Pub Rants

Category: submission

From Query Letter to Six-Figure Deal

When writers hear about a debut author who got a six-figure deal, their curiosity gets piqued. How did that author do it? Did they have industry connections? Get a referral? Did they pitch to their agent at a conference? Did their query letter get picked out of the slush pile?

This month, with the author’s blessing, we offer you a look at the query letter we received from Shelby Van Pelt for her debut, REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES, which Agent Kristin sold recently to Ecco (Harpercollins), in a major, high-six-figure deal after a multi-house auction. NLA’s Literary Associate, Maria, pulled this one out of the slush pile and brought it to Agent Kristin’s attention, and Kristin, immediately sensing a hit, acted fast. We can’t wait for this one to come out next spring!

So here it is…Shelby’s query letter, followed by a little commentary about why this is a query letter that works.

Dear Ms. Nelson,

REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES is upmarket fiction with a dash of whimsy complete at 88,000 words. Told alternately from the perspective of an elderly widow, a fatherless young man, and a giant Pacific octopus, this quirky story will appeal to book club readers who enjoyed Fredrik Backman’s Britt-Marie Was Here and Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here.

Curmudgeonly Marcellus, a “prisoner” at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, wouldn’t lift one of his eight tentacles for his human captors, until he forms an unlikely friendship with the night cleaning lady.

After Tova Sullivan’s husband died two years ago, she talked her way into a job mopping floors at the Aquarium. She doesn’t need the paycheck, but keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she’s been doing since 1987, when her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound.

Cameron Catalinich recently turned thirty, but he has some growing up to do. He arrives in Sowell Bay on a mission to find the father he’s never known, and he lands a gig helping clean at the Aquarium after Tova breaks her foot. Marcellus, keenly observant, deduces that Cameron is a missing key to what happened that fateful night. As Tova’s injury lingers, with no family to care for her, she makes plans to sell the house her father built and move to a faraway retirement community. Marcellus must use every trick his invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for Tova before it’s too late.

I have received full manuscript requests for REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES from acquiring editors at [redacted] and [redacted]. My short fiction has won honors in international competitions and has been featured, most recently, by f(r)iction, Flora Fiction, and Funny Pearls. I currently live in the Chicago suburbs, but I was born and raised in the Seattle area near the fictional town where this story is set. It was inspired by my favorite childhood aquarium.

Thank you for your consideration,

Shelby Van Pelt

Why This Query Worked

First, take a look at that opening sentence. Title + Genre + Word Count. Boom. No awkward small talk. No messing around. Those are the first three things an agent wants to know about your project, and the less searching you make an agent do, the better. Also, 88,000 words is well within the appropriate word-count range for a work of adult upmarket fiction, so we’re definitely going to keep reading.

In the next sentence, we get a brief mention of the three POV characters, which include…an OCTOPUS??? Talk about a hook! At this point, Maria was thinking, “This is either brilliant or bananas.” But with the recent success of the Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, which since took home the Academy Award for best documentary (one of those uber-fortunate market-timing things no writer can plan for or predict), Maria kept reading.

This second introduction sentence, by the way, also includes two well-chosen comps—comparable titles and authors—that identify an existing readership likely to enjoy this book. This demonstrates the author’s market awareness, and market awareness is vital to any writer’s potential for commercial success.

Overall, that brief opening paragraph packs a succinct punch, including light-touch but vibrant buzzwords like “whimsy,” “quirky,” and “book club,” while avoiding lengthy explanations describing what the book is. Agents are far more interested in what the book is about. So nail that brief intro paragraph and move on to the pitch, like Shelby did.

Shelby’s three-paragraph pitch is structured in a way that mirrors how the book is structured. Each paragraph introduces one of the major characters. In truth, this is an approach I often warn querying writers not to use, because more often than not, we see it done poorly. It’s definitely not done poorly here! What’s the difference? There are three: (a) conflict, (b) connection, and (c) a ticking clock. Here’s what I mean.

What not to do: “Sally is this type of person. Jane is this type of person. Barbara is this type of person. Over the course of the novel, these three women will confront adversity, face hardship, find love, and discover the true meaning of friendship.” Or, in the case of middle-grade or YA lit, here’s another common iteration: “Billy is a nerd who is constantly bullied. Sam is the quarterback of the football team. Jamie is a fairy from the magical land of Eggwaffle. Together, this unlikely trio will have the adventure of a lifetime.”

