarnate as the POV. As in method acting, you assume the POV character’s body and write your first draft from there.

Then you take a step back, into the mind of the reader, and adjust it for them.

In other words, you must “incarnate” twice: in draft, as the POV character; in rewrite, as the reader.

In rewrite, you make yourself a tabula rasa. What kind of tabula rasa will vary with your audience. Tech heads? General readers? Teens? Kids? What consciousness are you working to slip into? The aim is for you to be crystalline, invisible, so that your own exhibitionist ego doesn’t interrupt the reader’s dream.

You’ll have judgments to make. In some places you’ll trim and dismantle excess. In others you’ll spot gaps that an immigrant to your world would never have enough info to fill, and you’ll have to figure out how to bridge them with more hints without going all “as you know, Bob.” (Google that phrase.)

This is what makes speculative fiction such hard work—and such a delicious puzzle. Damn—what made you go into this field when you could have been a dentist?

Betsy James is the author of 17 books. Her latest novel, Roadsouls, was finalist for the 2017 World Fantasy Award. She lives in Albuquerque, NM, where she teaches, paints, and hikes in the wilderness. Find out more at