EPISODE 22: Writing Speculative Fiction with Guest Sara Gentry
Sharon and Sara geek out on speculative fiction, defining this expansive genre, exploring its allure for young readers seeking escapism, touching upon Steampunk’s charm, emphasizing nuanced character development while addressing societal issues, and cautioning against didacticism and singular viewpoints.
Topics Covered Include:
- Definition of speculative fiction and its broad genre spectrum
- Speculative fiction as a safe space to explore and discuss societal issues
- The popularity of speculative fiction, especially in middle-grade and young adult lit
- The appeal of escapism and alternative world exploration for young readers
- Discussion of the steampunk subgenre within speculative fiction
- Pitfalls writers should avoid when addressing societal issues in speculative fiction
- How speculative fiction can lead to considering alternative viewpoints
- Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
- Lostuns Found by Sharon Skinner
Coaching KidLit Transcript – EPISODE 22:
Writing Speculative Fiction with Guest Sara Gentry
[00:00:00] Sharon Skinner: Welcome to Coaching KidLit, a podcast about writing and publishing Good KidLit.
[00:00:07] Christy Yaros: We dig into various aspects of writing craft through a KidLit lens, and provide inspiration and clear actionable items to help writers like you move forward on their KidLit writing journeys.
[00:00:19] Sharon Skinner: I’m Sharon Skinner. Author Accelerator, certified book coach and author of Speculative Fiction and KidLit, including picture books, middle grade and young adult.
[00:00:31] Christy Yaros: And I’m Christy Yaros, author accelerator, certified book coach and story editor, focusing on KidLit, including middle grade and young adult.
Hey friends, Christy here. This month, Sharon and I are doing things a little differently. Sharon and Sara Gentry recently had a conversation about the fascinating realm of speculative fiction and it was too good not to share. Sarah joined us back on episode 13 to discuss mentor texts. Sara Gentry is a math PhD turned author accelerator certified book coach.
She helps writers find the solutions they need to write the books they love. Sara is the host of KidLit Summer Camp and Novel Kickoff. You can connect with her on her website, solutionsforwriters. com, and on Instagram, threads, and Twitter, or x, at writewithsara. So get cozy and enjoy this special episode where Sharon and Sara geek out on speculative fiction, defining this expansive genre, exploring its allure for young readers seeking escapism, touching upon steampunk’s charm, emphasizing nuanced character development while addressing societal issues, and cautioning against didacticism and singular viewpoints.
I’ll be back next month with Sharon for our regular podcast format, but for now, take it away, Sharon and Sara.
[00:01:53] Sara Gentry: Welcome, writers. We are speaking with Sharon Skinner, who is both an author and a certified book coach.
And Sharon is an expert in speculative fiction, so we’re going to pick her brain here on all the things speculative fiction. But let me give the writers just a little bit more information about Sharon here.
So I mentioned she is an author and a certified book coach and editor, and she helps writers weave their words into stories that shine. Her body of work includes nine published novels, two collections of short stories, poetry, and two picture books. and other assorted writings. She has served as an Arizona State Library Writer in Residence at various libraries throughout the state, and she has over two decades of demonstrated teaching experience, and she is an active member with the SCBWI, which is the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and serves as the regional advisor in Arizona.
And she has also served aboard the USS. Jason. This is my favorite story, , as it is the first US Navy vessel to take women to see. And I just think that’s awesome and kind of gives us a picture of what kind of person you are.
[00:03:05] Sharon Skinner: Oh goodness. When you read it off, it sounds like a lot.
[00:03:08] Sara Gentry: Well, that’s because you are one of the people that I know that I just feel like every time I talk to you, I’m like, I didn’t know she did that. And I feel like I learned something new about you all the time. You are definitely on my list of very interesting people .
[00:03:21] Sharon Skinner: Thank you.
[00:03:22] Sara Gentry: So we’re going to dig into some speculative fiction. And before we go any further, I think it would probably be a good idea if you could define for the writers here what we are going to include under the umbrella of speculative fiction.
[00:03:36] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, so speculative fiction is a really big umbrella.
So it actually encompasses a whole realm of kinds of what if stories. There are people who have tried to argue that it really should only refer to speculative fiction as in science fiction that could really happen, but the consensus is that it actually covers genre fiction in the areas of anything that’s.
