Pub Rants

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

Tagged science fiction

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


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.

7 Pages in 7 Sentences

If I can be that succinct. LOL My current workload is as such that I’m not doing a lot of reading right now. That will probably ease up in another month or so. But from what I have read in the last two weeks, here are my sum ups of 7 projects and 7 reasons why I passed.

1) Client referral – Post-apocalyptic adult fiction. Very cool world. Strong writing so the writer has talent but I just didn’t connect with the story/characters.

2) Client referral – adult literary thriller. Really talented writer but the work was very Cormac McCarthy THE ROAD kind of dark. Not my thing. I’m not going to be a good champion for that.

3) Client referral – women’s fiction. I thought it more young adult and asked author if they wanted to revise to be solidly in that realm. If so, I was willing to give it another read.

4) Anita pulled out for me – young adult fantasy. Had the coolest concept I’ve seen in a while but the work wasn’t quite ready. Wrote an editorial letter and asked the author to revise and send back to me. Hope this person does.

5) Client referral – Contemporary Young adult. Another really cool concept inspired by a real event but fictionalized. I didn’t connect with the main narrator which seemed crucial for this story.

6) Prev. published author – adult SF. Cool concept. Good writing. Just wasn’t right for me.

7) Sara asked me to look – Contemporary Young Adult – Good writing but the main narrator had a caustic voice. I wasn’t sure if I could spend a whole novel with that character.

 


NLA Invites You To WOOL Launch Party!

With over half a million ebooks sold, Slate.com and The Wall Street journal dub this originally self-published post-apocalyptic thriller  “the next Hunger Games” mega hit.

And Nelson Literary Agency invites you to a Book Launch Party for Hugh Howey’s WOOL!

FRIDAY, March 15, 2013

7:30 PM

The Tattered Cover

2526 E. Colfax, Denver, CO 80206

Event info

After the signing, hang out with Hugh and the gals of NLA for beer and conversations at

 The Three Lions Pub 

2239 E. Colfax, Denver, CO 80206–a short walk away

Appetizers will be provided. Cash bar.

Please RSVP!  [email protected]

UK_WOOL_cover


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.

 

 

 

 


A Pitch Is A Pitch Is A Pitch – A Query Is A Query Is A Query

STATUS: Working though 245 emails in the inbox. You can’t hide from me!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now?  DON’T STOP by Foster The People

An yet, writers always have some confusion on what is the difference between a pitch and a query. Seems like a good topic to tackle (as I can already see a myriad list of sub-questions within this topic).

Let’s start with the basics.

A query is a professional business letter that introduces your work to an agent or editor. These days, this letter is sent by email rather than snail mail. In the query letter, you will have something called a pitch paragraph. The query letter will also contain an introduction and the author’s bio or credentials. It will be one-page long.

A pitch is the verbal delivery of the main pitch paragraph from your query letter. In other words, you need to have a quick way to sum up the opening plot catalyst of your novel in a sentence or two while talking to someone. That way your audience gets a clear and immediate gist of what your novel is about.

Here’s a great example from a novel I just sold by David Ramirez called MINCEMEAT. It’s a good example because in this instance, I actually did something unique. I pulled out the pitch from the main pitch paragraph. I don’t always do that but I did so in this instance. Also, when I was in New York in May, I verbally PITCHED this work to editors using the one sentence pitch highlighted in pink.

Here’s my submit letter to editors–which in essence is the agent’s QUERY letter to editors (to draw a comparison to what writers are doing when they approach agents):

Hello XXX,
It’s pretty rare that I send an email about a manuscript submission that I can sum up in a one sentence pitch. Trust me, I tend to be wordier than that!

But here it is:
All that is left of humanity is on a thousand-year journey to a new home aboard one ship, The Noah, and this ship is carrying a dangerous serial killer.

Intrigued? I hope so. At its heart, the concept for this SF novel MINCEMEAT by David Ramirez is quite simple but what unfolds is layer after layer of complexity.

Since most editors prefer I don’t leave it at one sentence, here’s a little bit more about the manuscript:

Priss Dempsey is a City Planning Administrator on the Noah, a vessel carrying the last survivors of Earth on a thousand-year journey to a new home.  She is equal parts psychic, economist, hacker and bureaucrat, a vital part of the mission, but her life seems to lose purpose after she experiences Breeding Duty.  Kept asleep through the impregnation and birthing that all women are obligated to undergo, she still feels a lost connection to the child she will never be permitted to know.

