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Is "sci fi" a poisonous label?

Posted: April 5th, 2011, 4:27 pm
by JohnDurvin
I've been submitting to agents for a while now, and have yet to get anything back but a form reply, and I think I know a related problem: in real life, people ask what kind of books I write, and if I say I've written a sci-fi novel, they all roll their eyes with a patronizing little smile and say something like, "oh! That must be fun." I've been careful to only submit to agents that say they take sci-fi, but it occurs to me that maybe the genre itself is poison.

I swear it's not a sci-fi in the common form; it bears no resemblance to Star Trek, Star Wars, or any of those awful alien-monster-survival-horror movies. (I admit some similarities to Firefly, but it wasn't on purpose; it's more of a Christopher Moore sort of book, with some Neil Gaiman aspects--a divorced bureaucrat is roped into helping a lunatic entrepreneur dodge his ex-wife and scam some aliens.) I know there's thousands of Douglas Adams fans out there that this book would be great for, but I'm having trouble finding them.

So here's my question: what do I do about it? A query letter emphasizing how unusual an example of the genre my book is hasn't done it; do I try to rephrase it as something else?

Re: Is "sci fi" a poisonous label?

Posted: April 5th, 2011, 4:43 pm
by dios4vida
I've encountered the same thing as a fantasy writer. People look at you like you're either mildly insane or just too weird to write something "normal". I seriously doubt the same thing applies to agents, though. If they rep sci-fi then they should be interested in the genre as a whole. I think the problem with our submissions (since I've run into the exact same scenario) is that there are a lot of sci-fi and fantasy writers out there - ever since the new Star Wars and Lord of the Rings movies I think it's caused a bit of a resurgence in the genres. It's a hard one to break into in the first place! We're going up against a lot of people where not only our plots and writing mechanics are evaluated, but our imaginations as well. It's rough.

I'd try putting your query up on the critique forum. Everyone sticks to Nathan's sandwich rule (positive, extremely helpful critique, positive) and some more opinions could be exactly what you need to show off the creativity of your novel. If you do post it up there, let me know and I'll make sure to throw in my two cents!

Re: Is "sci fi" a poisonous label?

Posted: April 5th, 2011, 5:03 pm
by Mike R
I've been told that publishers, booksellers and even agents want to know where the book will be shelved. Emphasizing the unsci-finess of your creation might be counterproductive. If it's got aliens, it's sci-fi. Embrace that.

I wrote my first book, just started writing on a whim and in chapter two a wyvern showed up. I continued writing and the wyverns became integral to the story but, when people asked, I would explain around the fantasy angle. "It's really a story about... with fantasy elements." I didn't want to admit that I was a fantasy author.

Finally one of my critique partners told me, "It's got dragons so it's fantasy. There is nothing wrong with fantasy, lots of people love fantasy." I came to accept that and now, when people ask what I write, I say, "I write kick-ass fantasy. You got a problem with that?"

Accept that you write sci-fi. Tell people the book is sci-fi. Give the alien element enough credit. Be enthusiastic about your kick-ass sci-fi ideas.

If you seem apologetic about the sci-fi part, sci-fi agents and editors may not want to read it. After all, they probably like sci-fi.

Good luck, Mike

Re: Is "sci fi" a poisonous label?

Posted: April 6th, 2011, 9:29 am
by Guardian
It's one of the signs of industry cartelling and forced marketing restrictions. Novel industry isn't the first where this is appearing regarding sci-fi (Or even fantasy). Some idiot hate sci-fi and they start to spread and predict sci-fi won't sell. The result, some other idiot is rather play for safety and they start to ignore sci-fi and spread this lie to others. Result, sci-fi goes out of the business, just as it's been "predicted", while in the reality just some loud idiot in the business hate sci-fi, while readers love sci-fi (I'm also an avid sci-fi fan.). The reality is, sci-fi is loved by the readers as every other genre. The problem is; some so called "professionals" are restricting the industry and saying... no one is interested in sci-fi. Same goes for fantasy.

