3.28.2007

Clue Wand!!

Dear Miss Snark,

I finished my first novel recently and have started querying agents. Here's the problem: my novel is a character driven thriller that just happens to have a time machine in it. There are two pages of outlandish explanation as to how the damn thing works and 348 pages of murder, snark, and sex. Am I doing the right thing querying agents who handle thrillers/suspense? Is a time machine an automatic big red X even if it's not science fiction? Should I maybe fail to mention the time travel aspect until they're knee deep in the middle of my exciting query letter?

Please help me get my sea legs, here. I'm trying so hard to get things right.


Query EVERYONE. SF, Mystery, heck query Dan Lazar and tell him he's lucky he's not dead in this one.

You don't have to have one query letter for everyone. For mystery focused agents such as moi, you emphasize the mystery. For SF agents, you emphasize the sf elements.

No one is getting huffy about genre much these days. Only purists do that and those guys are boring.

I happen to think cross genre stuff is very hot right now so I've actually (don't faint) read things that reallio trulio should be in the SF shelf but I call them mysteries, so there.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am so confused. My agent said that she received 6 rejections from editors because my novel "crossed genres" and that marketing people want to make sure bookstores know where to put a book. The editors loved the book and writing - yaddda - yadda - someones pulling a long tail here.

Kit Whitfield said...

Genre can be a positive nuisance; just bang your book around town until you hit someone who likes it.

From my own experience, even when a book is published its genre can be under debate. My first novel was published as science fiction in the States, but by a literary imprint in the UK - and half the UK bookshops that stock it put it in the crime section. It looks literary in the Netherlands, sci-fi in Denmark ... Who cares? Not me; I just like it being on the shelves.

This diversity wasn't planned, it just happened to catch different eyes in different ways. The wider you cast your net, the more chance you'll have. Look at it this way: you've got a book you can pitch to science fiction publishers, and thriller publishers, and possibly other people as well. Go for it!

Dan Leo said...

Dig it, real true literary literature author Cormac McCarthy's last two novels were "science fiction" and "thriller". And the ones right before that were "westerns" and "historical". The prejudice that real literature can't have murders or time travel or monsters or ghosts is a recent one, and to hell with it. To hell with it I say!
Love,
Dan

Ben said...

Science fiction or not, I still can't help thinking "two pages of outlandish explanation as to how the damn thing works" is two pages too much. HG Wells got away with a few very vague paragraphs. Anything else will look dated in five minutes

Divine Bird said...

I'd like to point out that F. Paul Wilson and James Rollins, who regularly cross the scifi/fantasy/reality line in every single one of their books, end up on the general Fiction shelves instead of SciFi. You could argue that Dan Brown does the same thing in some of his books. Just because there's an element of non-real-world involved doesn't mean it's automatically fantasy.

Judy Schneider said...

Nonfiction writers experience similar genre problems, if you will. My book appears in the Self Help section of the bookstore, alongside Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura (which isn't so bad). But I think it belongs next to Martha Stewart in the Home section, as it appeals more to the physical world than to the psyche.

In your query letter, I'd suggest you emphasize those elements of the story (character, murder, mayhem) that appeal to readers in many genres. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

If your only acquaintance with SF comes from TV and movies, then it is a near certainty that your "two pages of outlandish explanation" is laughable by SFnal standards, and your book is unlikely to be sold as such.

Anonymous said...

Well, I have a question. I wanna write a novel, but I don't want to write one if the field is crowded. Some people say everybody who can get hands on a laptop is trying to get into the novel writing racket, but I say hardly anybody is writing and agents are sitting around all day wishing something would show up in tne mail so they could stop throwing darts at that George W. Bush dart board and start reading. I say some of them have got jobs watching paint dry just so they could see more action.

So what is the truth? Is novel writing as unpopular as I say it is (and aspiring novelists as scarce?)

Ryan Field said...

I've heard nothing but "we want things that will crossover" since January first.

Anonymous said...

My agent is promoting my cross genre novels (Character driven, historical, sci-fi, limited mayhem) and it does appear the major sticking point is one of marketing.

Perhaps the marketing issue will fade if enough cross genre is promoted. Perhaps the bookstores could create a cross-genre shelf?

River Falls said...

Ben wrote:
Science fiction or not, I still can't help thinking "two pages of outlandish explanation as to how the damn thing works" is two pages too much.

I had the exact same reaction. Maybe a few paragraphs of somewhat plausible explanation would do.

Rei said...

Well, I have a question. I wanna write a novel, but I don't want to write one if the field is crowded. Some people say everybody who can get hands on a laptop is trying to get into the novel writing racket, but I say hardly anybody is writing and agents are sitting around all day wishing something would show up in tne mail so they could stop throwing darts at that George W. Bush dart board and start reading. I say some of them have got jobs watching paint dry just so they could see more action.