Fantastical, or science fiction, or even horror, those all fall under speculative fiction. Steampunk is one of my favorite things that falls under speculative fiction, as you know.
[00:04:18] Sara Gentry: Yeah, yeah. And it’s somewhat common to see a little bit of mashing with those genres, like you might get a little romance within a fantasy, for instance.
I know that fantasy romance is, a popular or paranormal romance can be a popular mashup. But all of those would fall under This bigger umbrella, correct?
[00:04:39] Sharon Skinner: Except for romance, is kind of its own genre. And so you’re sort of picking from two big categories and mashing them up so you’re taking speculative fiction and , mashing it with romance, because there’s also science fiction romance.
But under the umbrella, you also see a lot of nice mashing. So you see things like historical fiction where we rewrite history or what have you. That’s, that also falls under speculative fiction. And so you see these nice mashups of things like dark horror science fiction.
That’s, all speculative fiction. Throw in a little romance. Well, I think relationships are important and I think that many, many, many books have relationships in them. Sometimes it’s a romance, sometimes it’s a friendship, but relationships are a key component of story to me. So I think those kind of fall in anywhere where you’re writing.
[00:05:33] Sara Gentry: Yeah, no, I love that. And I think those alternate history stories can be so interesting. And it’s a perfect example of highlighting the what if question, you know, what if this country had won this war instead of this country? And what if this leader had not died so early? And those kinds of things, I just think, are all very fascinating.
So within the speculative fiction space. We do find a lot of stories that will address, like a current topic. Perhaps they will, attempt to address racism, for instance, or, suppression of certain classes of people, or we see all sorts of current issues that we deal with in our modern world addressed in speculative fiction.
And I’m just wondering if you have any idea as to why that is.
[00:06:20] Sharon Skinner: Well, I think that for me, the reason that I dwell in speculative fiction and write in speculative fiction is because you can put an arm’s length distance between you and the issue, not only for the writer, but for the reader. And I’m not saying that you’re not getting emotion on the page.
Emotion on the page is really critical, engagement with the characters is really critical, but the issue itself sometimes needs an arm’s length before we can step back and take a look at it. This goes back to the storytelling that Star Trek was really famous for, right, or even before that, Gulliver’s Travels, which was actually, political satire, but it was also a way of taking and making it into speculative fiction so that you could, first of all, protect yourself from the powers that be, because it wasn’t okay to say things about the powers that be back then and also to talk about issues so the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians that was really just somebody saying y’all need to stop acting like there’s a difference between Which side of the egg you break. That’s the same thing as in Star Trek when they had the people who were white on one side and black on the other and then black on this side and white on the other who hated each other.
I mean, we were looking at differences that you could bring them to a ridiculous level, and actually point them out in a way that everybody’s going, yeah, that’s silly. And then subconsciously maybe take that in and understand that, yeah, that really is silly. Why do we do that? So I think that it gives us the opportunity to look at big issues with a little bit of distance so that we can maybe see ourselves reflected without seeing ourselves so directly reflected that it’s painful and we have to look away.
[00:08:15] Sara Gentry: Yeah, no, that’s, that’s really well said, because I think even on a, on a more simplistic level, using the Star Trek example, I mean, it was one of the first television shows, I realize we’re talking about a show here and not a book, but one of the first shows that really had a diverse cast of regular people on the show, a regular recurring cast, but from all walks of life here, and we’re putting them all together on the main cast, and at that time, that was probably not likely to happen in everyday life. Your circle of friends might not be all that diverse, and yet people seemed more ready to accept that on a show that was projected for the future.
So, it’s all very interesting.
[00:09:00] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, so that’s why I think that I do it. I do it because I need a little bit of distance between me and the topics that I’m dealing with. I also don’t want to punch anybody in the face with the issues that I’m talking about. I don’t want to be didactic. I want to expose people to how I see the world in a way that invites them in to take a look at that and see how that might feel for them. Yeah. But I’m also dealing with, topics that for me are very personal. And writing about them tends to be very cathartic. I’ve written nine novels, as you pointed out, and many other things, and I tend to have a recurrent theme, a mother daughter theme.
