Finding Truth in Fiction: Q&A with Science Fiction Author Rebecca Zornow

Want to learn more about writing sci-fi and fantasy stories? Join author and book coach Rebecca Zornow for a program at Write On, Door County on February 22, 4-5:30 p.m.

During Hobbits, Heroes, and Hovercrafts, attendees will learn about “world-building, reader expectations, and writing and editing tips specific to speculative fiction.”

Zornow is a speculative fiction book coach and science fiction writer from Wisconsin, former magazine editor, and 2020 winner of the Hal Prize for Nonfiction. She studied English Literature at Lawrence University. Her first novel, It’s over or it’s Edenwas released in September 2021.

Grace Johnson (GJ): Can you give us a little insight into what speculative fiction is and how it differs from fiction?

Rebecca Zornow (RZ): Speculative fiction stories have an element that doesn’t exist in our own world: things like magic, future technology, superheroes, and alien planets. Fantasy, science fiction, dystopia, fairy tale, supernatural, and sometimes horror are all subgenres of speculative fiction.

GJ: Your program focuses on science fiction and fantasy, and you are a science fiction writer yourself. What do you think these genres can offer that others can’t?

RZ: I believe that speculative fiction is a great instigator of social change. When reading a fantasy story, we can find enough distance from certain themes to gain a new perspective.

Consider Silvia Moreno-Garcia mexican gothic and his commentary on colonialism, or the discussion of free will within Exhalation by Ted Chiang. For all the questions they ask and the insights they give, none are driven by high-level thematic work. It’s quite the opposite: the big questions rub shoulders with adventure, humor, romance and robots.

Participants in the Hobbits, Heroes and Hovercraft workshop will discuss these concepts in more detail, in addition to creating their own viable story idea.

GJ: In addition to writing speculative fiction, you also work as a reading coach with your sister. Is there a different approach to editing speculative fiction?

RZ: I run Conquer Books with my sister, Nicole Van Den Eng. We support writers who struggle to turn their inner magic into words. At Conquer Books, our job is to turn budding writers into dynamic professionals and crazy ideas into powerful books.

Editing any book is a big undertaking, but when editing speculative fiction we have the added challenge of making the incredible something completely imaginable. It takes a broad understanding of the subgenres involved and what readers of those genres expect.

It also takes a fair amount of research into space travel and theories about magical systems or map making, all in an effort to make the fantasy believable for readers. It’s honestly a lot of fun.

GJ: What do you enjoy most about working with budding writers?

RZ: Early manuscripts are often the result of years of building stories. Sometimes a story idea has been growing inside someone for over a decade. As a labor of love, they are often unmarked by marketing worries and other practical concerns. I appreciate this unique look into the minds of others. While commercialization certainly has its place, Nicole and I help writers find a way to polish their story while keeping that authenticity. It is also a delight and a privilege to accompany writers in pursuit of their dreams.

GJ: Is there any advice you would give to someone who wants to get into fantasy and science fiction writing?

RZ: To write good speculative fiction, you need to be widely read in your subgenre to understand tropes and reader expectations for word count, tone, and more.

Tropes – certain devices in stories like the hero, time travel, space pirates or even tiny concepts like ending a chapter when a character is knocked out and opening the next chapter with them waking up in a hospital – have been written and rewritten over generations.

To give a new take on a trope, a writer must first understand how it has been used before, and then strategize how to make it their own. Realistic fiction is based on an ever-changing real world. As speculative fiction writers, we have to do this work ourselves.

As important as tropes and world-building — creating your fantasy setting — are, I suggest putting the real effort into the character’s journey and arc. It’s easy to get caught up in creating a whole new culture and place, but readers ultimately come to the stories of the characters. We need to see the world through their eyes, and they need to drive the story.

Finally, if a writer’s goal is to build a long-term career in the genre, they should treat their writing like a business and learn about good business practices.

GJ: What are you currently reading?

RZ: I finished The phrase by Louise Erdrich, which is set in a haunted bookstore at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m deep down now Aestus by SZ Attwell, which is about a civilization fleeing a warming surface to go underground. Next, I can’t wait to dive into expert Susan Shapiro’s edit. The Bible of the Book.

Want to know more about speculative fiction? There is still time to register! The cost of the 90-minute workshop is $15 and Write On members get a 10% discount. Learn more and sign up at

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