Now, no writer should care what agents and editors want to read as they're not our primary audience, not even our secondary. Yet, these guys start to believe the book industry is all around them and we should write to them, like if they would be our primary audience. And this is wrong. And now, these guys are asking in the recent weeks; why everyone is turning to self publishing... well, this is one of the primary reasons.

Re: Is "sci fi" a poisonous label?

Posted: April 6th, 2011, 6:17 pm
by maybegenius
If you're sending your query out pretty widely (20+ agents) and getting zero bites, not even for a partial, the issue may be with your query, not your genre. Generally speaking, if the query is good, about one in ten will bite, even if they eventually pass on the work itself. No bites means it's time to reevaluate. I'll echo dios4vida and recommend posting your query for critique in the appropriate section -- there are some very helpful members in these parts that can help you find your weak spots :)

I agree that if an agent says they represent SF, then they represent SF. Straddling the genre line usually hurts you more than helps you. It's a common pitfall of querying authors to say, "Well, it's sort of science fiction, but it also has elements of humor and fantasy and literary." Try to avoid doing that at all costs. Pick your one genre and stick to your guns. Also avoid comparing your work to literary classics of the genre and/or someone hugely popular, like Douglas Adams. If you're going to compare, go with more contemporary works that sold well but weren't MEGA BOMBSHELL BESTSELLERS. Doing so shows that you're up to speed on the current (not past) climate of your genre and that you're not the sort of writer who thinks their book is the Next Big Thing.

If you're really feeling awkward about using the term "science fiction," you CAN go with the less-stigmatized "speculative fiction." However, it's a very broad term, and if your work is more space travel/aliens/other worlds-based, it'd be better just to stick with SF. Science fiction *is* still selling and in some cases doing well, so it's not a dead genre.

Re: Is "sci fi" a poisonous label?

Posted: April 7th, 2011, 1:19 am
by wilderness
JohnDurvin wrote: So here's my question: what do I do about it? A query letter emphasizing how unusual an example of the genre my book is hasn't done it; do I try to rephrase it as something else?
No, if you're targeting the correct agents (agents who handle sci-fi) then you shouldn't need to do that. A literary agent is hardly the same as your friends rolling their eyes. Anyone writing genre fiction gets the same. Someone in the biz will know that Star Trek is not all that sci-fi encompasses, that there is plenty of other stuff out there. You'd be wasting precious space in a query to tell them something they already know. Some comparisons with similar authors is as far as I would go, but even that is tricky. Just intrigue 'em with your story, and write it well! :)

Re: Is "sci fi" a poisonous label?

Posted: April 8th, 2011, 11:33 am
by stephsco
I just wanted to chime in that this is all really good advice! It seems like sci-fi is having a resurgence in movies and TV; there are a lot of sci-fi and fantasy type shows in development for next fall if you follow that type of thing. I think query critique is probably going to be very helpful for the original commenter here. Good luck!

Re: Is "sci fi" a poisonous label?

Posted: April 8th, 2011, 1:28 pm
by D. G. Hudson
I disagree with the idea that sci-fi is a bad label. Many readers like myself are still looking for those successors to the great science fiction writers Asimov and Frank Herbert, just to name my favorites. If you see the covers on some of the old SCI-FI novels, they are hilarious, but the stories inside are in some cases still valid. Those Foundation novels and Herbert's Dune novels spawned an interest in alternate universes which will exist as long as we're reaching out into space. It's the human need to see if others exist out there. I'm having a hard time finding Science Fiction that I want to read since I've plowed through the old greats. I read Neil Gaiman's story - 'Neverwhere' - while travelling in Paris and left it in the apartment for the next tenant (yeah it was paperback). There are many variations on sci-fi themes and this one was an enjoyable read.

I'd say keep at it. Tenacity is a good trait. I like writing stories which are more along the lines of hard science fiction, with basis on research to back up my creative thinking. NASA is still operational and that to me means there will still be those kids and adults who like to read about 'what could be'. That's the lure of science fiction for me - the world building, & characters who must exist in this newly created universe, or world.

I wonder how many science fiction writers follow this blog?

Perhaps Nathan will ask us what we write (genre, literary, non-fiction) on a Tell Me Wednesday one of these days. I would never hesitate to admit it. You need an open mind to embrace science fiction (no different than embracing paranormal which suits some readers).