I deal with that a lot in my stories. It crops up in all sorts of different ways. And I think that’s me exploring my relationships in the world in a way that allows me to dig deeper into my experiences and other people’s experiences and see how that feels.
But I think it’s also cathartic.
Also, I like rewriting my own personal history in ways that are more palatable to me because, life can be a challenge, especially when you’re a teenager and especially when you’re younger. And I find that it’s really nice for me to be able to go back and rewrite my own story in a sense because I’m porting myself into these characters and into these worlds in ways that this is how I would like it to have been.
[00:10:32] Sara Gentry: . Right, right. I think even about the children’s book example, Charlotte’s Web, oftentimes we’ll hear that we don’t want to read books about death to children and whatnot, that it might be too much for them to handle. And yet this is one of the most well beloved children’s books that has endured to this day.
And I don’t think the book is about death per se, but death does play a prevalent role in that book, and it might seem more accessible to kids because it’s about animals as opposed to people.
[00:11:04] Sharon Skinner: I think that’s true. And again, talking pigs, I mean, that falls right under speculative fiction.
I would definitely put Charlotte’s Web right under speculative fiction.
But yes, I think that it does allow us to explore those topics in a way that is Meaningful, but not so. Frightening, not so dangerous, so, again, you don’t feel like you have to look away.
[00:11:33] Sara Gentry: since we’re talking about KidLit, we would absolutely have to acknowledge that, especially fantasy is just huge across the middle grade audience and the YA audience for sure. Why do you think that is?
[00:11:46] Sharon Skinner: I think it’s just a trend. For right now, I don’t think it’s a permanent trend.
I know that 15, 20 years ago, we were all being told no one wants fantasy. No one wants YA fantasy. Nobody wants that, and yet there are always readers for it. And when you hear from an agent or an editor, no one. Is looking for that right now, or nobody wants that.
They’re talking about themselves. They’re not interested in it. It doesn’t mean there aren’t readers for it. I’ve always found readers, I’ve always found fans of my work. I’ve never had any trouble with. Once my work is out in the world, having people find it and love it and want more. So you have to take those things that you hear from.
People in the publishing industry with a bit of a grain of salt and also realize that those are current trends. For how many years did we hear? No one wants vampires. We don’t want any more vampire stories. And yet every time you turn around there’s a new vampire story out there. People are still interested in that.
It’s not going away.
[00:12:48] Sara Gentry: I have two young readers in my house and one of them loves fantasy, pretty much reads it. I would say 75% of what she reads is gonna be in that fantasy space. And then my younger reader, Has no palette for it. It confuses him. He want, he wants the hard facts.
But I do think there’s something about the adventures that kids get to go on through fantasy that perhaps they don’t get to experience. If they’re reading like a contemporary fiction, they don’t get swept away perhaps in the same way.
[00:13:21] Sharon Skinner: I agree. That was gonna be my next statement, is that the magical component of, who doesn’t wanna go to another world and experience that can completely, especially when you’re a kid.
[00:13:32] Sara Gentry: Yeah.
[00:13:32] Sharon Skinner: Especially when, the real world can be very confusing on its own. It can be very distraught and stressful. Even as a kid, especially as a kid right now there’s a lot going on in the world and so escapist fiction is really a place that we wanna go.
And I always, as a kiddo, wanted to go to another world. I wanted to spend as little time in my own world as possible, to be honest with you. And fantasy did that for me. Fantasy and science fiction, and I. Also other stories like the Island of the Blue Dolphins comes to mind stories about adventure, where a young person is out on their own and having to survive and doing their own thing.
No parental controls, those kinds of things. And you get a lot more of that in fantasy because you get to go through a portal and your parents aren’t there, and it doesn’t have to be that your parents are missing . Or you’re in foster care or those kinds of real things that we know kids have to deal with.
But you can escape that and you can go on an adventure and not have to worry about any of that mundane day-to-day stuff. And that’s honestly why I still read a lot of it, because I like going away into another world and. Not having to deal with mundane stuff.
[00:14:49] Sara Gentry: So I wanna talk about one of these categories that I know that you write, and you might be the only person that I actually personally know who writes in the category of steampunk?
