A Monday with Amanda: How to Break into Christian Speculative Fiction
Amanda Luedeke, here. I don’t write too often on topics and issues that pertain to a particular genre or writer group. When you handle both Christian and general market books, you try to stay away from specifics. It’s what keeps everyone happy and coming back for more. But, since it’s Monday and since I have the microphone, I’d like to talk a bit about Christian speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, horror). I did this some weeks ago when the big sale of Marcher Lord Press hit the blogosphere, and I’d like to follow that up with something chock-full of the practicality that I’m known and loved/hated for.
Writing and publishing Christian speculative fiction is hard.
I could probably end the post there. But knowing this writer demographic quite well, I understand that it is full of fanboys and fangirls who suffer from addictive personalities and an ability to brush off that which is “hard” and escape into their worlds of fantasy. For some, this his how they got through high school (specifically gym class, am I right?), so “hard” means nothing. “Hard” is simply part of life.
So let me paint “hard” into a picture for you…and then let me offer some hope.
There are only a handful of publishers who will truly consider a speculative fiction manuscript. Sure, I could get a spec fic project in front of maybe ten houses, but there are roughly four that would take it seriously. And of those four, only two are actively acquiring in the genre. (Meaning the other two only acquire when they think they have room…and 99% of the time they only have room for fantasy).
Of those two active houses, one acquires primarily teen- or children-aged fiction.
The other does primarily adult fiction.
So that leaves most authors with one house to go to. One, measly house.
There are a few others that I’m sure I’m missing. Small, indie houses that for one reason or another haven’t quite made it onto my radar due to maybe a quality factor or a newness factor. So if you want to go super indie, then you maybe have a few more options. But that doesn’t leave you with much.
And yet …
Speculative fiction does get published. I think of Patrick Carr, CS Lakin, Ted Dekker, Tosca Lee, Robert Liparulo, James Rubart, CE Laureano, Jill Williamson, Mike Dellosso, Mike Duran, Erin Healy, Stephen Lawhead. These are only a few names of current authors with books in the Christian spec fiction adult market. The kids market has a whole other list of names.
So how do they do it?
BEHIND THE DEAL
Like I said above, there are houses who dabble in spec fiction. They won’t come out and say it, because contrary to popular opinion, publishing professionals don’t enjoy turning people down and dashing dreams. So, to protect authors and to protect themselves, editors on the hunt for spec fiction don’t generally broadcast the message. They will tell select agents and they may mention it to a few authors they meet at conferences. But that’s it. They try to keep the floodgates sealed as tightly as they were before.
It follows, then, that there are some simple rules to getting in on this secret path to publishing success. Take heed, my friends…this is the good stuff:
1. WRITE SOMETHING ORIGINAL. Before you can get a contract you need a great manuscript. Agents and spec editors can go on and on about how tired we are of seeing the same old stories in Christian speculative fiction. Here’s what I’m so very tired of seeing:
- Characters on the hunt for an ancient text
- A samey-same “chosen one” story in which one character is to be a sort of savior to their world; and also stories in which characters are fulfilling prophecies. These stories can work, but they can easily start to sound the same.
- Allegories about spiritual journeys
- Worlds that mirror what you see from Tolkein – or worlds that are unimaginative and unoriginal
- “The next” Lewis or Tolkein or Peretti project
- Openings in which villages (or families or people groups) are destroyed and one child or person remains
2. NETWORK LIKE CRAZY. Relative to the rest of publishing, which operates much like a small town, Christian spec fiction operates like a family within that town. Everyone knows everyone else, and so long as you don’t come across as a big shot or know-it-all, it’s a welcoming group. The general mentality is that “we’re all in this together” and so many authors and writers in the genre are helpful and warm. It’s easy (and smart), then, to tap into this. Get involved in online blogs and boards. Start meeting others and see about joining crit groups. It’s only going to help in the end when you need a recommendation, an endorsement, or some tips.
3. ATTEND CONFERENCES. Once you’ve polished your very original and exciting manuscript, and once you’ve cultivated a support system, then it’s time to see what the professionals have to say. Emailed or mailed queries will get you nowhere…remember, there are only a handful of slots! Publishing professionals are much more likely to get excited about authors that we’ve met face to face. In fact, it’s how most of us fill our lists. So getting some facetime with Christian spec fiction professionals is the final piece to this particular puzzle.
