Genre Spotlight: Literary Agents Answer Burning Questions About Science Fiction Trends Today

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We asked agents from our annual roundup to weigh in on some of the most popular genres they represent—talking trends, common weaknesses, series potential and more. Here’s how to stand out in the science fiction genre.

Compiled by Cris Freese

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How has the science-fiction genre evolved in recent years?

Annie Hwang, Folio Literary Management: Both writers and readers are becoming much more sophisticated—writers in terms of concept and tone, and readers in terms of their understanding of what the genre entails. As a result, there exists this cycle in which writers are challenging readers’ preconceived notions of what “science fiction” is and readers are in turn expecting more from writers and books. The genre itself has come to feel a lot more expansive and inclusive for readers and writers of all types, which is a great thing. 

Quressa Robinson, Nelson Literary Agency: Crossover/mainstream appeal has increased with this genre, [with breakout titles such as] The Expanse by James S.A. Corey and The Martian by Andy Weir. [Books such as] The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu and Ken Liu and Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie have also shown how authors can push boundaries—and that science fiction can feel fresh even when dealing with common/standard themes.

Justin Wells, Corvisiero Literary Agency: It’s becoming more accessible—I’ve heard of many writers writing science fiction when they originally thought they would never be interested in it. As science and our own curiosity continue to develop, we will always have something new and interesting to feature in science fiction. This is part of what makes the genre so much fun.

What about a submission inspires confidence that you’ll be able to find the work a home with a publisher?

Wells: It needs to be well-edited, it needs to fit what I am currently looking for, and it needs to be interesting. Aside from that, I need to work with my knowledge of what editors are looking for. If I find something I want to represent, it is important that I go into it having a good idea as to which editors I will want to pitch the manuscript to.

Hwang: The thing I love about science fiction is that it enables a dialogue on the role of technology within society, so it’s especially promising when I see that a writer both understands and can navigate that conversation well. Beyond that, it really comes down to three things for me: 1) that the concept feels fresh, timely and accessible, 2) that the writer knows their intended audience well and 3) that the writer has a deep understanding of why and how their project fits into the current conversation within the genre itself.

What common weaknesses do you see in submissions?

Robinson: Submissions that feel dated—[like] the science-fiction stories that were published a decade ago. Or it is clear that the author has never read science fiction and is trying to jump on a perceived trend.

Hwang: Common weaknesses I see are usually the result of focusing too much on the world-building and failing to get me to connect with the characters inhabiting this world or to properly convey what’s really at stake for them. This is not to say that world-building is not important, but rather that a lack of emphasis on convincing characters can really pull me out of a perfectly crafted world.

Wells: There is often not enough of a difference with how certain ideas are used. This leads to many submissions sounding similar, and it makes it difficult to find something that really stands out.

What do you want to see more of in your inbox?

Hwang: Literary sci-fi and underrepresented voices. Being the child of immigrant parents, I am always on the lookout for experiences that grapple with questions of identity and a sense of belonging—or not belonging.

Robinson: I would really love a great space opera. I’m a huge fan of “Firefly”and Serenity. A space Western would be cool, too. And if they featured an all-female crew or female leads, even better!

Wells: I would really like to see submissions that also have a lot of humor, and ideas that take on more of the “possible” versus the “impossible” in the world of science.

How specific should writers be in attempting to identify their subgenre in queries?

Robinson: It’s important for me to believe you know the market; this means you should have a clear understanding of what subgenre your book is. If you are a bit of a genre bender, you should be able to explain that and what subgenres your book overlaps. Much of this will also be clear in a writer’s [stated comparative titles].

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