Thursday, April 23, 2015

When It Comes to Science Fiction: It’s All or Nothing

Warren Hammond

The year was 2001. I’d just finished my first novel, a hybrid of scien
ce fiction and detective noir, and I was in the early stages of seeking an agent to represent me. As a newbie author, I knew my chances of success were low, but I felt I’d written a pretty good book and, as they say, no matter how many rejections you tally, it only takes one yes.
What I didn’t know, however, was how my book fit into the greater publishing world. Taking inspiration from some of the greats like Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy, I’d really written a hardboiled crime novel. But instead of setting my story in 1930s or 1940s Los Angeles, I’d set it on a distant colony world in the far future. Great idea, right?
Unconventional though it was, the idea of a SF/noir hybrid wasn’t exactly unheard of either. The most notable success was probably the 1982 classic film Blade Runner. Lucky for me, an agent saw some potential in my work and decided to call me.
That was my first big break. I was on the phone with a real live New York literary agent! Sadly, though, he’d called to tell me why he was not going to represent me. The book had issues. One, it was too long. Two, it had too much talk and not enough action. Three, it wasn’t science fictional enough!
The third one surprised me. I thought I’d done a nice job of walking the tightrope between crime novel and science-fiction novel. But as he explained, even if a novel is only one-percent science fiction, it’s science fiction. Mystery publishers weren’t going to touch it. If we were going to sell it, it would have to be a science-fiction publisher, and the book would be shelved in the science-fiction section of book stores.
He liked my characters, he liked my plot (most of it anyway), and he liked the hyper-noir world I’d built, but if I wanted to get this book published, I’d have to satisfy the expectations of the science-fiction audience. Mostly male. Mostly young. And mostly geeky. To sell it I’d need, and I quote, “More lasers, phasers, or shmasers.”
So with my inner geek fully engaged, I rewrote. And when I sent in my second draft almost a year later, it was received with an offer of representation. This novel became the first in the KOP trilogy (KOP, EX-KOP, and KOP KILLER), published by Tor Books.
It’s fourteen years later, and some of the rules have changed. Urban fantasy became a thing. Same for steampunk and cli-fi. Mash-ups have become more common. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that writers and readers have to meet somewhere, and that somewhere is called the marketplace.

I’ve been fortunate to land contracts despite my habit of blurring the boundaries of genre (my newest is an SF/spy novel), but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been flexible. Know your vision and stick to it. But be coachable; you have to be to succeed in this industry. Yeah, I know those last two sentences might sound contradictory, but trust me, they’re not.


  1. from Jacqueline: Very good post, and it speaks to some prejudices that existed in the marketplace, and the way the marketplace has changed for readers and writers in recent years. When my first novel (Maisie Dobbs) was published, many people commented that the publisher was "brave" to publish a "cross genre" book - it was an historical mystery, with the emphasis on "historical." In bookstores I invariably found the book in several places - Historical fiction, mystery fiction, literary fiction - and on one occasion, "anti-war fiction." It would be true to say that most of the series' fans would probably not describe themselves as "mystery readers" though I am fortunate to have many who are dyed in the wool mystery fans (I get loads of emails that begin, "I never usually read mysteries, but ..."). I think this speaks to the changing nature of the marketplace, and I hope to some changing attitudes towards novels that do not fit easily into a little descriptive box. Thanks for posting on NA today!

  2. james o. born4/23/2015 10:32 AM

    As a fellow sf writer I agree with everything you said. Lines should be blurred

  3. Thanks, Warren. Love the book cover. It's always interesting to hear about a writer's journey to publication and beyond. How thoughtful of that agent to take the time to call you with his advice. Not sure many would do that these days. All best to you and thanks for stopping by.