This formula—“list and give backgrounds on the characters and then make a vague statement or two promising that meaningful or exciting stuff will happen to them”—is one we most often see in query letters for multi-POV novels. The problem is, there’s no room in this formula for a burning story question. A burning story question is the thing that lets know you actually have a story (as opposed to just “characters doing stuff and learning lessons,” which is often not story).

Instead, here’s what Shelby did. For each character, she gave us only what information is relevant to her central, burning story question: What really happened to Erik? She does that by hinting at how these characters are connected to each other even though they don’t know they are connected to each other—and we are compelled to read the manuscript because we want to find out how they find out they are connected to each other. That in itself is a second, “meta” burning story question that’s communicated through the pitch’s subtext, and it lets us know the novel has layers that promise an emotionally satisfying journey. Finally, Shelby also sets a ticking clock: Marcellus has to communicate with Tova before she moves away and it’s too late. Ticking clocks are great ways to give stories tension, urgency, and stakes.

A well-crafted pitch is built on meaningful subtext. Don’t waste space in your query letter telling us you have a burning story question, and don’t tell us what it is. It should be made clear within the pitch itself. Don’t waste space telling us your novel has layers that promise an emotionally satisfying journey. That, too, should be conveyed by the pitch’s subtext. Don’t tell us your characters are connected in ways they will understand only at the end of the novel (yep—use subtext instead). None of those things tell us what the story is about. Keep the pitch focused on how your character(s) is(are) connected to a burning story question, and you’ll be headed in the right direction.

Finally, Shelby’s bio in the query letter’s final paragraph is brief and relevant. It lets us know she’s had editorial interest, which is important. (You wouldn’t BELIEVE how many writers I’ve had in my query workshops over the years who omit this type of thing—or other boosts or accolades—from their query letters because they’re worried it’s bragging. It’s not bragging! Step up to the mic! Give us the goods!) She lists a few prior publications, and then sums up with a personal note.

That’s about as close to perfect as you can get.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

For over a decade NLA has compiled our yearly stats. This year is no exception but with one big surprise in the data. And it’s all about queries and the possible impact of Covid.

4 : Number of agents at NLA (same as in 2019)

1 : Number of agents who made the Publishers Weekly Star Watch Finalists List. Congrats Quressa!

13,561 : Queries read and responded to. QueryManager gives us an exact number now. As a team, agents were closed to queries for 27% of the year, including for 8 months for Kristin, but we also think it’s because fewer writers queried in the time of Covid, so this is down from 14,000+ in 2019.

430 : Number of full manuscripts requested and read (up from 354 in 2019, as we had more time stuck at home to read): 71 requests for Kristin, 173 requests for Danielle, 77 requests for Quressa, 109 requests for Joanna.

106 : Number of manuscripts we requested that received offers of representation, either from us or from other agents/agencies (down from 127 in 2019, which might mean fewer folks have work out there on submission).

13 : Number of new clients who signed with NLA (1 for Kristin, 4 for Danielle, 4 for Quressa, 4 for Joanna). Four was the magic number for everyone except me, and this is down by only 1 from 2019, so go NLA team!

39 : Number of book deals done (16 for Kristin, 5 for Danielle with 1 debut, 11 for Quressa with 2 debuts, 7 for Joanna with 4 debuts). Way up from 26 in 2019.

2 : Number of debut New York Times bestsellers (1 for Quressa and 1 for Joanna, whose client debuted in the #1 position on the list!).

48 : Number of career New York Times bestsellers for Kristin (up from 45 in 2019).

8 : TV and major motion picture deals (6 for Kristin, 1 for Quressa, 1 for Joanna). Down from 11 in 2019.

41 : Books released in 2020 (down from 45 in 2019).

70 : Foreign-rights deals done (54 for Kristin, 7 for Danielle, 9 for Quressa). Down from 106 in 2019. Thanks, Covid.

0 : Physical Conferences attended. Thanks, Covid. 

2 : Virtual Conferences attended by Kristin (both Denver-based: Lighthouse Writers LitFest and the inaugural Margins Conference). 

