Friday, April 17, 2009

The query conundrum

One of the first things you learn as a writer is that the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook is your bible. It lists agents and publishers, what they're looking for, how to contact them, and often who they represent as well. I have a suspicion agents and publishers hate the book for the easy access it gives all-and-sundry to add to their slush piles, but that's by the by.

So, as an author looking for representation, I dust off my copy, hope it's not too out of date, and go looking for anyone who represents the sort of thing I write. But, hold on! How do I classify what I write?

Cat Marsters is easy. Erotic romance. Erotic paranormal romance, to be more precise. But Cat doesn't really need representation. She already has somewhere to send her books.

Kate Johnson is difficult (if I had a penny for every school report that said the same!). She's published the Sophie books, which come under chick-lit/mystery. And she wants to publish romantic comedies, both with contemporary settings and paranormal ones.

Ah, but there's the rub. That one important word. 'Paranormal'. It's a slippery fish, hard to define, and although across the pond paranormal romance raises no eyebrows whatsoever, over here in the UK, it's as wacky and unpublishable as a history of toothpicks. Is that going to change? Could I be the one to change it? Well, maybe, but first I need a damn publisher. Enter the W&A Yearbook.

So, here's the thing. To a lot of agents, science fiction is anathema. The ones who represent romance don't represent SF, and vice versa. They're two totally different markets: romance is aimed at women where SF is (mostly) aimed at men. Whining that they do it differently in the States isn't much help. Neither is searching for an American agent, when what I'm writing is inherently British (yes, I know my publishers so far are American. But I have to tailor my writing differently. Sometimes, I'd rather write about people who drink tea and don't consider pants suitable attire for leaving the house in).

I've been reading a bit of science fiction and fantasy recently, the proper stuff that is, with nary a heaving bosom in sight. It bears absolutely no resemblance to anything I write. With a few notable exceptions, there's a huge lack of humour and romance in the UK fantasy market. If an agent represents fantasy, they're looking for the swords-and-wizards stuff. If they're looking for science fiction, a Star Trek bent is preferable. They don't want jokes and romance.

This leads to a second problem: how do I describe my writing? While it's romantic, that's not 100% the focus of the book. That usually leads to a 'women's fiction' tag. Women's fiction with paranormal elements? Bit of a mouthful. What about funny? Should I tell them I'm funny?

But what does 'paranormal' mean? Definitions range wildly from the very specific to the terribly vague. To a lot of people, futuristic and science fiction are two totally different things. High fantasy and science fiction might be considered very similar by some, and poles apart by others. Then there are the people who call anything with a mildly paranormal element sci-fi, regardless of whether it's set in modern London or Middle Earth. (My mother calls everything I do 'sci-fi' or if she's been reading Sherrilyn Kenyon, 'Dark-huntery'. The thing is that it's my urban paranormals she calls sci-fi, and my high fantasy she calls Dark-huntery. Which is upside-down, inside-out, and not at all surprising, considering my mother. Anyway.)

When I very first started querying agents and publishers with my fantasy works, I was told repeatedly that I didn't have the right 'voice' for it. My voice is decidedly chick-lit/romcom. In large part, so is my content. Which would lead me to query agents who represent romance and women's fiction. But according to my W&A Yearbook, very few of them will touch SF/F. For the same reason, I very much doubt the agents who represent SF/F would be interested in such unashamedly girlie books.

So my problem is this. When an agent says 'No SF/F, do they mean the traditional stuff, or is it a catch-all for anything paranormal? Is it a waste of time and money to query them--especially when they want three chapters, by mail? If I described my books as 'paranormal and contemporary women's fiction with humorous and romantic elements' would they have stopped reading by the third word?

I bet Shakespeare never had to put up with this.


  1. It's frustrating.

    I'd target women's fiction agents, because really that is what you're writing. The paranormal elements are secondary to the heroine's journey; they enhance what's a character-driven story.

    Maybe you want to avoid too many labels, and let the content of your pitch speak for itself?

  2. You know, I hate labels, but they always seem to be necessary. I've generally been trying to let the pitch speak for itself, as you said, but damn, it's hard trying to get that pitch to talk.

  3. Send out three hundred query letters, K8. Describe what you write and ask 'em if they'd like to see a partial. They can always ignore you.

  4. I'm having the same problem now I'm looking at UK agents as well as US. I've decided to just query anyone who doesn't specify they don't look at sci fi/fantasy and see what happens.

  5. Naomi, that's what I think I'm going to do. It's just very annoying wasting time and money by sending out queries or partials, and getting replies that they don't represent that kind of book. Grr...

  6. Right there with you. Ugh. Fantasy/SF in the UK seems very much to be a men's playground--and a grey, grim, gritty one at that. It seriously needs some nice mermaid romance.

  7. This is what always confuses me, Immi and Naomi: clearly there are plenty of us writing it, and judging by demand for US writers plenty of people are reading it, so why is there a gap when it comes to agents and editors representing it?

  8. Anonymous1:44 pm

    Can't you just suggest to Mills and Boon that they publish a 'paranormal' range and see what they say?