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The Joy Of Telling Lies
By Scott Nicholson

If you are a new writer, or early in your career, you might feel that you have to produce highly-polished literary work, in which each metaphor drips with timeless truth. You may have been taught there's only one field worth seriously pursuing, and that is the angst-ridden type of modern fiction where you exorcise your demons and translate them into a universal experience. Perhaps you have heard that you are worthless as a writer unless your material is getting published in The New Yorker, or at least in the little publication produced by the English Department at the local university. This may be especially true if you take college writing classes or attend a certain brand of popular but expensive workshop.

All that may be fine, if that's what makes you happy. But don't turn your eyes and keyboard and heart away from other fields which are ripe with opportunity: those of speculative fiction. What I call "speculative" fiction (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) is usually called "genre" fiction by others, but to my mind every work can be forced into a genre. Indeed, a genre may well be nothing but the Twentieth-Century creation of publishers who needed marketing categories for their books.

My dictionary defines "speculative" as "giving a wide perspective or view; prying; inquisitive; curious." In other words, the kind of stuff that a lot of people are interested in reading. Several hundred people may read and drool over your work in that little literary magazine, but the magazine is more likely to end up as a blotter down at the coffee shop. Meanwhile, several hundred thousand people bought magazines that same month in order to visit Titan, look a ghost in the vacant eyes, or cavort with elves in a strange land.

For those readers who are pooh-poohing me and brushing speculative fiction off as kiddie stuff that a writer is supposed to outgrow, let me assure you that you can be just as literary with the unreal as you can with the real. I submit for your approval Ursula K. LeGuin and Edgar Allan Poe, whose sentences weep with craft and beauty. I dare any literary writer to "outwrite" Ray Bradbury.

"Oh, but those stories are all plot and no theme, and the plot is predictable, at that," go the nay-sayers. Allow me to point you toward Orson Scott Card and Arthur C. Clarke, who can speak entire volumes about the human condition in the space of a single book. If you want character, read a few paragraphs of Stephen King and see if you don't know those two-dimensional people.

"But I'll be pigeonholed," comes the now-smaller but still-uneasy chorus. "I'll never be able to write the Great American Novel if I'm cranking out commercial work." Shirley Jackson could (and did) write both humorous parenting guides and bone-chilling, haunting work that will resonate for centuries. William Faulkner survived "A Rose For Emily" just fine. Mark Twain didn't mind taking the devil's viewpoint.

"What's in it for me?" grumble the last few unconvinced, who are clinging to composition books and tattered copies of James Joyce decoder manuals. Well, (excuse me while I grin, because this is my favorite part) what's in it for you is money.

Collective gasps. A coffee mug shatters on the floor. Somewhere, an old master rolls over in a forgotten grave.

Money. That bane of all serious writers, that enemy of beauty and angst and poetics, oh my.

Yes, money. Don't get me wrong here. Any writing career hobbles forward on a long and painful road, and the odds are against you no matter the route you tread. I'm serious when I advise writers not to quit their day jobs, and I take my own advice to heart. Don't suffer for art to the point of starvation.

But the speculative fiction fields feature at least fifteen different magazines that pay a minimum professional rate, and probably a hundred more that offer a token payment of a penny a word. At any given time, a dozen different anthologies are in the works and in need of stories. Oh, and for those with patience and persistence, you might be glad to know that speculative fiction novels are purchased at a steady rate, and you usually don't need an agent to submit them for you.

Another benefit is that you don't have to follow the time-honored but dubious rule of "writing what you know." Most of us have not been abducted by aliens, poltergeisted, or forced to endure the blazing halitosis of a dragon. But each of us has dreamed, imagined, heard that magical phrase "Once upon a time." We all know how to lie, even if we profess not to practice that particular sin in our daily dealings.

When you sit down to write a speculative story, the keyboard or page is as wide as eternity. Paint the canvas as black as your worst nightmare, or be a little bold and go beyond that nebulous border. Instead of recalling the map of veins on your dead uncle's hand and reproducing it in painstaking exactitude, stick a sword in the old boy's hand and let him quest about for a chapter or two. Who cares if he was a stubborn cuss in real life? You now have permission to lie, and absolutely no one is looking over your shoulder (unless it's a horror story and the fellow's ghost is hanging around), so make him heroic enough to rival Sir Lancelot or Bilbo Baggins.

In case the evidence is not yet compelling enough, let me add that speculative fiction editors have a reputation for seeking out and nurturing new talent. They are hungry, and so is their audience, for fresh names, fresh ideas, and fresh product. They compete to get certain writers in their stables, and, believe it or not, there's always a shortage of people who are reliable, can write effectively, and have the stamina to keep churning out stories.

You will also be invited into some close-knit and welcoming communities. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, and Mystery Writers of America are glad to open up their ranks to new members. Various on-line newsgroups and bulletin boards help you keep in touch, pick up on market news, and watch for emerging trends. In this electronic age, you can learn of a market, send a submission via e-mail, and have your acceptance in the space of three days or less. If you submit to some of the many speculative fiction webzines that are burgeoning in cyberspace, you might even see your work published within hours of its acceptance.

So come and join us, the dreamers, the pretenders, the enemies of sleep. Tell us a lie, give us a person with an unbelievable problem, and don't be afraid to take us away from this familiar, everyday world. Make it up as you go along. You might be surprised where you wind up.


An excellent place to start your journey into speculative fiction is to enter the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. There's no entry fee, and the only requirement is that you have three or fewer professional stories in print. With prizes ranging from $500 to $5,000, you may get a boost to your pocketbook as well. For contest rules, visit or write for details at PO Box 1630, Los Angeles CA 90078.

Two market magazines give out sample copies. Speculations and Hellnotes, both distributed in electronic form, will each give you a no-cost look at what they offer. You can request Speculations at PMB 400, 111 West El Camino Real, Suite 109, Sunnyvale CA 94087-1057 or by sending an e-mail to Jobs In Hell is geared toward horror writers, while Planet Pulp focuses on professional publishing information, such as interviews with agents and editors, rather than story markets.

Free on-line market listings and webzines are so numerous that you can spend weeks clicking through them. Some of my favorites are Spicy Green Iguana, Paula Fleming's List, and Ralan's Webstravaganza.

--copyright 2001. Originally published in Writer's Journal, March 2001. Contact for reprint permission.

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