102 : Physical holiday cards sent (down from 180 in 2019 as we only sent to clients during this Covid year).

837 : Electronic holiday cards sent (down by one from 838 in 2019).

Not telling it’s so embarrassing : homemade eggnog-chai lattes consumed during December because I wasn’t popping out to Starbucks.

Lots : Late nights reading on my living-room chaise and missing my dear, dear Chutney. Reading full manuscripts is just not the same without her.  

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Clint Budd

Books That Go Bump in the Night

(Just a note, this article was featured in our October 2019 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

Happy October, Friends! This has always been my favorite time of year. I love sweaters and scarves and fall leaves and pumpkin spice. I love the chill in the air…but what I love even more is a good chill down my spine. So horror writers? To celebrate this most wonderful time of the year, this one’s for you: here are three things we at NLA look for in horror submissions.

Literary or upmarket prose. We’re unlikely to request anything that leans too heavily on cheap scares, gratuitous violence, or gore porn. But send us a more cerebral, psychologically challenging work that demonstrates the tense, suspenseful, unsettling, atmospheric slow-burn of masterful horror writing, and you’ll definitely get our attention. Read 100 reviews or blurbs for bestselling horror novels and count how many times the words “tension” and “suspense” are used. So much of a writer’s ability to bring tension and suspense to the page lives in their writing style and voice. In the horror space, we’d love to see the next big crossover project—the one publishers are going to release in hardcover, the one booksellers are going to set out on their front-of-store displays because the writing is so artful it has the potential to capture readers who “don’t read horror” as well as those who do. 

Premise. There’s no shortage of gorgeous, voicey prose in the slush pile, but a solid, unique, fresh, high-concept premise? That’s rare. This is where being well-read in your genre is so important. Know what’s already been done and by whom. A query that hits me with a premise I’ve never encountered, one that makes me think how in the world is the writer going to pull that off?—you can bet a query like that is going to get me to read the sample pages. Many a horror premise is often built on a corporeal fear that, when confronted, leads to some sort of psychological disintegration: being buried alive, abducted, trapped, imprisoned, or tortured; being accused of something you’re innocent of; getting lost; being chased; encountering any supernatural beast or force…the list goes on. Plenty of great horror plays on more than one type of fear. But premise can also be built on a real horror, like slavery, say, and then amplified or twisted in some way. Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation explores an alternate post-Civil War world in which slavery has been abolished—but when the dead soldiers rise up off the battlefield as zombies, the new American government forces former slaves to train as zombie fighters, claiming they have a natural immunity to zombie bites (which everyone knows is a lie). So Dread Nation offers us the horror of both a real and an imagined-but-plausible injustice to grapple with, as well as the external threat of zombies. Rather brilliant.

Plot. It’s such a disappointment for an agency reader to get halfway through a manuscript that’s artfully written and that promises a cool, unique premise, only to realize the author is a little lost in the weeds when it comes to plot and structure. Plot is hard, but I firmly believe that anyone who devotes themselves to learning it, can. Start with Story Genius by Lisa Cron and Anatomy of Story by John Truby. For horror specifically, have you honored your contract with your readers by building speculative elements and conflicts that are uniquely creeptastic but that don’t strain their willingness to suspend their disbelief? Have you avoided falling back on deus ex machina? Have you developed complex characters in physical and/or psychological distress—or have you made the threat of that distress terrifyingly palpable for readers?

Prose. Premise. Plot. Any manuscript, regardless of genre, that delivers all three is definitely a manuscript we want to see. Happy Halloween!

Creative Commons Credit: Kamaljith K V

(Just a note, this article was featured in our September 2019 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

I’ve been preparing for a conference where I’ll be presenting on plot structure and voice, among other things, and, in getting ready, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes an author a cut above the rest. What is that special X-factor? The je ne sais quoi that can elevate someone with good technical skills to an expert writer?

We all know writing is a difficult craft to master and that publishing is a hard business to break into. We all know how impossible it can seem to write something totally fresh and new when stories have existed from the beginning and have been told and retold and retold again. And yet. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a story that surprises and delights you. Despite the fact that it seems every story has been told, new novels are published every year that prove otherwise. (Have you read Where the Crawdads Sing? That book is a work of art!)

