Writing

Five Speculative Fiction Novels You Can Learn From

What we read influences what we write, often without our conscious intent. So if you’re working on your writing skills, pick your books carefully. Great books can show you how it’s done. Terrible ones can encourage poor habits. But which books are great? If you’re new to writing, it can be hard to separate your personal tastes from the skill of the writer. That’s probably why we got this from Jessalyn:

I love writing but have come to appreciate books that are both plot worthy and have great wordcraft. Which books would you suggest that can help with wordcraft?

The bad news is that my list of great books is short. The good news is that it can fit in one blog post! Since no book does everything perfectly, I’ll list some cautionary notes for each.

1. Discworld Series, Terry Pratchett

The Discworld on the back of the giant turtle.

Terry Pratchett, may the clacks forever carry his name, was one of the most skilled writers of speculative fiction that has ever lived. Naturally his works vary in quality, but in general they come as close to perfect as you can get.

While you may want to skip the first few books (particularly anything with the luggage), his Discworld series is a great place to go for well-crafted plots and tight pacing. You can expect entertaining conflict in the very first scene, and from there it rarely slows down. His books often have many viewpoints, but the viewpoints never wander into their own universe. Reading Discworld, you can trust that reveals will be properly foreshadowed and critical story elements won’t show up out of nowhere.

Pratchett also crafted incredibly distinct characters. Every character has unique mannerisms and compelling motivation. Many of his characters aren’t as deep as they are memorable, but the more he wrote about a character, the more depth he added. Many characters appear across multiple books, and those characters become more complex with each appearance.

In addition to all of that, Pratchett had a knack for making his books both fun and meaningful. He built positive messages into his plots by using entertaining analogies for real-life issues. His work shows that stories don’t have to be dark and gritty to be relevant.

What Not to Emulate

The downside of studying the work of a master is that they may use techniques you’re not ready for. Pratchett used a powerful style of omniscient narration that many writers would struggle with. For one thing, he was funny. For another, he had the experience to know when to include exposition about his world and when not to. Unless you’re experienced in different narration styles and can keep your stories tight, you’re better off using a close-limited perspective. If you are ready to venture into omniscient, Pratchett offers a great example.

2. Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation is a work of cosmic horror with unique themes. Instead of leaning heavily on the evocative telling that Lovecraft was known for, it uses a wealth of interesting description to build atmosphere.

Every new writer must learn to drop broad telling statements in favor of memorable details, and this book is a great example of that. The mysterious Area X is created through the collection of numerous fragments that feel slightly unreal. Words are carefully chosen, and when they are in doubt, it becomes a launching point for existential terror.

Even though the characters are unnamed and have little physical description, they quickly distinguish themselves. In a strong example of showing, VanderMeer does this by making the four principle characters respond differently to their strange environment.

While this is not a technique for all skill levels, Annihilation also offers an excellent example of unreliable narration. The narrator’s skewed viewpoint is used to increase tension and build the atmosphere as her reality is called into question. VanderMeer skillfully avoids confusion by hinting where the main character’s perspective could have gone awry.

What Not to Emulate

The book has a passable plot, but it could be stronger. The main character’s arc is never firmly established, and it’s unclear whether the events of the story actually matter in the end. It feels a bit like VanderMeer wasn’t sure what the central arc was while he was writing it. Perhaps because of that, the book could be tighter as well. It frequently uses flashbacks, and while these flashbacks stay on theme and help build atmosphere, they still slow the work down. However, because the work as a whole is so engaging, many readers won’t notice these problems.

3. Elantris, Brandon Sanderson

Though Brandon Sanderson has become a best-selling author admired for his interesting worlds, I still recommend his first published book over all the others. He has a tendency to write narratives that are slow and repetitive. Luckily his earliest works are free of this flaw, probably because he had to trim them to get them published.

Elantris introduces the main character just as his life is changed forever, putting him at the center of a difficult problem and a magical mystery. This both hooks the reader immediately and makes the hero sympathetic. Throughout the rest of the book, the protagonist adapts to his new situation. While the book has two other viewpoint characters, readers are never left wondering why a viewpoint matters. Each one is instrumental to the plot. As the viewpoint characters engage in political maneuvering, Sanderson maintains the tension by giving each character a personal stake in the outcome and a concrete deadline for averting disaster. The book also changes viewpoint in a consistent manner, making it easy for readers to follow.

Sanderson foreshadows the central mystery well, building to a satisfying reveal at the end. In doing so, he provides a wonderful demonstration of how a rational magic system can assist storytelling. Reveals like the one in this book are only possible because the magic has consistent rules that allow readers to extrapolate new information from what they know. Furthermore, Sanderson puts the world at the center of his plot. His stories are essentially world-mystery stories; the characters have to figure out how the world works in order to save the day. This is a valuable skill for anyone who wants to show off their world in their stories. Instead of sharing your world via unnecessary exposition, you can make it matter.

