Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Tagged fantasy

Why I’m So Picky About Fantasy

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


Fantasy Openings To Avoid or To Very Carefully Consider

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

We had such a blast chatting about the 9 story openings to avoid, we didn’t want the fun to end. So here’s a bonus installment for all you fantasy writers out there!

Your fantasy opening pages might be in trouble if…

#1) Your novel opens with an easily recognizable fantasy genre trope.

Ages ago, Writers Digest asked dozens of agents what story openings they saw too often. Agent Kristin cited the fantasy trope of gathering herbs in the forest. Turns out that’s still a pretty popular opening—and therein lies the potential problem. Why? Because opening with an established trope might make your story feel too familiar or not original enough, and you definitely want an agent read beyond chapter one.

Every genre has its established, easily recognizable tropes, and, technically, there’s nothing wrong with choosing one for your fantasy story’s opening. (In fact, we’re sure readers can cite plenty of examples of established authors who have done it, and done it well.) We’re not arguing that trope-openings (tropenings?) should never be done. We just want to make you aware of a few so that you can very carefully consider whether an easily recognizable opening is the best or most effective opening for your story.

So here’s a handy list of Fantasy Opening Tropes To Carefully Consider:

  • Gathering herbs
  • Walking into an inn or tavern, noting all the patrons, ordering a tankard of ale
  • Leaving an inn or tavern, immediately saddling or mounting a horse
  • Escaping/sneaking through a castle
  • Tracking/hunting, or otherwise carefully aiming a crossbow at something/someone
  • Training for combat, often with swords
  • Being summoned to appear before the council or the queen/king
  • Confiding in a servant, your one and only friend
  • Defying your parent, who just so happens to be the queen/king
  • Fighting in a massive battle scene, about which the reader knows nothing
  • Tending a sick sibling or parent
  • Tending an injured stranger, who even in their fevered, half-conscious state, is undeniably alluring
  • For other tropes, don’t miss Mallory Ortberg’s “How To Tell If You Are in a High Fantasy Novel.”

When can you use a trope? When you are going to put a very cool, original spin on it that will really make it stand out. For example, Patrick Rothfuss opens his bestselling debut, The Name of the Wind, in an inn. But it is not a typical fantasy inn, full of road-weary soldiers or scheming elves or drunk dwarfs or buxom serving wenches. It is an empty inn, and Rothfuss masterfully imbues his opening scene with tons of atmospheric detail that sets the tone for his whole novel:

It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts. The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves. If there had been a crowd, even a handful of men inside the inn, they would have filled the silence with conversation and laughter, the clatter and clamor one expects from a drinking house during the dark hours of night. If there had been music…but no, of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained.

Note that Rothfuss even nods to the typical inn/tavern fantasy trope, calling out the “conversation and laughter,” the “clatter and clamor.” But by contrasting that familiar “tropey” inn with his own silent inn, he’s basically telling the reader This will not be the typical fantasy you’ve seen a thousand times before. This story is something new and different. And you know what? The rest of the novel delivers on that promise, which makes this a fantasy opening very masterfully crafted.

Gentle reminder about sharing this article series: You are welcome to share this article series as long as (1) it is not-for-profit, (2) you attribute to Kristin Nelson and Angie Hodapp of Nelson Literary Agency, and (3) you link back to our original articles on the Pubrants blog. If you would like to physically reprint any of the articles in a newsletter, magazine, or book, please email [email protected] for permission.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Elliott Brown


Special Treat: Rhiannon Thomas’s Original Query Letter for A WICKED THING

To celebrate just having spent the day in York with Rhiannon, here is her original query for A WICKED THING that landed me as her agent.

Dear Kristin Nelson:

One hundred years after falling asleep, Aurora wakes up to the kiss of a handsome prince and a broken kingdom that has been dreaming of her return. All the books say that she, and the kingdom, should be living happily ever after.

But her family are long dead. Her “true love” is a stranger. And her whole life has been planned out by strangers while she slept. Aurora wants space to make her own choices, but she cannot risk losing the favor of the prince or the people and ending up penniless, homeless and, worst of all, alone. With rebellion stirring in the backstreets of the city and everyone expecting Aurora’s promised goodness to save them, she must marry the prince and play the sweet, smiling savior that everyone expects, or the kingdom will tear itself — and Aurora — apart.

When Aurora befriends a young rebel, she begins to doubt that the kingdom deserves saving. As the rebellion begins in force, and her wedding day hurtles ever closer, Aurora must decide whether she is willing to sacrifice her freedom to save this new world from burning, or whether she should be the one to light the flame.

AFTER is a young adult fantasy that will appeal to fans of Malinda Lo and Gail Carson Levine. It is complete at 70,000 words.

I graduated from Princeton University with a degree in English Literature in 2011 and work as a freelance writer and academic editor. AFTER is my first novel.

