Bolts of Lightning: Thoughts on Speculative Fiction

Speculative fiction has been a favorite genre of mine for years. I like the ideas in the fiction; I like the short story length. It gives a writer a chance to work on his/her craft; in essence, it gives a writer a chance to be a wordsmith.

Writing comes down to creating connections—making that momentary bridge between the writer and the readers—and those connections are made through words. In its basic sense, writing is a means of transmitting the thoughts and images that reside in a writer’s brain to a reader in the most effective and accurate fashion. In a letter to George Bainton in 1888, one of my favorite authors, Mark Twain, described the desire for this accuracy in the following way: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

This is what I look for in speculative fiction—words or phrases that can make that connection between the reader and the writer with the force of a bolt of lightning. This is what I search for as a reader and this is what I strive for as a writer—the amount of impact that will make a story memorable.

Recently I had that “lightning bolt” reaction when reading Ken Liu’s speculative fiction story, “The Paper Menagerie.” A friend of mine had a similar reaction when reading Brian Grigg’s “Wendell, Custodian of the Galaxy,” published in the March, 2013 issue of Penumbra (a story that I really enjoyed as well!). What causes that “lightning bolt” reaction with a reader? I know when it happens to me as a reader, but it is something I continue to work on each time I put a metaphoric pen to paper.

Many of my short stories start out a great deal longer than their finished versions. I pare them down, looking for those essential words or phrases that will connote as much meaning to a reader as an entire paragraph. This is not an easy task; changing one paragraph can alter the entire meaning of the story. This is where multiple drafts come in, and why I am grateful for the technology we have today. I can save one version of a story, make changes, and go back to the first version if I prefer it with a mere click of a mouse button. (I almost cannot imagine writing and revising with pen and paper the way that Twain did!)

If all this goes well, I will create a connection to my readers with my words. They will interiorize the thoughts and images from my writing. They will see the characters, experience the emotions, and wander in the storyscape I create. We will have that momentary bridge of understanding, complete with a lightning bolt or two.

(Originally published for the Penumbra Blog at

2 thoughts on “Bolts of Lightning: Thoughts on Speculative Fiction

  1. I loved this. I hope I truly understand what you are talking about and what Mark Twain described so brilliantly. The telling word or phrase can bring an immediacy and resonance to a story which a thousand poorly chosen phrases can never do. My only advice to anyone is to make sure you see very clearly what it is you wish to describe before you attempt to describe it, whether it be a physical scene or an emotion. Blurred vision leads to un-telling descriptions and forgettable stories


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