Whether YA or Adult science fiction -- I wouldn't change what you want to write unless you don't enjoy it anymore. Good Luck with your future querying.

Re: Is "sci fi" a poisonous label?

Posted: April 8th, 2011, 7:45 pm
by DrAmyR
If you want to avoid calling your work "sci fi", some soft SF might aptly be called "science thriller". Granted, if your book is set on planet Alpha Centauri in the year 2320, you can't get away with this. But arguably books like Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, The Deus Machine by Pierre Ouellette, and the new book Spiral by Paul McEuen are science fiction-y novels better described as science thrillers.

Re: Is "sci fi" a poisonous label?

Posted: April 9th, 2011, 5:08 pm
by Polenth
Some science fiction fans have a thing about calling it sci fi. So you're best off calling it science fiction in the query, as you don't know if the agent will be one of those. If they represent you, then you can point and laugh in a professional manner if they explode at the term sci fi. But no need to push the detonation button at the query stage.

That said, you're not going to be rejected for using sci fi over science fiction. It sounds like your query may have other issues.

Re: Is "sci fi" a poisonous label?

Posted: April 9th, 2011, 10:04 pm
by wordranger
AAAAAAA! Don't say It's poisonous! This is what I write!

You know what? I don't even know why I write this. It's just always what flies out of my fingers.

I think it's the draw of creating a completely new world and just going with it.

I think there is still a market for it out there. I think you just need to make the agent realize yours in not "same old, same old".

I agree with the others. Give your query a spin in the forums. It may be your query, not the work itself. Also, maybe drop your first page in the forums as well and let everyone take a look at it. There may just be someting silly in there that you haven't noticed.

Re: Is "sci fi" a poisonous label?

Posted: April 10th, 2011, 1:47 am
by CabSav
More agents seem to be saying they accept science fiction, and more sci-fi books are appearing in bookshops. I'd say there's a resurgence of the genre, if anything. I also agree with Wilderness, anyone writing genre fiction gets the same.

I would recommend that you don't say in your query how unusual an example of the genre it is. Star Trek, Star Wars and alien-monster-survival-horror movies are a very small part of the full spectrum of science fiction and most good sci-fi agents really know their genre. If the agent thinks your story is unique you can be sure they'll tell the publishers that. You just concentrate on showing what a great book it is.

Re: Is "sci fi" a poisonous label?

Posted: April 13th, 2011, 7:22 pm
by JohnDurvin
I thought as much! It was just that friends, family, co-workers, and dental hygienists had all reacted badly when I used the term, so I was worried everybody else would too. Turns out my problem is more that my query letter was about twenty times longer than it needed to be, and I somehow hadn't noticed but my first few pages are really dull. So...yeah.

Re: Is "sci fi" a poisonous label?

Posted: April 14th, 2011, 6:32 pm
by J. T. SHEA
Mike R., my YA trilogy has aliens and spaceships and is set on a colony planet. But its humans and their steamships and trains and airships and flying boats and biplanes and submarines and Art Deco skyscrapers are more important to the plot. So it's Steampunk, or more exactly, Dieselpunk, both of which are throwbacks to nineteenth and early twentieth century science fiction.

Scott Westerfeld's LEVIATHAN trilogy and Kenneth Oppel's AIRBORNE trilogy are the closest existing parallels to my trilogy, and both are set in alternative early twentieth century Earths, which is an old SF trope.

JohnDurvin, you might like to remind your dental hygienist that 300 million people braved the winter of 2009/2010 to spend two billion dollars to see a certain science fiction movie. Though I preferred the same director's steamship movie.

A giant ocean liner hits an iceberg in my trilogy too, after it's attacked by aliens. Little green aliens, not big blue ones. Which must sound very strange to anyone who hasn't read it, which is nearly everyone except me at the moment...

Re: Is "sci fi" a poisonous label?

Posted: April 14th, 2011, 7:38 pm
by Mike R
Sounds like sci-fi dieselpunk to me. You can put as many genre descriptors on things as you like, IMO.