I’m a big Brené Brown fan. In fact, I have a copy of Daring Greatly sitting right here on my desk as I write this piece. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do! It’s a great guide for how to approach your own life, but beyond that, I’ve found that Brown’s work on vulnerability is also the key to the X-factor of writing. The thing that makes you special, that makes you different from every other writer, is the fact that you are, well, you. Remember that as you embark on your writing journey.

Here are some things you can do or think about to ensure you’re writing in your unique way:

Write what you know (i.e. Know Thyself). I think this is one of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice out there. To me, write what you know doesn’t mean you can only write your own life again and again and again. Not by a long shot! Write what you know means that you should connect with the many depths and shades of your emotional truths and put them on the page. It doesn’t matter if the truth appears in a galaxy far, far away or in a contemporary setting—it is the internal conflict a character is forced to grapple with and the growth they experience that keep readers coming back for more. If the emotional core of a novel feels visceral and real, readers will connect with it.

The universal is in the specific. As humans, we are all connected by common experiences, feelings, challenges. That’s what makes empathy and compassion possible. When a novel is truly engrossing, readers actually physically experience what the characters are experiencing—this happens on a neurological level. Trust that, no matter your character’s background, religion, sexuality, race, etc., readers have the capacity to connect. Then, rather than trying to write a story that will please everyone, focus on writing a story that will please you. Let your characters have flaws, quirks, strange interests, etc. What makes you unique is the eyes you see the world through. Let that come out in your narrative. The more you hone in on emotional details, the deeper you dive, the more specific you get, the more your characters and story will feel real, and the more readers will connect.

Write what brings you joy. One fundamental truth in life and in publishing is that things are always changing. What was trending two years ago isn’t trending now. The world moves along, and we are forced to move with it. Because of that, it is important to stay on top of what is happening in the book world and to be aware of where the successes in your genre are, but it is equally important not to write to a trend because, chances are, by the time you’ve finished writing your trendy book, the next trend will already have come along. Because of that, the most important thing is that you write a novel that you want to spend time with, that gives you creative pride, and that feels meaningful to you. When an author loves their story, it shines through in the work, and readers connect with that.

So go forth and enjoy the process of writing, of putting your own unique stamp on the world through your words. Because you are the only person in the history of the world who can be yourself.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Kurtis Garbutt

(Just a note, this article was featured in our September 2020 Newsletter. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

Hello to all the PubRants readers sheltering at home. Hope this article finds you healthy, safe, and sane. Glad you are still with us and reading our monthly missive. It’s been a year in the making, but I’m very excited to share with you our brand-spanking new website that just launched this past week. Although September’s newsletter follows the old format, you can expect a newly redesigned newsletter to follow in a couple months, so stay tuned. 

For eight months, I was closed to queries to cover two back-to-back maternity leaves for the NLA family. Congratulations, Samantha and Maria! At long last, I’m back in the query game, so it seemed apropos to talk about trends I’m seeing in my QueryManager inbox

As always, don’t put too much weight on the trends I spotlight here. It doesn’t mean your project is dead in the water. It just means you need to be more creative in your query letter to make your story stand out. One interesting thing to note is that we’re fielding a lot of queries from authors who’ve had prior agent representation and are looking for a new partnership. Because of Covid, agents, like everyone else, are juggling a lot, and I wonder if some are paring down their client rosters. 

Good luck out there! Persevere. 

In the Adult realm:

  • Historicals set in the time periods of the 1960s through the 1990s. Might writers be reminiscing on their pasts so as to escape our present crises?
  • International thrillers with main characters that work at the CIA, FBI, etc. This is a specific thriller genre (espionage thrillers) and not something Joanna or I are looking for, but we still get a lot of inquiries.
  • Lots of stories that use BIG LITTLE LIES as a comp.
  • Jane Austen retellings are trending again. Humorous. Gender-swapped. From a different character’s perspective. That kind of thing.
  • Old-school speculative fiction in the vein of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson—which isn’t quite where the SF&F market is right now.
  • Angsty fiction in which the characters must “find themselves,” but that lacks a clear hook or concept to drive the story. This tends to be perennial.
  • Short books—queries for novellas and novels under 70,000 words. For some reason this is popular, but 70K is pretty short for a full novel.

