How others see us (literary agent edition)

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2011

The aspiring writers in the audience may already be aware of QueryShark. If you’re not, you should be; few things teach more effectively in a creative field like writing (in my experience at least) than having a selection of negative examples to hold up against the positives, and QueryShark offers anonymous eviscerations of query letters that’ll show you how to do it properly. Or at least how not to do it properly, which is almost as useful.

But I mention QueryShark today for a different reason, namely one of the rarer successful queries. First, here’s the query sans critique:

Part warm body, part social chameleon, fourths have become an accepted part of the commuting landscape. Every highway in the newly-invigorated Detroit is restricted to four-passenger cars, Carpools that come up short must either take surface streets through dangerous neighborhoods or hire extra riders to fill their cars.

It’s an easy way to earn some extra cash–or to end up dead. Someone is killing fourths and the only one who seems to care is burnt-out homicide cop Francis LaCroix, who moonlights as a fourth himself.

LaCroix discovers the dead fourths are terrorists sabotaging the highways, causing horrific crashes. Worse, his own nephew may be involved in the plot. With both careers on the line, LaCroix needs a shot at redemption, but continuing the investigation paints a target on his family and leaves the terrorists free to strike again. Suddenly, he isn’t so sure bringing the killer to justice is the right thing to do.

Sounds interesting, right? Here’s how the writer capped it off:

TAKING THE HIGHWAY,a science fiction novel, is complete at 93,000 words.

And here the bit of the agent’s response I’m interested in:

This isn’t science fiction. And I’d STRONGLY urge you to not call it science fiction even if you think it is.  There’s a lot of room for cross-over into crime fiction here, and by calling it science fiction you might miss an agent who doesn’t handle SF but would read this.   Like…me.

OK – that book as laid out in that query is definitely science fiction, even if only by the old Damon Knight “what I point to when I say it” rule of thumb. It’s set in a speculative future, for goodness’ sake; it may be a harsh thing to say, but using a reinvigorated Detroit as your setting puts you firmly into alternate world territory.

What actually I’m interested in here is the chicken-and-egg problem that sf has with mainstream acceptance. There above is a solid query for an interesting science fictional novel… but there also is a warning that calling it such will make it harder to sell. It’s an acknowledgement of industry prejudices, in other words, and the action of an agent who wants to see a good book get bought.

But what I see here is something similar to the way in which female writers feel pressured to write under masculine pseudonyms or use their initials; it’s an invitation that says “OK, look, we think you’ve got the beans to play the game, but you can’t come in wearing that outfit; it’s not that we’ve got anything against it, but, y’know, people will look at you funny…” It’s an enablement of prejudice, in other words, though it’s being done with pure motives.

Just to be clear, this isn’t me getting out my tiny violin and serenading the poor oppressed genre; as mentioned before, I think that’s a counterproductive thing, an entrenchment in one’s own cult of ghettoised victimhood. Nor am I raging at an agent for not understanding what science fiction is, or rather what it can be. But the query response above highlights the very arbitrariness of the distinction between sf and ‘proper’ fiction: in fact, it’s a note for note replaying of the classic “it’s too good to be science fiction!” riff.

So why mention it at all? Because it makes plain that the problem is with the label, not the product. Look at the commenters saying “ooh, I don’t like sc-ifi, but I think I’d love this!” Well, y’know, maybe you would like sci-fi if you read some of it. But you’re not going to do that when it comes with a label that says “sci-fi”. Green eggs and ham, innit?

I’m increasingly starting to think that advocating for science fiction (or even genre in general) is a failed strategy. If you want to conquer that prejudice, you need to start doing it with one book at a time. If labelling your work science fiction will exclude it from a certain venue, then don’t label it; submit it without its convention badge and Beeblebear, and see what happens. Give them a chance to bounce or buy it on its own merits, rather than the connotations of a label that even we fans can’t agree on a definition for.

And then, once they’ve published it, tell all the journalists about how it’s actually a science fiction novel. You’ve got to get inside the building before you set the bomb off, you see… 😉

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One Response to “How others see us (literary agent edition)”

  1. C.A. Arroyo says:

    Great Post! I think the problem with Hollywood are the “gatekeepers”… They have to say “no” to almost everything because they don’t want to make a mistake that gets them fired. So “no” is the standard there, not because they might not like something, but because their job is on the line on every single submission. I think spec writers (and screenwriters), should consider developing their material on their own, for the first project, creating a “marketing platform” for their other projects. An example would be to create a comic book version of a screenplay and self publishing it. Or creating a great self published novel – ebook… then get an audience for that material.

    What this does is creates leverage for you when you submit this material or others to Hollywood… It’s harder for them to say no if you have 10,000 downloads, 500 positive reviews, 5,000 “likes” on facebook, positive blog mentions, etc. You get the picture. You take all this positive data and turn it into a “press kit” and send it along with your query.

    My rant is a bit off topic (Paul’s talking about genres), but I think this will help the starving spec writer.