Tips from literary agents on speculative fiction
Writers can tell you what makes solid speculative fiction on a craft level. What do agents say? As you’ll note below, they’re likely to stress some of the same things: strong worldbuilding, solid fictional craft, and freshness or originality. With the fierce competition you’ll face in publishing, achieving these is most likely a must if you want agent representation.
The encouraging news for speculative fiction writers is that the market for this kind of fiction is very good right now, says Laurie McLean, partner at Fuse Literary. “Speculative fiction is experiencing a popularity spike, so publishers from the Big Five on down to small and regional presses are looking for it. I don’t know how long that trend will last, but if you’ve got something ready to go, start querying.” She also urges writers of short stories and novellas to submit their work to the numerous “online zines, magazines, and anthologies that are looking for excellent shorter work” in speculative fiction.
Before drafting a speculative novel, says McLean, you should first do adequate research in order to do solid worldbuilding and to develop strong character background. Do this, she states, “before you write the first sentence.” Why? “Only when you know everything about your magic system and its rules or advanced scientific habitats and physics can you write a story that holds together.”
If you’re into YA dystopian fiction, McLean suggests taking “something wrong with today’s society (there’s a lot to choose from), and expand that out to the future. It will soon become dystopian, trust me.”
Originality is vitally important, says Connor Goldsmith, also from Fuse Literary. Among other fictional areas he represents, he seeks both science fiction and fantasy. “In today’s market, new speculative fiction has to stand out as fresh,” he notes. While in query letters, writers should mention a few comparable titles to note how their book is similar to others, don’t be merely imitative, says Goldsmith: “It’s not enough to say that your book is like Harry Potter or A Song of Ice and Fire. Those are juggernauts of the genre!” Your novel must be distinctive: “What matters is finding an idea that speaks to you and feels different from what you’ve seen before.”
If you don’t have a book project ready yet, Goldsmith recommends beginning with small SF/F magazines. “There are so many great venues out there, and it’s a good way to build buzz as a new author in the space.”
Martin Literary Management
Britt Siess, of Martin Literary Management, represents science fiction, fantasy, and horror. As to the term “speculative fiction,” she finds this term rather “tricky.” In fact, she’s careful about using it: “If you aren’t classifying your story as SF or fantasy, why?”
She advocates using the term only “if it really applies.” For instance, she says, “Sometimes, there’s crossover. A book might have SF elements, but the questions the story is asking are more speculative in nature. If that’s the case, note it.”
The bottom line for her: “I find, as with any book, it helps to know what a speculative story is trying to explore. For example, are you taking something you see happening in today’s society and imagining the world that that might lead to? Then find publishers who’ve previously published works that are getting at that same question or have shown interest in that topic,” she says.
In terms of craft, solid worldbuilding is extremely important to Siess, but good worldbuilding alone is not enough, she says. It must be “immersive,” or integral to the whole story. For her, good speculative fiction requires “a good balance between worldbuilding and the plot. Readers should feel like they’re in an entirely new world, but they shouldn’t be confused.”
Which books don’t make it? For Siess, it’s those that lack clear “rules” governing the whole: “I see a lot of speculative fiction that jumps in too fast and leaves me wondering what the rules of this particular world are.” As far as that goes, she says, your reader should work a little, but not too much: “A little guessing helps build anticipation, but too much means a reader can’t connect with the story.”
One big no-no for Siess: “Avoid 10 pages of exposition!” Instead, she says, you should “weave worldbuilding into the narration.”
The Seymour Agency
According to Julie Gwinn of the Seymour Agency, which represents a broad spectrum of fictional genres, if you’re submitting science fiction, you “need to make sure there is plausibility to the science. You can ask readers to suspend their belief as long as it isn’t too out there, too implausible.” If it is, she says, “you run the risk of alienating (pun intended) your reader.”
Yet while scientific plausibility is essential to good Sci Fi, Gwinn urges writers not to ignore the essentials of all good fiction writing, namely “strong characters, conflict between characters, and a resolution.” Much of the speculative fiction she receives emphasizes “worldbuilding, gadgets, technology, weapons, or transportation” – but at the expense of “the basic elements of novel writing, like compelling dialogue and character and plot development that move the story along.”
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Once you’ve covered the genre basics, as well as the basics of good fiction writing, you’re ready to submit, says Gwinn, but be sure to find the right audience for your work. She offers the following insights on marketing your finished novel: “There is a spectrum, and readers of speculative fiction are very educated and know if they like high fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction, shape-shifters, etc., so make sure you do your research first, label your project correctly based on the subgenre it fits into, and find Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram groups to join where the discussion is about books, movies, graphic novels, comic books, etc., within those genres.”
Do be sure to develop that strong presence on social media, she urges: “If you connect with fans while on the journey to publication, you’ll have a fan base ready when your book comes out.”
Put in the work
Before you try your hand at speculative fiction, read widely in the genres covered by this umbrella term. Read both adult and YA speculative fiction. Do adequate research to meet the demands of the genre you’ve chosen. When you’re ready to submit, decide on a possible market for your work, whether commercial or small press. But don’t submit until you have a stellar work of speculative fiction.
Jack Smith is the author of four novels, three books of nonfiction, and numerous reviews, articles, and interviews. His collection of articles on fiction writing, Inventing the World, was recently published by Serving House Books.