In the YA and Children’s realm:

  • Steampunk submissions have really wound down over the last year.
  • Pirates, pirates, pirates! Not sure what in the Zeitgeist is driving the trend, but it’s big in YA and MG (middle grade).
  • Fantasy built around elemental powers or magic.
  • Fantasy built around the guardians trope: characters who must protect a chosen one, a secret, a portal, a wall, a source of magic, etc.
  • Fantasy built around court intrigue. Heads up: this market is saturated for editors. Some sales still occur, but they are far fewer than two years ago.
  • Cool dragons with inventive premises are trending for both the YA and adult-fantasy realm.
  • Middle-grade portal/time travel stories—probably because we need to escape our current world. 

A referral to an agent is like the holy grail of introductions for a writer. It lets you skip ahead to the front of the line. It’s a get-out-of-query-jail free card. What writer wouldn’t want that? As an agent, I do give priority to referrals, but I think there might be some confusion among writers concerning what actually constitutes a referral. So let’s break it down:

What is a referral?

Basically, a referral is when one of my current clients or an established publishing-industry professional whom I know personally reaches out to me directly and asks if they can send an author my way. The referral comes in directly from that client or industry professional—not from the author. Occasionally, one of my clients will give me a heads-up that a certain writer they know and feel is ready for agent representation will be reaching out to me with a query. That is, they will be submitting a query to me through our regular query process. When that happens, I alert my team to watch for it and forward it to me when it comes in. That’s it.

But I think referrals are worth talking about a little more because some writers (hopefully unwittingly) use the term “referral” a little too freely, or in a broader context that might not be recognized by agents and editors. In QueryManager, our online query-submission tool, there’s a field where writers can submit the name of someone who referred them. If you don’t have an official referral, it’s OK to leave that field blank.

What isn’t a referral?

• If a writer meets an agent at a conference, and that agent has requested the material, there’s no need to call it a referral. In the industry, we call it a solicited or requested submission.

• If a writer hears the agent speak at a conference, and the agent says to the audience at large that they are free to query the agency, that is not a referral, nor is your query a solicited or requested submission.

• If a writer follows the client of a particular agent on Twitter or some other social-media platform, and the writer mentions they plan to query that client’s agent, and the client wishes the writer luck, that is not a referral. It only becomes a referral when the client reaches out directly to the agent on the the writer’s behalf before the submission happens.

• If a writer knows other industry professionals, but that professional does not know the agent personally, that is not a referral. It’s always a bit disconcerting to see that reference in a query letter. It leaves me scratching my head because the name being used as the referral is not familiar to me at all.

• If a speaker or panelist at a convention or writers’ conference mentions an agent’s name during their talk, that is not a referral. That is simply a recommendation, but not one given to you directly. It’s just a broad mention to a wide audience. We actually receive a lot of query letters that cite this situation as a referral, and it’s not.

• If a writer works with an established author or a professional editor, and that person simply recommends querying me, that is not a referral. It only becomes a referral if that editor or established author is reaching out to me directly to request my review.

• If a writer finds the agent’s name in the acknowledgments of a current client’s published work and then references it in the query letter, this is not a referral—although this does show you are savvy and you’ve done your legwork!

• This one might cause a chuckle, but finding me, or any other agent, on Google is also not a referral.

When in doubt, if you have to fill out that field in QueryManager (or some other submission tool), just leave it blank. Feel free to mention names in the context of your query letter—such as in your bio or why you choose that particular agent for your submission. And if you do know someone willing to give you a legitimate referral, definitely thank them and use that referral to your advantage!

Creative Commons Credit: amenclinicsphotos ac

Back in 2004, NLA was one of the first agencies to go entirely electronic by accepting query letters solely by email. I remember chatting with some agent friends about it, and you would have thought the sky was falling. They were passionately certain they would never go that route because sending an email was way too easy. Agents would be inundated. Only aspiring writers who took the time to compose a letter, print it out, put in in an envelope, address it, affix postage, and then walk or drive it to a post office could be considered serious enough about the biz.

Well, my agent friends weren’t wrong. Email definitely allowed far more query letters—many less than professional—to make it to my desk. But my reasoning at the time was that email was faster and easier, and it would allow me as an agent to get a jump on hot projects. As a new, unknown agent, any edge I could create was worth the risk.

