Turning the Page: From Sci-Fi to Fantasy

I have an admission to make: This was not my original idea for my last blog of the year. Recent events, however, have put my situation as an author in a whole new light, almost certainly setting the tone and focus for my writing in 2023 and beyond. As you read on, I think you’ll see why.

Science fiction has long been my “home” genre, the one in which I feel like I have something to say. This is especially true of military sci-fi. I love stories that feature new classes of starship, starfighters engaged with other starfighters in deadly dogfights in space, dropships carrying determined Marines in power armor into battle, pretty much all the tropes of the genre. Heinlein was a big influence on me early on, and my first published novel, The Backwards Mask, was steeped in all of that.

Unfortunately, the market for military sci-fi right now is pretty tough, especially for authors who do not already have an established readership. I had several conversations with literary agents, editors, and industry professionals recently about why this is.

I don’t pretend to know all of the internal workings of the industry, but from what I gather it’s like this: The pandemic really messed up the supply chain, including production of the book-weight paper that publishers use to print (you guessed it) books. Since there will be fewer books printed, publishers want to go with the books that they know will be a sure thing. They are less inclined to take chances when they have fewer resources to go around. The supply chain has improved somewhat since then, but the inertia of the industry still remains.

This has made midlist genres like science fiction instantly harder to break into since publishers aren’t putting as much resources towards them. The midlist genres are those that have an established readership, but don’t have the broad commercial appeal of, say, a mystery or romance novel. You are unlikely to get an international bestseller of the scope of The DaVinci Code or The Bridges of Madison County out of science fiction.

After much soul-searching, I have come to the conclusion that I need to put science fiction down for the foreseeable future. I’m still trying to break into the industry, and it just doesn’t look like my path forward for traditional publishing has science fiction in it. At least for now. This is not to say that there isn’t a great demand for science fiction from book readers — there certainly is — but if publishers aren’t terribly interested in military sci-fi at the moment, agents won’t be either. Books have to have somewhere to go.

That means that the sci-fi series I’ve been developing, that already has two finished novels to its name,  one that I’ve worked on for many years, needs to be shelved, possibly indefinitely. It’s hard to say what publishers may want six months, a year, or five years down the line, but it’s been made pretty clear to me what they don’t want right now. So, as much as it breaks my heart, I’m leaving science fiction behind. I hope to return to it one day, I honestly do.

Does this mean I’m going to stop writing? No, not at all. It just means that I need to change my angle of approach. I’ve decided to hang up my power armor and gauss rifle in favor of a well-worn travelling cloak (that may at one time have been green) and strap on my storied, ancestral sword. That’s right, I’m switching over to fantasy as my main genre.

So, why do I think fantasy might work if sci-fi can’t or won’t?

Well, I used to see the two genres as close family, walking essentially hand in hand. They are usually found in bookstores together. Depending on the store, they might even be lumped together into one section. We often see “SF/F” as a signifier for the two genres in concert. More and more, though, there are literary agents who represent fantasy but not science fiction. A recent convention I attended had only about three agents present who would consider sci-fi. For fantasy?  Double that or more. Fantasy and sci-fi are no longer equals. Fantasy dropped a haste spell and raced ahead, leaving sci-fi behind in its wake.

Whether you attribute it to the long-standing popularity of Harry Potter, the Game of Thrones show on HBO, or immensely popular authors like Brandon Sanderson, people who wouldn’t have been readers of fantasy ten or twelve years ago are reading it now. Fantasy is the closest thing to mainstream that it has ever been, and publishers are looking for more.

Truth be told, I avoided the fantasy genre for the longest time. I didn’t feel like I had much to say that hadn’t already been said by much better authors than myself. Also, Tolkien’s effect on the genre can’t really be overstated, like the moon’s pull on the tides. It’s exceedingly difficult not to be influenced by his work in some way or another, if you trace it back far enough.

Conversely, it’s almost too easy to find yourself walking along some of the paths that he first blazed. I didn’t want to be just another author rearranging the furniture in his house and trying to file off the serial numbers, nor did I want to chase the trend of grimdark fantasy when it became popular in recent years. So, what’s an author to do?

Little by little, one idea that I’d had in the back of my mind for a while fused with another. I started making connections in my head. New concepts and old designs began to temper each other. Not long after I had an outline and a map. Then I started writing what was essentially an experiment. I don’t want to give away the name, but the initials for that manuscript are “DMM.” I was happy with the result, and I found my voice in the genre, opening the door for more.

When it came time to choose my next novel, I wrote another experimental manuscript, very different in tone and execution, but tangentially set in the same world, as well as on the same continent (though separated by vast distances and set in another age.) This one’s initials are “AOTO.” While the book is finished, and I believe it’s the best plotted and paced book I’ve written so far, it still needs a lot of polishing before it’s ready for the querying process. That’s on my to-do list for the near future.   

Both DMM and AOTO are each meant to be the first volumes in their respective series. Without spoiling anything, one story is a meditation on war, society, and coming to know yourself when everything else has been taken away. The other is about an outsider finding a place to belong and coming to understand why the cause he follows is the right one for him, while also discovering the strength to stand up for what he believes in, no matter the odds. I’ll leave you to decide which one is which.

I pitched these ideas to some industry professionals, and their feedback was that these two books might be able to land in the current publishing environment where my sci-fi series couldn’t. So, starting next year, both DMM and AOTO will be entering the query trenches, likely in that order. Let us hope that the light of Paladine, Crom, UL, Primus and/or Eru Illúvatar can shine down upon them as they seek to find their way into the light of day. It won’t be easy. Then again, nothing worth doing ever is.

So, that’s where I am at the moment. The New Year will see me switching gears and continuing to push forward. I hope that you will continue to join me on this journey, albeit along a path I had not intended.

I wish you and your families a happy and safe holiday season! I will be back on Friday, January 6 with the State of the Sector Address. We’ll talk about what worked, and what didn’t, for 2022 and set out our goals and aspirations for 2023. I hope that you will join me for this.   

Until we meet again.

Si vales, valeo.

-MC


2 responses to “Turning the Page: From Sci-Fi to Fantasy

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