Policeman Leonard Barrens approaches her with a request for hacking support in the unofficial investigation of his mentor’s violent death. Only Barrens knows that a crime has been committed because he came across the mutilated remains before Information Security could cover it up. To everyone else, the missing man was merely “Retired,” nothing unusual.

Their investigation takes them through the lost dataspaces in the Nth Web and deep into the uninhabited regions of the ship, where they discover that the answer may not be as simple as a Mincemeat Killer after all. And what they do with that answer will determine the fate of all humanity.

May I send this novel your way?

All Best,
Kristin

Next up, I’ll tackle the log line versus the pitch.


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. 


What Kristin Requested From Pitch-A-Palooza

STATUS: Started out the week with 354 emails in the inbox after being out for RT. Only 203 to go. Progress!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? TUFF ENUF by Fabulous Thunderbirds

Does it say anything about trends? Probably not but just in case you are curious, here are the types of projects I requested.

2 paranormal adult romances
1 contemporary adult romance
3 women’s fiction projects
1 SF romance (haven’t seen one of these in a while–kind of excited!)
1 SF (but not a romance)
2 contemporary YA
2 paranormal romance YA (I have to be honest, this genre is getting to be a tough sell to editors who have seen nothing but this for the last two years.)

And my sincere apologies to anyone that I had to turned down during the Palooza. When it’s a speed dating format like that, I do have to say no to projects that don’t grab me immediately to reduce the amount of material we receive and have to review. We requested 12 projects but I had over 25 pitches that day. That’s a lot in 90 minutes.


Why Asking ABout The Next Trend Is The Wrong Way To Go

STATUS: I feel like I’m being pulled in 10 different directions. I’m here at the RT Convention. On Tuesday, I offered rep to a potential new client. Wednesday I did an hour phone conference with a film producer for another client. Yesterday, I reviewed 5 different offers for a UK auction going down. Today let’s talk about romance. It’s almost time for Pitch-a-Palooza!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? IF IT’S LOVE by Train

But writers can’t help themselves. They still ask this question anyway.

At best, this question is unhelpful. If you start writing for the “next hot trend” by the time you finish your project, that particularly trend is on the way out.

Not to mention, if you ask me the question, “What are you looking for?” I can ramble on about something I’d love to see (such as a completely charming, witty, and fun historical romance a la Julia Quinn) but what I offered rep for just this week would never have landed on my “This is what I’m looking for” list.

I’m constantly taken by surprise by what I fall in love with.

After being here at RT, certainly I can tell you that editors are weary of paranormal romance. That everyone is talking about erotica because of 50 Shades (by the way, I don’t rep erotica so please don’t query me for that.)

That “hook-y” women’s fiction novels (i.e. hooks like a knitting club or cupcake club) are still on editors’ wish lists (which by the way, are topics that don’t ring my bell much).

I can tell you that a lot of the romance editors also rep YA and they might be moved to violence if just one more YA paranormal romance lands in their submission inbox.

I can tell you all these things and then I can also tell you that the minute the “right” project lands in that same inbox–even if it contains any of the above–but it blows them away, they’ll offer for it.

So I can’t tell you what I’m looking for as an agent. I can only say that I’m going to know it when I see it and this: I haven’t taken on a romance author in over the year. I’m opening my universe up to that possibility as I’d love to read an awesome romance right now.

I’ve been in my “dark” phase for the last 7 months by taking on dark and gritty SF.


What’s In Our Full Manuscript Queue

STATUS: This is a first for me. CBS films has a dedicated FB page for LEGEND the Movie. And you get first peek at the just released cover. Sweet.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? MISSIONARY MAN by Eurythmics

This is actually a good question. A quick look shows that we have 8 full manuscripts in the queue to be read. And here’s where they fall:

6 titles are Young Adult (breakdown by genre, 3 fantasies, 2 paranormals, 1 contemporary)

1 title is adult literary fiction

1 title is adult women’s fiction

We just sent responses to an adult fantasy that we passed on as well as a middle grade title that had several agents interested but ended up not being quite right for us.

Of the 3 clients Sara just signed: adult SF novel, adult Historical Romance, and Paranormal YA.

And as a bonus, here is Kristin as a talking head yet again. This time I’m reading a short excerpt from the Philip K Dick nominee SF novel SONG OF SCARABAEUS for the awards ceremony last Friday. The sound is not the best so you’ll probably have to turn up your volume all the way up to remotely hear me. Warning, this scene will probably hook you in!

The author Sara Creasy thought I looked quite spiffy!


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