As an agency, we accepted email queries for 13 years, and in January 2019, we decided to shift to a rather amazing service called QueryManager.

If the number of emails we’ve received from outraged writers is any indication, then once again, you’d think the sky was falling. How dare we create even more hoops for a writer to jump through?

For the record, I understand the frustration. The query process is not easy, and sending emails is a lot simpler than filling out and submitting an online form. The good news is, QueryTracker exists! Developed by the same folks who gave us QueryManager, QueryTracker can be used by writers to greatly simplify their submissions process, so give it a look.

For us at NLA, it came down to this: QueryManager is not meant to be a hoop for writers to jump through; it’s meant to be a simplification, for agents and for writers. We are an agency that responds to each and every query letter we receive. That is the kind of agent I want to be because responding is respectful, and I will never post on our site that “no response means we’re not interested,” which feels cold. But with four agents at the agency, it quickly became clear that we needed a better system for handling the sheer volume of queries we were receiving. Not to mention, we were getting a lot of emails from writers saying they never received a response from us, even though a response had been sent, and a lot of phone calls from writers whose queries had bounced back to them. It was taking our office staff a lot of time to troubleshoot with these authors.

Enter QueryManager—a robust tool that has hugely simplified the lives of our office staff and agents. Sorting and filtering queries—by genre, by word count, by several other parameters—is a breeze. Responding promptly is a snap. Our screeners are more efficient. In the end, that means our turn-around time is pretty darn good—something writers greatly appreciate. I personally like logging in and checking my response stats. This actually encourages me to stay on top of my query inbox and feels like personal goals achieved, and who doesn’t like a visual representation of a job well done?

By switching, I truly believe we are providing better service to writers. If a writer’s project doesn’t fit what we’re currently accepting, then there’s no need to send the query. Just diminishing the volume of non-fits has simplified the query influx for us as well.

(Now, if I can just get queriers to stop trying to circumvent the system by selecting a genre that their work clearly doesn’t fit but that is on the list of what we accept, then system would be perfect!)

Good luck out there! Feel free to check out our guidelines and read more about what we’re looking for. Even if NLA ends up passing on your query, hopefully we sent that response in a timely fashion and you are moving on to other great agent possibilities.

Creative Commons Credit: Christoph Scholz

(Just a note, this article was a feature in our newsletter from a few months ago. If you would like to receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

Tis the season for eggnog chai and holiday shopping. As I considered what to write about for my last article of 2019, I felt compelled to end on a positive, optimistic note for writers in the trenches. I’m going to guess that authors trying to get that first foot in the door have heard a lot of rejection language over the last twelve months. These aspiring writers might be looking at established authors wistfully, perhaps assuming that writing must be effortless for them. Words of gold just automatically drop off the pen onto the page. Every word is a treasure. 

And rainbows and unicorns always follow too.

I love my clients. They are an incredible and talented bunch. But “every word is a treasure” is not a reality of the writing life. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of clunky writing from my clients. Rejoice, writers. Clunkers happen to everyone. There are no exceptions. 

When my clients are at their writing clunkiest, here are the four things that seem to hold true:

  • They haven’t quite nailed the story that actually needs to be told.
  • The story’s POV (point-of-view) needs to shift to a different character, or from first person to third person or vice versa.
  • They are writing to the novel pitch/summary rather than actually focusing on writing the scene that needs to happen for the novel as a whole.
  • The character doesn’t have a strong enough backstory, so their development is lacking on the page.

Beginning writers and established authors are all equal when they’re facing that blank page and starting something new. If I took a poll at a writing conference, I’m positive 90% of new writers there wouldn’t think that to be true. They would believe that once an author’s first book is published, their writing becomes smooth sailing. That’s definitely a misconception. Here’s another piece of maybe-good news. When starting a brand-new novel, every author, even those who are established, is in the same boat. Every single story to be told is unique. Even if you have written one novel, starting a new one is basically learning all over again how to write a novel because the tools used to craft the debut might not work for book two. 

But every novel written is one more step on the path toward mastery of the arts of dialogue, scene tension, world-building, and so on. Which is why I always tell writers, never stop creating new stories. And if an agent or editor says no to one novel, jump right in there and get another novel going. 

