Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Science-based Fiction and What's Publishable

On the fiction side of things, is the goal of writing "publishable" fiction to produce something that will please agents and editors, or something that the public will find worthwhile? I'm not entirely convinced these are always the same thing.

An agent's job is to sell the manuscript to a publisher who is enthusiastic about it and will put time and money into promoting it as much as possible. The editor's job is to make sure it's something the public will want. (Often this involves editing) The publishing company then has the job of marketing the book correctly to get it in bookstores and publicize it so the public knows it exists and buys it. The job of every person in the publishing industry is to make sure books sell. We do it because we care about the books. (We certainly don't do it for the money. It's a particularly low-paying industry) We want to put books out that are good and people will enjoy.

There have been a couple scattered cases where a book was great but not publishable. Someone along the line will probably recognize this and kill the project (usually the head of editorial department, who has the most to lose by having a book fail). In these rare cases, it's usually because that particular market isn't doing well. After Katrina, we were pretty much rejecting everything related to New Orleans, hurricanes, or Katrina. The timing wasn't right. But it's hard to say to an author, "Look, this is just the right novel at the wrong time." At the end of the day, publishing houses have to make money to pay the salaries of their employees - and pay you, the author. They can't do that if they go under because none of their books sold more than the cost of overhead for putting out the book.

Then there's the cases of books that we just miss the boat on. There's that famous story of how John Grisham got rejected everywhere and self-published his first novel or something and it became a huge hit, so some company picked it up. Stephen King tells young authors that he still has a giant stack of rejections sitting in a drawer in his office. But, usually, these authors succeed eventually (as the case with John Grisham and Stephen King).

You don't survive in the publishing industry unless you know what you're doing. For the most part our judgment of whether a book is good or bad is probably right.

I keep encountering agent and editor blogs and interviews where they state they personally have to fall in love with a book to pursue publishing it. There's only a few hundred people in these positions and I suspect they generally share the same educational and cultural backgrounds and interests.

It is true that an agent feels like they have to love the book to take it on. Honestly, you don't want an agent who doesn't love your material. They won't care. They'll shelve it. They won't sit down with the big editors for 3-hour lunches to pitch it, they won't try to get a bidding war going between publishers for it (which is good for you in terms of $), and they won't worry about how the publishing company is promoting it. You want to be the agent's numero uno priority.

It is NOT true that agents share the same educational and cultural backgrounds and interests. You can't be an agent unless you're fairly widely read in just about every genre, because you have to know books and markets. Agents are male or female, black and/or white. Some own dogs and some own cats and some own poodles that pee all over the shared carpet. (Not Miss Snark, if that's what you're thinking) Agents follow their interests based on the paragraph above, because they do have to love the manuscript, but they know all about the market and what's going on in just about every market. YA is very hot right now. Everyone predicts that Westerns will come back but they never do. Everyone's chilling off on thrillers related to the Vatican. Things like that are things agents pay close attention to.

But in the end, it just comes down to the agent loving your manuscript and wanting to see you in print.

More discussion and examples, if you wish:
One example is the integration of science within fiction (not SF). There's very little of it. (Basically, just Michael Crichton). This is despite the fact that a lot of key issues right now (global warming, genetics, pollution, etc.) are steeped in science - and fiction is a wonderful way to gain understanding and perspective. I'm curious if the strong literary background one is likely to have in fiction publishing (which makes sense) might also mean that science and techology isn't much of an interest for the agent and/or editor. And does this in turn mean that a query for fiction incorporating science is less likely to pass muster, even if on an important topic?

Michael Crichton is an interesting case. He actually went for a master's in English, and dropped out, saying his class was "filled with aspiring English teachers." He wanted to write, which was different, and MFA programs did not proliferate at the time, so he went to school to learn about what he wanted to write about, which was medicine. So he went to medical school. That was a very unconventional thing for him to do, but he was always essentially a writer. He was just doing research. Not all of his books are science-based -
Rising Sun is a good example of that. It's a book about Japanese culture in America during a time when the Japanese had a very successful economy and were buying up companies in the States. It has almost nothing to do with science at all. Or The Great Train Robbery, which is about a train robbery. Science is not really involved beyond what's necessary for robbing a train.

He's a writer, pure and simple. A really terrific writer - and you can debate for yourself whether he is or isn't one - can write about anything. It just might require research.

Science is a tough topic to fictionalize because it's not something non-scientists encounter on a regular basis after leaving high school. Chances are they'll have to deal with accountants, lawyers, truck drivers, whoever - but chances are, your average Joe does not encounter very hard science a lot except when there's a hot issue connected to it (like the environment, which is why Al Gore's book An Inconvenient Truth is a bestseller. It's also a good book) And there are very few scientists who are writers. The scientific field does not train you to be a fiction writer. It's something you have to learn on your own. If you have a degree in a scientific field, you've written some papers and maybe defended a thesis, but that doesn't mean it was a page-turner.

Most scientists or people who know a lot about science go into science fiction because science is essentially about discovering things, and new possiblities are what fiction is all about, so people like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson go nuts describing all of the crazy cybornetic possibilities of the future. It may or may not happen, but it's an interesting read.

As for math, the only interesting math book I've ever read was Flatland, which was a truly bizarre experiment in fiction that worked.

Here's a question for illustration: If presented with two roughly equal query letters about a thriller - one dealing with a stolen rare book and taking place in an upscale NY suburb, and a second dealing with water rights and taking place near Phoenix, Arizona - is one query more likely than the other to pass through the gate?