I am submitting this novel for your consideration because I read that you love fantasy YA and are a fan of Malinda Lo’s Ash, which is also one of my all-time favorite books.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
Rhiannon Thomas

What did I like about her query pitch? First off, it’s very well written. Even the pitch has a narrative voice to it. But a couple more things:

* I love the turning-on-its-head opening premise of the first sentence. She should be living happily ever after means she probably won’t be. I want to find out why.

* I’ve never seen a Sleeping Beauty retelling where the princess wakes up 100 years later. Wow. She might as well be on another planet. Everything she knows is dead and long gone. I can’t imagine what that would be like. This story is going to be intriguing on that aspect alone.

* The pitch is wonderfully written and the conflict is clear. Should she marry the prince? Is that truly her destiny or what is best for her people?

* The author comparisons used are apt for this work.

It’s a shoo-in for me to ask for sample pages.


Passing on Sample Page Submissions

Not a very original title for a blog post but it certainly conveys the message adequately! I’ve been on a bit of a reading binge lately. There’s just nothing like that excitement of finding a story that makes all your fingers and toes tingle.

I swear, it might be an addiction and why Literary Agents do the job we do!

And I’ve been reading lots of good stuff as of late. But nothing that is quite tipping me into the “must have” realm as yet. Part of what makes this job so fun is that the right manuscript could hit the inbox at any moment.

Adult Steampunk fantasy: PASS – good concept, solid world building, interesting opening scene. And these are the hardest letters for me to write, the story just didn’t spark for me. So not helpful for that hard-working writer but it’s true.

Young Adult SF: PASS – another interesting world, set on a ship, with a nice opening scene. No spark. Argh.
Adult Literary fiction: PASS – Writer has terrific background in journalism. Cool premise. Solid writing. Just couldn’t quite fall into the story and have it keep my attention. My focus kept wandering so I know this one is not for me.
Young Adult contemporary: PASS – Too gritty for me and I worried that the main character, his nature, was too dark and grim potentially for the YA market. I could be totally wrong but it’s a sign it’s not right for me.
Young adult contemporary SF: PASS – Another sample with good, solid writing. Interesting story concept. Author had an agent previously.  I should be game for it but the narrative just didn’t spark for me.
Adult Commercial mainstream: PASS – Loved the premise. Solid writing but I actually wanted the writing to be more literary than what it was because the concept hook was so commercial. And for me, that was the way to really make the story stand out.
Fantasy Young Adult: PASS – was a bit on the fence with this one. Nice writing. Interesting fantasy world. Gave it a second read and found I wasn’t feeling passionate about wanting to commit to reading a full manuscript.
Adult SF: PASS – a funny science fiction narrative that works! (so rare.) Good writing. Charming and inventive. Just wasn’t quite right for me but I definitely see another agent taking this one on and selling it.
Young Adult contemporary: PASS – Such a great premise dealing with contemporary YA themes but writing was really uneven and a little too much force on “this is the theme of my novel.”
Adult historical: PASS – Author has great background with winning some accolades. Really liked the time period so sad with this one a bit and reread it. In the end, I felt like I should love it but didn’t actually love it.
Young adult historical: PASS – One of my fav genres and is a popular tale re-telling. Writing felt too stiff and formal (the emotion didn’t match the scene) I couldn’t quite lose myself in the story.
Middle Grade contemporary: PASS – I really wanted to like this one as concept was terrific. Voice didn’t quite nail it for middle grade. Read a bit too adult.
Adult Fantasy: PASS – Really interesting premise for the anti-hero who is main protagonist of the story. Too many fantasy tropes in the opening without enough of a distinctive voice to really make the opening stand out.
Middle grade fantasy: PASS – narrative voice was too adult for the MG audience. World building was a bit heavy in the opening as well. Thought maybe it could work for adult market but it as in the deadly gray area without it being firmly to one audience or the other.
Young adult contemporary: PASS – loved the multicultural aspect of the story. Author has great background as well. This one I just didn’t fall in love with the story and the narrative voice.

SFWA gives RH’s Hydra Imprint The Thumbs Down

If you’ve ever wondered about the efficacy of writer organizations such as RWA or SFWA when it comes to protecting authors, then the last twenty-four hour period has proven just how valuable they can be.

Last week on Facebook, I linked to an insightful blog article Victoria Strauss had posted on the SFWA-endorsed site Writer Beware about the new Random House Hydra imprint. Yesterday, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) issued this statement:

Dear SFWA Member:

SFWA has determined that works published by Random House’s electronic imprint Hydra can not be use as credentials for SFWA membership, and that Hydra is not an approved market. Hydra fails to pay authors an advance against royalties, as SFWA requires, and has contract terms that are onerous and unconscionable.

Hydra contracts also require authors to pay – through deductions from royalties due the authors – for the normal costs of doing business that should be borne by the publisher.

Hydra contracts are also for the life-of-copyright and include both primary and subsidiary rights. Such provisions are unacceptable.

At this time, Random House’s other imprints continue to be qualified markets.

Today, within twenty-four hours, Random House responded and asked for a sit-down with board members of SFWA.