And I’m just fascinated by this genre. Lostuns Found Sharon’s steampunk Middle Grade is perhaps the only steampunk novel that I’ve read. It’s just not a category that I’m very familiar with. So this fascinates me. And so I don’t know if you could just talk a little bit about Steampunk, because I don’t think it’s as common. Of something that we see.
[00:15:19] Sharon Skinner: There’s a whole subculture of people who are into steampunk, and steampunk is a very interesting genre and I love it. I love it for many reasons, but part of the reason that I fell in love with it is because I really got into steampunk as a role play and as something that I was doing.
So I had a persona that I developed. Tavara Tinker. Who is a steampunk character. And along with that I had a whole line of repurposed clothing. I would go to the Goodwill and I would get these clothes and then I would redo them as steampunk costuming. And I had a local outlet where I was consigning those costumes, and I would go to the Comic-con and I would have a booth and sell out all this stuff because it’s very popular to that group of individuals. And there are tea battles and there are all sorts of wonderful things that surround the steampunk genre. There’s music, it is just a huge subculture of people who are very into steampunk.
We call Jules Verne, the grandfather, basically, of steampunk because he was initially one of the first to write stories that had steam driven machines and gizmos and mechanical things that did all these wonderful things. And then as you come forward, when I was younger the television show and now the movies, the Wild, Wild West very steampunk, the gadgets and things like that really didn’t exist, but they exist in that world.
And steampunk is an alternate historical reality too . The question speculative fiction wise is what if we never invented diesel or gas powered engines and everything was steam driven. And so that’s really where the idea of steampunk comes from, and that’s really what drives the genre.
[00:17:26] Sara Gentry: Yeah it’s so interesting ’cause it’s, it does have that feel of being both historical but also it almost feels a little sci-fi and it also feels a little fantasy. So it feels like it’s a bunch of different things rolled into one.
[00:17:40] Sharon Skinner: Yeah. And one of the reasons that you see a lot of steam punk set in the Victorian era is that historical aspect of it. There were steam driven, powered machines back then before the combustion engine was invented. And so it’s easy to place it there and picture that ’cause you had steam. Locomotives and steam powered cars and steam powered cotton gins and things like that.
So it’s easy to place it there and use what’s already in existence and then play off of there.
[00:18:13] Sara Gentry: So, if a writer… was most motivated to write a story, in order to highlight a current issue, a societal issue. It sounds like speculative fiction would be a good option for them to consider if they are not married to a certain genre yet.
[00:18:33] Sharon Skinner: I think it’s a great place to explore. I think it gives you the opportunity to play in a sandbox and build castles and have fun with it and try things that you might not be able to try in contemporary fiction, because you don’t have to worry about the realism of it. If I’m writing about a city, I can write it any way I want.
I don’t have to make it sound like it’s that city .
[00:18:59] Sara Gentry: Right, yep. So you’re also a coach who works with writers, which means that you have a lot of experience, guiding writers as they’re working through their projects.
So when you are working with writers in speculative fiction, What are some pitfalls that you come across if a writer is attempting to address one of these issues in their work?
[00:19:21] Sharon Skinner: Well, being blatant and being, again, didactic, you, don’t want to punch people in the face with it. Let’s just say it’s a spectrum. You have some writers who can’t quite dig deep enough without a little nudging. And I think that’s the case in any fiction, any writing. You have to sometimes be encouraged to dig a little deeper, but you also don’t want to punch people in the face. I don’t know why I keep saying this, but that’s what it feels like when somebody is hitting me over the head with something pounding at home. I just feel like, yeah, I get it. Let’s move on. Now I’m no longer in the story, now I’m in the writer’s viewpoint.
And that’s a thing you have to be careful about. Also, I think that the nice thing about speculative fiction is you can explore alternative viewpoints in a work by allowing your characters to have varying viewpoints on a topic and then let the reader decide. So, Telling the reader what to think is never a good idea, but allowing the reader to think and giving them reasons to think and opportunities to think is great.
[00:20:33] Sara Gentry: Yeah.
