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[GUEST POST] NOVA Author Margaret Fortune on Broadening the Appeal of Speculative Fiction

margaretfortuneMargaret Fortune wrote her first story at the age of six, and has been writing ever since. Her short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Nth Zine, Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine, and Space and Time. She has a BA in psychology from the University of Minnesota – Morris. Nova is her first novel. You can find her on Twitter @mara_fortune or online at

Broadening the Appeal of Speculative Fiction

by Margaret Fortune

When my agent and I first put my science fiction novel Nova on submission, I’d assumed that it would sell to a young adult publisher. After all, the protagonist is a sixteen-year-old girl and the book was written with teens as the target demographic. So when DAW Books, an adult SF publisher, made an offer for Nova, I was surprised, to say the least. Of course I accepted the offer, and happily, but it did start me thinking about what makes a YA speculative fiction novel successfully cross over from teens to adults.

One of the things that makes crossover SF so powerful is its ability to snag such a wide-ranging demographic. A successful YA speculative fiction crossover will not only grab teenagers and spec fiction readers, but also adult readers who do not read speculative fiction. Adults who would never walk into the science fiction or fantasy section of a bookstore; who, in fact, actively believe they don’t like speculative fiction. With such a wide-ranging demographic, it’s no wonder crossovers are doing so well.

So what it is it that makes YA speculative fiction have such broad appeal? Is it adding the speculative fiction to the young adult? Or adding the young adult to the speculative fiction? I think it may actually be a little bit of both.

One of the reasons speculative fiction seems to crossover so well into the adult market is because the speculative element allows the author to transcend the typical teen experience. Adults have been through high school already, and most don’t particularly want to go back. So why would adults want to read about finding a date for the prom or trying to get into a preferred college? These are certainly relevant subjects for teens, but not so much adults.

In contrast, look at settings like Panem, where children are sent into the arena to kill each other every year, or Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where students train in the use of magic. Not only are these vibrant settings which are as new to adults as they are to teens, they also allow for stories with far more scope, sophistication, and gravity than the typical contemporary teen story. Though crossover novels are still rife with teen themes such as first love and other coming-of-age issues, they are couched within a much greater story, one where you can find more grown-up themes such as political oppression and individual freedom. Stories where the consequences may very well include things like the imprisonment, political upheaval, and even death.

So simply by adding speculative elements, an author is able to broaden their book’s appeal to more mature readers. However, just as adding speculative fiction elements to young adult can make YA more palatable to many adults, so can adding young adult elements to speculative fiction.

To a non-genre reader, science fiction and fantasy can actually be a bit intimidating. When non-fantasy readers think of fantasy, their minds often go to Tolkien or Tolkien-esque fiction. They envision massively-long epic fantasy tomes with piles of characters to keep track of, long-winded names full of apostrophes they can’t pronounce, and far more details about made-up civilizations than they would ever want to know. With science fiction, the intimidation factor often comes with the science itself. They think they’ll be required to understand physics, chemistry, or biology to know what’s going on, or even worse, that they’ll be forced to sit through long lectures about them! Now, while these elements certainly aren’t true of all fantasy and science fiction, non-genre readers don’t always know this.

This is where the young adult factor can help broaden the appeal of speculative fiction. If a science fiction book is geared towards teens, readers know the science won’t be complicated or difficult to understand. Similarly, teen fantasy novels are usually shorter and less complex than many adult fantasies, often only featuring one or two POVs. In this way, adding young adult to speculative fiction can bleed it of some of the most intimidating elements that keep many non-genre readers away.

My YA science fiction novel Nova is a crossover in the best sense of the word. The heroine, sixteen-year-old Lia Johansen, is a genetically engineered human bomb created to strike a blow in an ongoing intergalactic war. All she has to do is sneak onto a strategically-placed space station and explode. There’s just one problem: It turns out she’s a dud. With no Plan B, no memory of her past, and no identity but for a name stolen from a dead POW, she must uncover her past and the truth behind her mission before it’s too late.

This is a novel that works for all kinds of readers. The human bomb concept makes for a story that will be fresh and interesting for teens and adults alike, while the complex mystery plot, full of twists and turns, ensures that science fiction readers will stay engaged despite the lack of hard scientific discussion that could ensnare non-genre readers. Analyzed in this light, it’s easy to see why this crossover novel attracted the attention of an adult publisher like DAW.

With YA SF novels continuing to stay strong in the market, it looks like crossovers won’t be going away anytime soon. So all I have left to say is: Happy Reading!

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