What Not to Emulate

While the plot of Elantris is excellent, the book is still a little rough around the edges. While emulating Sanderson’s wordcraft won’t lead to embarrassment, many writers are more skilled in that area. A few chapters in the book are a little slow, and the villain’s backstory feels tacked on when it is revealed at the end. Unfortunately, ableist language is also sprinkled throughout the book. The principal threat to the main character is phrased as “insanity” or “madness,” even though the problem is really chronic pain. The story briefly features a character that is clearly on the autistic spectrum, and the language used for that character is insensitive.

4. The Martian, Andy Weir

Person in Space Suit in Red Haze - Cover of The Martian by Andy Weir

If you’ve been following my critique posts, then you probably recognize this title. It earned the only positive critique I’ve given so far. It does incredibly well with a tough premise: a stranded astronaut trying to survive alone on Mars using science. Without a second character, writers can’t entertain with fun social interactions or explain through dialogue. An environmental antagonist is always harder to work with than a villain, much less one that has to be fought using technical knowledge most readers won’t understand.

Weir gets past this by using an engaging epistolary format. Through his journal, the main character has fun one-sided conversations with readers. Assuming whoever finds his journal could be 100 years in the future and ignorant about his mission, the main character explains everything they might need to know about his current dilemma. Weir’s skilled first-person narration has a fun personality that endears his protagonist to readers and translates science jargon into interesting tidbits.

Even though an astronaut hanging out alone on Mars doesn’t lend itself to a strong plot structure, Weir keeps the tension going. A series of victories and setbacks ensures that the protagonist always faces large obstacles while never letting the mood become gloomy. The conflict escalates as the book continues, reaching an exciting climax. And because of the epistolary format, the survival of the protagonist stays in doubt.

What Not to Emulate

Since his protagonist can’t get off of Mars without assistance from Earth, Weir later adds additional viewpoints for employees at NASA. Instead of staying in epistolary format, Weir goes into a standard third-person limited for these viewpoints. While his third-person narration is fine, it clashes with the first-person epistolary, and it doesn’t have the engaging personality of the journal entries. That’s too bad, because epistolary can have the variety of a scrapbook. You can put in newspaper clippings, emails, work reports, anything. It’s a shame Weir chose a clashing viewpoint instead of expanding his epistolary format.

A simpler issue is that the book is missing an epilogue. After spending a novel becoming emotionally invested in the central character, that’s not satisfying. However, you can get an epilogue for this work by watching the movie; the screenwriters wisely added one.

5. Chalion Series, Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold is a veteran writer with many novels under her belt, and the Chalion series is some of her best work. The series uses a standard fantasy setting, but Bujold’s excellent implementation makes it stand out.

Each book in the Chalion series starts by helping readers become acquainted with the main character, and each character has immediate problems for readers to sympathize with. Bujold delves into their history without slowing the story down, and that history drives their choices through the end of the work. While the characterization is strong in all three books, the hero of Paladin of Souls is particularly interesting. She is a middle-aged woman and mother of the queen, a demographic that rarely saves the day in fantasy novels.

The plot structure of each book is centered around the magic system. Magic in the Chalion books largely comes from the gods, something that is difficult to manage. If the world includes benevolent and powerful beings, why don’t they solve all the problems? To fix this, Bujold sets limits on the gods’ ability to interfere in the mortal realm. They have to act through their servants, with little direct manipulation. She also throws in some arbitrary magic rituals, which are always established before they become plot relevant.

The books move at a brisk pace, never wandering into unrelated tangents or getting pulled down by unnecessary scenes. Each book builds up a magic mystery and believable villain before tying everything off at the end. While you can read the books in a row, you don’t need to. Each one stands alone.

What Not to Emulate

I wouldn’t use these books to study wordcraft. Bujold uses a traditional style of wordcraft that is adequate, but nothing to write home about.

Paladin of Souls, which I personally think is the best of the three, has a backstory that is a little too elaborate. Bujold retells it through exposition, which keeps the book from slowing down, but it also leaves the reader wondering if they missed a prequel. While Curse of Chalion is technically a prequel, it stars different characters and doesn’t cover the events that are summarized in Paladin of Souls.


There is no perfect book. Most popular authors are very skilled at one or two aspects of the craft but are often weak in others. That’s okay, because most readers also focus on some aspects and aren’t picky about others. What do you look for in the books you read, and which authors do it well?

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Comments

  1. YonYonYon

    I don’t look for anything in particular in the books(except for my tastes in genre), but everything should be at least adequate for me to continue reading. Tho if it’s only adequate and there’s nothing interesting, I quickly get bored and abandon the book.

    I’m also not a native English speaker, so I have some problems with differentiating between good prose and passable one.

    My favorite books are Uprooted by Naomi Novik, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, and anything from Rachel Aaron and Ann Leckie. They’re delicious.

    In Russian literature I enjoyed works of Maria Semenova, until she started feeling like a Slavic suprematist, and Olga Gromyko. These two have beautiful prose.

    I guess Witcher series is okay too.

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