Is this a joke, or are you really that new here?

Check out Miss Snark's recent post on what percent of queries that arrive at her doorstep end up with representation if you doubt that it's a competitive field. What was it, about 0.1%?

If you don't want to write if the field is crowded, don't write. Seriously. Writing is a demand-driven business if there ever was one. Supply is extremely in surplus.

Now, if you really want to write and are simply looking for a less crowded category, you have a little leeway. Nonfiction sales are big, but you need a platform, so don't consider that if you don't have one. In fiction, romance is probably the least crowded field. It eats up something like 40% of the fiction market. Probably the worst to write is fantasy, which is something like 4% of the market and which mobs of young adults want to write. Sci-fi is an even smaller percentage of the market, but it has a correspondingly smaller number of people who want to write it. Genre fiction is crowded indeed. :P

Bill Peschel said...

Anonymous: Aspiring writers scarce? Can I have what you're smoking?

Did you see the last crapometer and how many aspiring writers submitted books to it?

I have on my desk, right now, "Unholy Grail," coming out next month. It's the latest "DaVinci Code" knockoff. I also see on my shelf "God's Spy" from a Spanish writer. Wanna guess what that one's about?

Now, good books are what's hard to find.

Anyway, I'm glad to read "No one is getting huffy about genre much these days. Only purists do that and those guys are boring." My current project is future history (only 30 years down the road), but the suspense elements dominates, so I'll file it under that, or commercial fiction. But if you say try sci-fi, what the heck. All they can do is say no.

Rei said...

Oh, on the subject of "purists": as a SF writer, I ran into a number of agents that take "speculative fiction", but specifically exclude "science fiction". The funny thing is that "speculative fiction" isn't a well defined term. It basically means "Science fiction with key difference X", where X depends on who you ask.

Of course, it's not like that's a problem for me. I just change the genre on the query letter to "Speculative fiction" and then submit. Still, some agents are picky. :P

It's good to hear that cross-genre works are hot right now, since mine is sci-fi that starts out in a fantasy-style world, whose plot is one part mystery and one part psychological thriller with lit fic elements. However, since you have to list just one on the query...

kathie said...

Although, nothing is cut and dry, I agree with what Miss Snark said before, just query it and they'll decide on the genre stuff. Write what you love, it'll find a home. Just write well.

bhadd said...

And I don't think there is such a thing as genre either. dan leo mentions Cormac McCarthy, he is an Oprah Book Club member now too. The problem with believability is genre.

The Hood Company

BuffySquirrel said...

I don't object to people using SFF tropes in their mainstream fiction. I suppose. What I do object to is their sneering at SFF while they're doing it.

Anonymous said...

Sheesh! next thing ya know some damn fool's gonna ask if you have to reveal the plot.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

The funny thing is that "speculative fiction" isn't a well defined term. It basically means "Science fiction with key difference X", where X depends on who you ask.

I wouldn't call it "not well-defined", just broad. I'd be suspicious if an agent just had speculative fiction as a genre label. Via Wikipedia and the many spec fic writers I know this is the current standard definition for speculative fiction:

Speculation fiction is a type of fiction that asks the classic "What if?" question and attempts to answer it.

In some contexts, it has been used as an inclusive term covering a group of fiction genres that speculate about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally includes science fiction, fantasy, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, alternate history, and magic realism.
(I'd expand this to include paranormal romance, urban fantasy, futuristics, and others I can't come up with now.)

In its early days--by which I mean 40-60 years ago--Spec Fic meant sci fi. I think now that so much sci fi has become near-reality, the current definition has been expanded to include the above. In other words, it's a lenient term and probably not the genre label you want to use in a query.

As a magazine editor, I think of it in terms of quality vs. quantity. This is how I define it when I read a submitted story: The speculative elements must be paramount to the story.

For example, I don't think The Davinci Code is speculative fiction. It has vague speculative elements, but they weren't integral to the story.

Rei said...

SSAS:

The problem with that definition is that it covers essentially every piece of fiction. By definition, fiction itself posits "what if?". Even if you narrow the "what if?" to "what if X about the world/universe as a whole?", it's still extremely broad.

I've seen quite a few people try and narrow it down further, and each narrows it down in a different way. One will say, for example, Michael Crichton does spec fic, while Star Wars-style space operas aren't spec fic. Another person will say exactly the opposite. I've seen enough conflicting choices about what it covers that I'm not going to bother trying to make a distinction.

As for agents that do spec fic but not SF, here's an example: Nat Sobel (not Sobol!). His site states that he does spec fic but "no genre fiction". Curiously enough, he represents Robert Jordan, who's a famous fantasy writer.

melody said...

Psst...thanks for answering my question, Miss Snark. It (and all the comments) did me a world of good.

::hugs you quick::

::flees::