Just today I spotted a Deal Lunch announcement for an author who sold a debut novel. I saw a different project from that author back in 2016. So huge kudos to that writer. If your first submit doesn’t sell, so what? You have other stories to tell. If that writer had quit, they wouldn’t be popping champagne to celebrate the sale that just happened in 2019.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Rennett Stowe

At some point during your publishing journey, it will seem like all you’re going is waiting. There’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait in publishing, and it’s hard to know what to do when you feel like you have nothing to do. Here are a few suggestions for how to pass the time:

1. Write Something. Ideally, something completely different. The best way to not dwell on the project that’s out with agents or editors is to get busy with new characters. Don’t write the second book in your planned series. Don’t rewrite the manuscript you just queried. Start a new project. Try out that idea that’s been kind of taking shape in the back of your head but that you think is way too off-brand for you. Even if you turn out to be right, every project hones your skills and makes you a better storyteller. You still have a few weeks of NaNoWriMo left!

2. Socialize. These moments of in-between are great opportunities to become the best literary citizen you can be. Part of being a successful author is being connected to your local publishing scene, no matter how small. Get out and network. Hit up a conference, a reading, a lecture series, or a local publishing drinks event. Not only could you have the opportunity to vent about the waiting with other writers, but you might also make some valuable connections for the next steps in the publishing process, such as asking for endorsement quotes.

3. Get Online. Waiting is also a great opportunity to get your social-media house in order. I’m a firm believer that writing should be your first priority, but if you’ve hit “the end” and sent that manuscript out into the world, you now have some time to focus on your professional online presence. Make sure you have the infrastructure set up for your social-media accounts as well as an author website or landing page, and start creating an online community for yourself by following and interacting with other writers.

4.  Read. If you’re someone who can’t read while they write, or if you can’t read within your genre while actively working on a project, then waiting for your agent or editor to get back to you is a great time to catch up on what’s recently been published. In addition to being an entertaining distraction, reading other authors might help you find new comp titles for your work or inspire you to diversify and write in a different genre.

Creative Commons Credit: Luca Florio

As someone who not only represents adult and YA/MG SF/F, but also grew-up reading it and continues to read it regularly, I’ve gotten to a place where my standards for these genres are higher than for any other. And, to be clear, science fiction and fantasy are two separate genres. (There are some exceptions.) 

In all commercial genres, writers can fall into relying too heavily on tropes. Certainly there are tropes in mystery, thriller, suspense, romance, science fiction, and fantasy and tropes aren’t bad. But relying on them as the only way to tell a certain type of story inhibits a writer’s ability to infuse their story with their own spin on a genre. I want to see stories from writers who aren’t simply bucking trends and tropes, but who are taking a nuanced approach toward them. Nuance is the key for me in so many things.

Relying on some of the more common tropes can make your work feel dated. Below, I look at some of these common tropes and explain what I look for in SFF—namely, innovative, clever, and forward-thinking approaches.

The Chosen One

We are all familiar with this trope. The hero is destined by prophesy, blood, or something else pre-ordained to save us all. It’s very Highlander—there can be only one. The problem is that this often takes agency away from the hero. No matter what they want, they either have to do the right thing and save the world or do nothing and let the world go to shit. That’s a lot of weight to put on someone’s shoulders, and the narrative often rests on the internal and external journeys our hero takes.

But what if there isn’t only one? What if there are multiple possibilities, and a story explores the type of person who would decide to act versus the type who would decide not to? What if the prophecy is BS? Or the Chosen One discovers that they aren’t really the chosen one and that things were interpreted wrong? I’m eager to see someone play around with this trope and really go all in subverting it.

Half-Breeds

This idea and term are so deeply rooted in white supremacy and racism that every time I read it I cringe. It’s a derogatory term that has long been used to diminish BIPOC, and I am not alone in being tired of seeing it in SFF. Part of the issue is real-world historical context. I can speak as a black woman on this although I know other IPOC have their own history with this term. In US history alone, black people were property and seen as not human. The amount of corruption of someone’s blood with blackness was measured in terms. To see this same concept being used in a fantasy story is disturbing, often because it’s used with such laziness—it’s an instant way to throw obstacles in front of a character and establish personal stakes. But they are imposed and not organic to the story. 