[00:20:34] Sharon Skinner: Those are the best books ever. The ones that leave me thinking after I’ve closed the book about what I just read, and not in a bad way, not in a, what the heck did I just read, but a, wow, yeah, let me keep thinking about that. Those are great books.
[00:20:50] Sara Gentry: That’s really interesting that you mentioned the different points of view, even because, I mean, certainly multiple points of view can be found probably in any genre of book, but I do think This is just me speculating.
I don’t have any data on this, but I do think within the sci fi fantasy space in particular, it is more common, perhaps, to find a book that has more than one point of view than, say, if I were to go to the mystery section.
[00:21:17] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, that’s probably true. It depends on the genre fiction that you’re reading, but I do think that, and I can speak to speculative fiction really well.
I mean, I am a diverse reader. I’m a very eclectic reader. I read across. Pretty much all genre, but I spend most of my time in speculative fiction. It’s my favorite place to be. And I would say, yes, I see a lot of that, but you can also provide, varying points of view on a topic without having to have characters all have their own space.
[00:21:54] Sara Gentry: Right.
[00:21:55] Sharon Skinner: Because they can push up against one another. when I teach, and when I coach, I talk a lot about making sure that your characters, even your allies have different ideas about the world, philosophical ideas, all of those things so that you can have more tension and more conflict around the topic to have them explore.
[00:22:18] Sara Gentry: Oh, that’s really interesting because, like obviously within a speculative world here, depending on how imaginary you’ve gone with it and how. real world you’re, you know, there’s a whole spectrum there for world building, but I would think that the more the world is apart from our current one that we know that that’s a beautiful way to also develop the world to be having Other characters speak into, well, I love this about our nation or our government that we’re under and another person like pushing back on that, that that’s a really fabulous way to sort of help the reader see how people within this imaginary world might love certain aspects of it and not love others.
I think that’s really interesting.
[00:23:04] Sharon Skinner: I think it not only adds to the world building, but it adds to character and it makes all of the characters more realized if they’re not all agreeable all the time to all the same things. So not all of villains and the minions of the villains aren’t all always in agreement with their goals, either or their ideas of what the perfect world would look like. It adds to that lovely tension that you can have on the page, and it adds to conflict without it having to be a car chase or things blowing up or somebody setting fire to something. It’s a really beautiful way to do it.
[00:23:38] Sara Gentry: Yeah, so we’ve talked a bit about avoiding this sense of hitting people over the head with a message like you must believe this viewpoint about the world. So, in terms of helping writers to avoid being too didactic, what instead do they need to be focusing on when they are developing their stories in order to avoid that?
[00:24:02] Sharon Skinner: Well, I think that if you focus on the characters and their journey, you avoid proselytizing or preaching as the narrator or as the writer. So, you build your characters, you give them these alternate points of view, these different philosophical visions of the world, these different ideas, and let them hash it out.
And make their points, and that’s a glorious way to allow the reader access and to give them the ability to think about, huh, what do I think about what so and so just said in this scene, and oh, it’s so interesting that these best friends don’t agree on this particular big thing in life. I just think that it’s the character journey through the world that is the most important.
[00:24:49] Sara Gentry: So now I’m going to ask you a question as a writer. So, as you are exploring these issues, and because you are exploring issues perhaps from different characters’ perspectives, so you kind of have to think not only about how you might feel about an issue, but how another character might feel about an issue, and there’s a lot of nuance in all of that, have you found it to, if not completely change your own thinking to at least, add shades of gray perhaps in how, maybe you thought about an issue before you started writing the book and then after you wrote the book, you’re like, there’s more to this than I thought.
[00:25:26] Sharon Skinner: I think for me, yes, to some extent, because I believe that so much happens in the subconscious when we’re writing and when we’re storytelling and when we’re exploring character that comes out that we weren’t consciously aware of. I don’t know that it’s changed my perspective on something. I think it’s more that it’s illuminated my perspective and allowed me to explore the different aspects of how I feel about things and how I think about things.
Now other people’s writing, yeah, absolutely, I find that when I get a really good story that comes at me from a direction that I’m maybe not familiar with or maybe not completely comfortable with, it does inspire me to at least consider an alternative viewpoint. I think with myself though, I think I’m always exploring the world as a person.
