How I write short speculative fiction by Ken Liu


06 March 2020
Award-winning author Ken Liu outlines his approach to writing genre-bending short fiction
How I write short speculative fiction by Ken Liu Images

American writer Ken Liu has won the Nebula, Hugo, Locus, World Fantasy, Sidewise and Science Ficion & Fantasy Translation Awards. He is the author of The Grace of Kings, the first volume in The Dandelion Dynasty series, and a previous collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. His short story Good Hunting was adapted for Netflix's sci-fi web series Love, Death and Robots.

What are the themes and ideas that unite the stories in The Hidden Girl and Other Stories?

Many of the stories in this collection are concerned with the question: How do we remain human in the face of cataclysmic change? As the pace of change – technological, cultural, social, political, environmental – accelerates, all of us are forced to confront the challenge of how to retain and nurture our humanity and empathy against forces that threaten to atomise our identities and destroy our cherished values. I use speculative fiction to explore this quintessential question of modernity. While the stories offer no answers, I hope they inspire readers to think deeper about their own self-narratives.

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What draws you to write short stories?

I’ve always loved telling stories. I think we, as a species, are persuaded more by stories than facts and figures, for both good and ill. Storytelling is the primary means through which we make sense of the randomness of the universe and construct for ourselves a life plot, a character arc that endows our experiences with meaning. Fiction, at its best, can empower all of us to tell our own stories with more conviction and strength.

What makes a good spec fic short story?

I don’t particularly care for genre labels. As a reader, I never care what shelf a book happens to be classified on, and genre conventions don’t constrain me when I write my stories either. I do enjoy fiction that literalises aspects of reality we typically experience as metaphor, and when something that is otherwise abstract and metaphorical is made tangible through fiction, we can look at it from fresh perspectives and think about it in ways otherwise deemed impossible. That opening up of possibilities is what I strive for above all in storytelling.

What is it that you can do in short spec fic story that works better than in a full-length novel?

Many experimental techniques work better in the short form than the long form, especially techniques that push against creating narrative tension via plot. Plotless stories (like “Cutting” in this collection) allow us to examine and question the conventions of fiction itself (and by extension, how we make sense of reality).

What adjustments do you have to make to your writing between long/epic fantasy and short stories?

It’s the difference between architecture and miniature painting. The shift in scale means that everything, from the tools I use to the amount of continuity-tracking that I have to do, from the themes I want to tackle to the characterisation techniques I favour, changes. What doesn’t change, however, is my voice.

Are there themes and ideas that you feel work better in a short story?

I think all themes and ideas can be explored in any form, regardless of length, but the approach and perspective will necessarily be different due to the difference in scale. In general, I think the shorter the story, the less room there is for 'background work' and the more the writer has to rely on the reader to fill in the blanks.

What is it about speculative fiction that appeals to you?

The ability to literalise what must otherwise stay in the realm of the metaphorical.

What can speculative fiction do that other genres can’t?

To offer up a distinct view of reality that questions the foundations of what we assume to be self-evident.

How do you make a world comprehensible and relatable?

I think the best advice I’ve heard on this comes from Jo Walton, who speaks about world-conjuring rather than world-building. Fiction is a collaborative effort between the reader and the writer, and the best stories don’t create worlds, but create negative space as well as the tools for the reader to construct a new reality.

How much do your short stories depend on the characters in them?

I think this depends on what one defines as “character.” In my stories, often the most important characters are not humans, but moods, emotions, literalised metaphors, and so on. Sometimes the most human stories achieve their effect by not being about humans at all.


Ken Liu's collection The Hidden Girl and Other Stories is published by Head of Zeus


Your spec-world needs strong world building to convince your readers. Get good advice from Gareth Powell.