ACFW is a good option, although I know that I’m rarely in a spec fiction mood when I attend it. I’m usually thinking more about romance or YA, and I know most of the publishers who only dabble in spec fiction aren’t even letting the genre cross their minds while at conference.
This is why Realm Makers is really a great opportunity. Realm Makers is a relatively new Christian Speculative Fiction conference. It’s drawing some really strong and well-known faculty, and it’s a great way to get your foot in the door with others in the genre.
Right now, they have a cool giveaway going on. Check it out!
That’s it for now…the non-scientific and yet so essential list of rules to breaking in to Christian speculative fiction. What are your thoughts on the genre? I’d love to hear them!
This is a greatly informative post, Amanda. Thank you so much for writing it! By the end of this year I hope to be querying and what-not, so I’m very thankful for posts such as this. 🙂
Good advice, Amanda. Thank you ! 🙂
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Good, practical analysis of the situation for speculative fiction writers. I hope the Christian market will continue to grow to accept these genres and we’ll start to see the popularity we’re already seeing in the secular market.
Thanks for the post, though I do have to disagree with you on the bit about dragons. The problem with dragons is that they’ve fallen into cliche’. I don’t see any of Piers Anthony’s six-legged steamers, Anne McCaffrey’s Pernese dragonriders or even a respectable steampunk dragon. Use your imaginations, people! ;]
Awesome advice as always, Amanda.
Sorry for the alliteration.
But I will say that Amanda’s advice is awesome. Sorry, I’m doing it again. This is pretty much the way I wound up getting published (and signing with Amanda to boot).
Thank you for this post. 🙂 I would love to attend Realm Makers one day—after I complete and polish my manuscript, of course 😛
My favorite conference experience thus far has been studying under author Bryan Davis at the FCWC conference. He always makes classes engaging and fresh, and teaches us how to touch hearts through writing our passion.
No need to have a polished manuscript before you go to any conference, in my opinion. There are so many things you can learn (like you saw with Bryan Davis’s class) to help you polish that work in progress. 🙂
True. But I would like to have more than…three chapters completed ^ ^’
We reject your reality and choose one of our own making. Seriously, spec writers are a peculiar lot. It’s almost like a cult. Like Rocky Horror fans. We know people walk on the other side of the street when they see us coming, but we don’t care. It’s just so much darned fun creating purple dragons that devour entire villages in a single chapter. I didn’t even know I was a spec writer until Lisa Jordan gave me the memo. Of course, spec fiction covers such a huge range, from anything ever so slightly futuristic to the aforementioned purple dragons to galaxies far far away. Most of us seem to be stuck somewhere between the extremes. Tough to market and sell, but the brainstorming sessions are legendary.
First, let me say I appreciate your honesty. It is refreshing to see someone in the business actually admitting that the CBA is not actively looking for Spec-fic. It seems like I read all kinds of things online that make it sound like we authors are all just imagining it, that if we just looked harder and wrote better, we’d be able to get into that niche.
And of course, I’m very happy to see the point toward Realm Makers, which imho, is going to be a huge driving force in the development of the Christian spec-fic genre. Especially because all those small presses you mention are going to be represented there! And I think that it won’t be long before they are totally on your radar, because they are publishing the kinds of stories you seem to be saying should be published–unique, original story worlds that are not trying to be the next Dekker or Lewis.
That said, I find it enlightening that many of the things on the “we don’t want to see this” list are actually tropes because they sell. Put a dragon in the story and I’m all over that baby :). And quests and prophecies, too. Sure, you have to be careful and not make your book sound exactly like 1,000 that are already out there. But new twists on old tropes can really work.
Unfortunately, I think sometimes there’s a difference between what we as individual readers like to read and what will catch the eyes of agents/editors. Readers turn to “safe” genres because we know we like them, but agents/editors (while always looking at marketing trends) sometimes get exasperated reading carbon copies (in various stages of quality) all day long. So, it’s interesting that we as authors have to keep one ear on what the industry is searching for, and one on the ground.