Not to mention that real-life mixed-race/mixed-heritage people exist, and the idea of “half breeds” so overly simplifies what their individual issues might be.

This is where nuance is key. If you are going to create a character who is part of two races, don’t make that their central struggle. Plenty of people of mixed race/heritage live happy lives with supportive, loving parents and extended family. Don’t make your story about the “good” races—elves, humans, angels—getting mixed with te “bad races—orcs, trolls, demons. Don’t make the world so simplistic and narrow minded. If you want to explore othering, start by thinking through the many different ways the people around you, in this world, are ostracized and how that affects them.

Blood Magic

This one is a bit personal. I love the idea of blood magic as a type of magic. But it’s often seen as evil. Why does it have to be bad? Why does any magic system have to be inherently bad? There tends to be a lot of black-and-white, good-and-evil in fantasy. Let’s see what shades of gray look like. Let’s see what blood magic can look like when it’s used for good, evil, and in-between.

Medieval/European/Western Setting

Seriously, we live on a whole giant planet with multiple continents of which only two seem to get featured, geographically and culturally speaking, in most SFF. But on all continents, there are many, many cultural POVs. For instance, telling me you’ve written a story with an African setting doesn’t evoke much; a story set in a fantastical version of Morocco will not present the same geography or culture as a story set in a fantastical version of Nigeria. And there is more than Ancient Egypt to take influence from. It is easy to do a pseudo-European setting. Try harder.

In this area I’m particularly looking for #ownvoices. This is a term mostly used on the children’s side, but I think adult publishing is starting to understand what it means as well. Simply put, it means a marginalized author writing about their own marginalization.

This is why I was so excited to see THE POPPY WAR. I read this book on submission as an editor, so I’m not sure how much has changed, but I remember being wowed by the setting, the characters, and the world building.

I will say, I’m eager to find marginalized SFF authors regardless of whether you write about your marginalization or not. This is, again, where nuance matters. A medieval/European/Western setting from a BIPOC author will likely have a POV different from what we’ve already seen so much of in SFF—namely, BIPOC existing in those settings.

POC in the Future

On that note, one SF and post-apocalyptic trope that really bothers me is the lack of POC in the future. There are so many nuanced ideas waiting to be explored just by placing POC in an enhanced future. Give me more nuanced stories that don’t erase POC from history or the future.

I’d love to see more adult SFF in my inbox. Tastes are subjective, but know that I’m on the lookout for nuanced approaches. Below you’ll find some books that I’m currently reading or that are on my to-be-read list:

TRAIL OF LIGHTNING by Rebecca Roanhorse. I am currently reading. This has Indigenous cultural influences and is written by a Indigenous author. I can count on one hand the number of SFF novels I can say that about. Not only do I want to support this writer so that I can get more SFF stories from her, but I also want to see doors opened for other Indigenous SFF writers. This one feels dark, just like I like it, and seems to have a very flawed but fairly kickass heroine—which is something else I’m finding I’m leaning toward. This is a classic role that you tend to see a male protagonist in, so it’s great to see writers focusing on a variety of three-dimensional female perspectives.

THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR by Tessa Gratton. To be read. So, three female protagonists, all in the standard roles that are typically filled by male protags. They are sisters. They are fighting for the crown. It sounds like we’ll get three very different strategic approaches to accomplishing this goal. I can’t wait!

THE TIGER’S DAUGHTER by K. Arsenault Rivera. To be read. What intrigues me is that it is an epic fantasy based on Asian mythology and has ladies falling in love.

THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT by Seth Dickinson. I am currently reading. It is an interesting take from the perspective of the colonized who want to take down the imperialist from within. Love how assimilation and indoctrination are handled.

THE IMMORTALS by Jordanna Max Brodsky. I’ve read the first book in this trilogy. It is a modern approach to greek mythology. Love the way it centers around a morally ambiguous and pretty brutal female protagonist.

UPROOTED and SPINNING SILVER by Naomi Novik. I’ve read UPROOTED and absolutely loved it!!! Dragons, romance, magic, and a lyrical fairytale/folktale quality. I want to see something like this in my inbox, but from a non-European or non-Western culture. And I’m equally excited to dive into SPINNING SILVER and enjoy more spellbinding storytelling from this author.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Mustafa Kurtuldu