No. We
don't care where it takes place. We care that it's an interesting book. If it uses the place setting to its advantage, great. Otherwise, it doesn't show up on our radar. A lot of fiction seems to take place in New York because a lot of writers live in New York, and because New York is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in America and a lot happens here to write about. But to be perfectly honest, we're all a little sick of New York-based fiction. Or at least I am, because I'm in an MFA program where everyone writes about living in New York. I once wrote a short story that took place in Victorian England and people just didn't get it. It was like a foreign concept to them. It was one of my more frustrating fiction-workshop moments.

Write about whatever you want to write about. Put your heart and soul into it, and make it shine. If you succeed, we'll love it. Otherwise, we won't, and that's the bottom line.


Mrs. Brain Bomb said...

Great post. Very accurate.

James Aach said...

Very interesting commentary and very enlightening. It's good of you to take the time to write these things up.

I would somewhat disagree that non-scientists don't encounter science on an everyday basis - because they deal with the results of science (the technology) almost every waking moment. (I'm guessing you wrote your column on a computer, for instance, probably took some sort of transportation to work, and your dinner will not consist only of food you've picked or shot. ) However, it’s clear from your discussion that for any non-SF fiction story with science to be interesting, it would have to tie the science back directly to the results that the average Joe is seeing. That makes sense. Fiction is about people in the end (though based on your previous post it’s not a good idea to make them blood-sucking lesbian detectives.)

I can see where an agent needs to have some personal motivation in order to do a good job for their client. I understand it's not a field rolling in high salaries, so some other motivation is clearly needed.

I can also appreciate that agents and editors must stay on top of current publishing and reading trends even if these are somewhat outside their personal interests. However, I didn't find your contention that agents do not share great simularities to be very compelling. Your basis seems to be that they have various physical and ethnic differences and are widely read. In the last instance, within the fiction realm I suspect they are widely read in what other agents have promoted and sold - - which seems a bit like circular reasoning. Your MFA class anecdote was very interesting - and also tends to weaken your contention to some extent, as I'm guessing some of these MFA students will end up in the publishing side of the business.

Perhaps, however, I'm just displaying my own set of prejudices on this topic.

A good column, and I hope you continue to provide some inside perspective.

James Aach

Author of "Rad Decision" - the insider novel of nuclear power.

Anonymous said...

Nah, Crichton is not a terrific writer. Like Thomas Harris, he does a lot of research to try to give his material the imprimatur of a writer whose done serous research. But it's all applique. He's not much of a stylist. Structurally, he inevitably has an older, seasoned veteran paired with a younger novice so that long periods of the novel can be spent schooling the novice, i.e., that's his chosen artless way of working in obvious exposition.

If you want science within writing, how about Richard Powers? There's someone who actually seems to be expert in a wide field. This, too, may be a veneer, but he seems more authentic.

James Aach said...

I know Mr. Crichton has come under withering criticism for his latest book from experts in climate science - some of whom he interviewed or spent time with - who believe he misstated his facts to reach previously-chosen conclusions. (He might respond that scientists do the same thing.) I'm not well versed in that field, so I can't say for sure, but I would tend to trust the scientists.
More to the point, I've read reviews of this book where commentators noted that the use of graphs and charts assurred them that Crichton had done his research and presented the items accuractly. Unfortunately, that doesn't give any assurance at all. It also brings up again the need for more entertaning fiction that provides accurate portrayals of science and technology. We learn a lot through fictional portrayals, whether at the movies or in books. With so many issues affecting all of us riding on sci/tech, it would be very helpful if the perspective and "feel" for sci/tech that our citizens have bears some relation to the genuine article. This would help a lot in sorting out which arguments ring true and seem based on sound science, and which are made based on ideology and politics. I believe the public will embrace such portrays if they are entertaining and don't push the brain TOO hard. I recall when CSI first went on TV, it was thought to be too cerebral - but it seemed the public didn't mind.
Regarding Richard Powers, he is by all accounts a fine writer who weaves science and philosphy into his stories. I'm not sure how widely read he is, or if he is read by folks who don't already have some solid grounding in these issues. As discussed in the following Rejector commentary on "bad" literature - it's marketing to a wider audience that really makes the money, which has to be an agent's goal at least some of the time. Plus, a book on an important read by the "masses" is more likely to influence society than one read by a select group of thinkers. (Not always true, but on average.)

Anonymous said...

You wrote:

But it's hard to say to an author, "Look, this is just the right novel at the wrong time."

I'm wondering:

Is one reason this is hard to say because it's something an author should be aware of without needing to be told? (That one should not try to market a hurricane story while FEMA is still muddling things in the news, for example.)

(The tone of this post sounds off to me, but I don't mean it that way. I'm genuinely curious.)

Here's a scary story:

I knew a guy who had written a great disaster-epic screenplay about a big wave that slammed into Hawaii.

Then came December 26, 2004.

The end.

Anonymous said...

Water rights in the Western United States? You'll have to make VERY clear how your story is not a ripoff of the movie Chinatown. That's what every east coast reader will be thinking...

Anonymous said...

"There's that famous story of how John Grisham got rejected everywhere and self-published his first novel or something and it became a huge hit, so some company picked it up."

Yep, that's a fmous story alright.

It's also pure grade-A unadulterated bullshit propagated by the internet.

Grisham's first novel (A Time to Kill) was published by a small press, with a print run of about 5,000, and sold like ice in winter. He tried to prevent it from being heavily remaindered by buying up copies and selling them himself. But it never became a hit until he'd already had a bestselling novel (The Firm), and it was never, ever self-published.