On another note, I think the conference advice is the best to give any new spec fic author. And from it naturally (with some more than others) comes the networking. Thanks for putting so much great info in one place, Amanda. Sometimes, we lose sight of the big picture when we spend all our time in our stories 🙂
I agree that there is a difference, for sure. And I can totally understand getting tired of reading the same-old, same-old submissions. Not saying that isn’t happening at all. But there is a lot of original stuff out there, and the irony to me is that much of it gets passed over because it’s not that same, comfortable stuff readers want. Publishing is an enigma :P.
Also, as a reader of a LOT of YA spec-fic in the secular market, I’ve noticed that the trend for “new and different” can be taken too far. In the search for massively original, stuff ends up being weird for weird’s sake. A competition to see which author can fit the most different genres into one book, or the most number of hot-button topics into a story.
If you’re talking about how spec fiction gets passed over for romance novels, you’re right. But I wholeheartedly disagree that “common” and “safe” spec fiction is getting chosen over fresh and original. I’d say the desire is simply to find projects that are well done and that also stand out! Original is best, and it’s what I’m on the lookout for.
Actually, I kind of mean both. Definitely SF gets passed over for romance and such, but I also think the really inventive SF is found in small presses because the large presses know the limits of what kind of SF they can market. I’m not saying this to dis large presses, and I don’t know what you personally are looking for, Miss Luedeke, so maybe you are on the search for really original. And maybe the boundaries are stretching a bit more recently.
But let me challenge you to read some books by the small presses that are “not on your radar” right now and compare it to what is being submitted to and published by CBA publishers who actually will tackle spec-fic. You know of Marcher Lord Press of course, but there is also Splashdown Books, Diminished Media Group, and Written World Communications. And some self-pubbed authors who have really focused on craft and created some killer story worlds.
I think that many writers who put out the kind of originality you may be looking for are bypassing even submitting to CBA agents and presses (and either self-pubbing or going small press) because they believe they have no chance of publication with a large CBA house based on the type of fiction they see coming out of those houses.
Granted…there are guidelines and lots of no-nos in CBA publishing that also lead authors to bypass it, but that is another topic :).
Again, I really appreciate your time to write about this topic, your plug for Realm Makers, and your honesty about the limits of CBA spec-fic. I would love agents like yourself to find some really awesome and original Christian SF and get it out there :).
Yes, the guidelines…another topic. So I guess with the guidelines in mind (because obviously a house couldn’t publish anything, whether original or not, that doesn’t meet its guidelines), what are some small-press books that you feel wouldn’t have a chance at the bigger houses due to their super original/inventive stories? I’m curious for recommendations.
I know that personally, I’ve never gotten a response from a house along the lines of “this is too much for us.” Usually if the writing is there, I’ve been able to get excitement for it regardless of whether it actually lands at that house or not. There is, after all, a sales component and a market component. But I’ve never found “too inventive” to be a reason for rejection. So that’s why I’m quite curious to know what you have in mind when you talk about this topic. Maybe I’m missing something. Or maybe there isn’t an issue of originality…maybe it’s all chalked up to timing and connections and talent. I’d like to find out the answer.
You may be right–it could be timing and connections and talent, and there may be content issues as well.
But off the top of my head, two titles stick out to me for original concepts:
Alpha Redemption by PA Baines (sci-fi)
The Dukes Handmaid by Caprice Hokstad (fantasy)
Both are published by Splashdown Books. Alpha is overtly Christian, and the story is told in an unconventional way. TDH is allegorical, and has a very unique story world and societal structure.
I’ve read both and find the writing to be top-notch. But I would be very surprised to find a CBA publisher willing to take on either.
I’ll check those out, Kat. Have you read Jill Williamson’s Safe Lands series? To me, that’s an example of publishers being open to “different” ideas. Yes, it follows the dystopian trend, but I think it still is quite different from what you see on CBA store shelve.
I haven’t read the series.
Great post, Amanda. I appreciate your list of what you’re tired of seeing, although I have to admit, I have a “chosen one” in my story. Will have to think about that.
Thanks for this practical post, Amanda! I think it will be very helpful for folks who are just getting ready to venture out with that first manuscript. As tight as the niche is, I think the market has proven there is a place for stories that really shine. I appreciate you joining us on the voyage.