I’d say that’s your membership dollars hard at work for a good cause. If you write in this genre and you qualify to be a member but for some reason aren’t one, maybe now is a good time to join. I only foresee more battles like this in the future.

 

 

 

 


What I’ve Said No To Lately

Who says agents don’t read in December right before closing? My colleague Sara offered rep to two new clients right as we were closing. She landed them too! It happens. I’m not sure I added those to the Stats. I need to update.

Not to mention, I miscounted my NYT bestsellers. Oi! I forgot the Manga SOULLESS edition which hit #1 no less. Smack forehead.

But if you are curious, I read 16 sample pages the week before we closed. That’s a marathon for me.

And here’s a general idea of why I passed on all those requested submits: (more…)


2012 San Diego Comic Con – Part II

STATUS: Heading out the door in 15 minutes. I’m doing the interview for Spotlight on Gail Carriger!
What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? SOMEONE LIKE YOU by Adele
Gail Carriger and I –washed in color at the Hilton Bayfront. 
Sara’s client Jason Hough and his Del Rey Editor Michael Braff
Gail right after her Witty Women in Steampunk panel. 

Got Epic Fantasy?

STATUS: I’m still buried under a ton of emails and whatnot as I try and catch up post BEA and New York. I have high hopes of resuming Fridays With Kristin next week!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? DRIVE ALL NIGHT by Need To Breathe

Because every SF&F editor I talked to said they were open to seeing it. Which made me extra sad when I saw the six-figure deal on Publishers Lunch for an epic fantasy by an author we offered rep to.

Sigh. But can’t win them all.

Then on Monday I spotted the “major” deal for a YA fantasy I offered rep to as well. ARRRGGGHHHH!

Paper cut with lemon poured on it!

Hey, at least I know my gut instinct is still working.

But back to fantasy. If you are working on an urban fantasy, you might be out of luck. Every SF&F editor I chatted with while in New York was being inundated by urban fantasy submissions and with some rare exceptions, were not buying them.

In good news, SF&F editors were being leery about looking at science fiction stuff and now that is turning. They mentioned actively looking for it now and since I just put an SF on submission, I’m thrilled with the reception it’s getting. 


Big Reveals Shouldn’t Happen In A Conversation

STATUS: Gosh, it was too gorgeous outside to work. What the heck. It’s January. I need it to snow so I don’t want to skip work!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? RIGHT DOWN THE LINE Gerry Rafferty

One of the problems of having blogged for so long, since 2006 if you can believe it, is that I often feel like I’m repeating myself. When I mentioned this to an agent friend of mine who also blogs, she said that I simply can’t worry about it.

I think she’s right. So I’ve probably blogged on this topic before but what the heck, it’s worth saying again.

A novel’s plot should not be a series of conversations where characters move from one place to another and all they do is have chats with other characters.

(Anne Rice’s INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE might be the one exception. But even at closer look, you can see that Rice didn’t fall into that trap. Even though that novel is basically one long conversation, the vampire narrates scenes as if they were actually happening so there is sense of immediacy, action, and event plotting to carry the novel.)

We see this a ton in fantasy manuscripts but hey, it’s not limited to that genre. Recently, I’ve seen this structure in a lot of young adult samples we’ve been reading.

By the way, established writers can fall into this trap–usually when they are on deadline and simply trying to get the story on the page.

Take a moment to evaluate your own novel. How many times do you have characters sitting down and having a conversation? If it’s a lot, you might want to start rethinking your “plot”!


Because It Carries More Weight When George R.R. Martin Says It

STATUS: I was at work for a full day yesterday. Today I’m working from home. Guess I pushed that envelope too far.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? SUPERSTAR by The Carpenters

Agents are fans too! On Sunday, some friends and I headed down to the Tattered Cover in Lodo to get our copies of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS signed by the grand master himself.

Given the huge crowd of fans, no one was allowed to pose and take a picture with Mr. Martin. (Smart move on his part!) My friend happened to snap an incredibly dorky shot of me after he signed my book and I was walking away. Shows how comfortable with myself I am to share this lovely photo with the world.


But before the signing, Mr. Martin shared a tidbit of wisdom that all writers could benefit from. He mentioned that aspiring writers would often come up to him and declare that they were working on a 7-book series–just like him.

To paraphrase Martin, he said that being a beginner, unpublished writer declaring that he is writing a 7-book series is kind of like being a guy who has just started rock climbing and announcing to the world that the first climb he’s going to do is a little hill called Mount Everest.

That’s absolutely not what you want to do. It’s too hard. Too big in scoop. If you are a beginning rock climber, you want to start with the climbing wall at your local REI or a small hill that won’t kill you first.

As an agent, I’ve given this advice any number of times but in the end, writers don’t believe me. Okay don’t believe me. Believe George instead! Forty years in this biz, he knows what he’s talking about.

Martin’s recommendation? Start with short stories where you are forced to have a beginning, middle, and end. You are also forced to nail plot and character in a short amount of space. Then graduate to something bigger–like a novella or one stand-alone novel. Master that. Then tackle the big series.


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