I’m one of those people that I really want to be better, to do better in the world, and so I’m always exploring those options, and I think that comes out in my writing, because it’s something that I’m feeding myself. I’m a believer that you have to feed the hopper all the time. You know, feed the brain, and a lot of lovely things will come out very organically.
That’s not to say that I don’t believe in the planning out of… The direction of a book or a novel or building your characters to know going in who they are and how they’ll react when you put them in the situations. But I also believe that there’s a certain level of writing your way in to explore who they are before you can maybe develop them fully or maybe write a scene and see if it works and then decide, oh, maybe this doesn’t work so well.
Because there’s so much glorious stuff going on in our subconsciouses that I don’t want to constrain that completely. And I don’t think that any of the tools that we use are intended to, constrain our subconscious minds because we’re really exploring story from our personal realm.
But I think that you’ve got to give yourself that balance between here’s my plan and you’ve probably heard me say this before, but I like to equate it to a road trip. So I have my road trip and I went to AAA and AAA gave me the map to get from California to New York. And this is the route that they say I should take.
But I’m driving along and I see a sign that says Big Ball of String. I want to go see The Ball of String, right? And that’s okay, I get to go do that, and maybe that’ll stay in the story, and maybe it won’t, but I get to go and see The Ball of String and explore that offshoot from the story just to see if it works.
[00:27:53] Sara Gentry: Yeah, I find that, at least with my own reading, I don’t necessarily think that a book has to be, like it’s not automatically a good book just because it changed my mind. I mean, if, if every book was always changing your mind, we would constantly, be changing our opinion about everything.
But what I do love is if a book has at least made me think about an issue in a different way. Or to have greater empathy for somebody who might think differently than I do. To use a very mundane example, if I don’t know if you’re, are you a coffee drinker?
[00:28:27] Sharon Skinner: I used to be coffee doesn’t love me anymore.
[00:28:30] Sara Gentry: Yeah, yeah. So I mean, you could get these people who fall in camps of coffee and tea and coffee and tea and I am not a coffee drinker. So you’re not going to convince me otherwise that coffee is the best hot drink, but if you can provide me with a lovely story that shows why people are so in love with their coffee, well, then I can at least maybe understand why you love your coffee, even if I, agree to disagree that it’s not the beverage of choice.
And I know that’s super mundane, but if we apply that to some really, big issues that pop up in our society and in our governments and world systems and things like that we Can at least, if nothing else, hopefully understand one another better.
[00:29:08] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, that’s beautifully said. I agree. I think that it, again, I don’t necessarily think I’ve changed my mind completely on things very often, but wow, I’ve had my horizons widened, and opened up. And that is important.
[00:29:27] Sara Gentry: Yeah. Yeah.
So I don’t read as much speculative fiction as you do in other genres, but I do enjoy the ones that, do allow us to explore these issues. I love how you say it at an arm’s length. I think that’s a wonderful way to describe that. And, and I want to be conscientious of the time here.
So we’re gonna, make sure that we can connect with you here. I know that you have your sharonskinner. com site for your author, your books. And then, for anyone who would like to work with Sharon as a book coach, she has bookcoachingbysharon. com, and those are linked, so if you find one, you’ll find the other.
And, what’s coming up here for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
[00:30:09] Sharon Skinner: I have some appearances coming up later in the fall, so you can find that on my website. I’m also on Substack now. So you can find me there.
[00:30:18] Sara Gentry: Cool, and writers, if you are working within the speculative fiction space, I highly encourage you to connect with Sharon, she’s also a great resource in that she has written For the youngest audience, up through the oldest audience, so no matter what age category you’re writing, Sharon has experience with all of that.
So, thank you so much for your time and this fabulous conversation.
[00:30:41] Sharon Skinner: This has been great. I always love our chats .
[00:30:44] Sara Gentry: I always learn something
[00:30:46] Sharon Skinner: Bye.
[00:30:47] Christy Yaros: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Coaching KidLit, a writing and book coaching podcast for writers who want to level up their KidLit writing game.
[00:30:54] Sharon Skinner: For more about us and to discover what a book coach could do for you, check out CoachingKidLit.Com and follow us on social media.
Follow us on Instagram and Twitter: @CoachingKidLit