Thinking about moving away from writing novel-length adult science fiction and fantasy

Me, after I go literary

So, the thing that I didn’t mention in my post about getting an agent is that Greenhouse Literary specializes in children’s lit. At one point, that would’ve given me pause. During my initial rounds of querying, I only considered authors that repped adult science fiction as well as YA. However, my next adult SF novel didn’t really work for me. I lost interest in it halfway through the revision process. And the one after that (the novel draft that I completed a few months ago) was another YA novel, this time a contemporary (i.e. non-speculative) YA novel. For a YA writer, that’s fine—it’s totally normal to move between the subgenres of YA. But if I’m an adult SF writer who dabbles in YA, then that’s a bit off: it doesn’t really fit the narrative.

So I more and more like the idea of being a YA writer. The field feels a bit more active (although these things can change pretty quickly). But it also feels a bit more accepting. YA novels can have a number of different structures and plots and types of conflict.

SF, on the other hand, feels like it’s very limited to the standard adventure plot. Even very sophisticated and high-concept SF (stuff like the work of Brian Francis Slattery or Jeff Vandermeer or Cory Doctorow) kind of has these adventure plots. And I feel like I’m a bit over that. The part of the story that I’m most interested in is the rest of it: the situations, the characters, the settings—I resent every page that I have to waste on action scenes.

Of course, action is not mandatory in adult SF. Some of my favorite SF novels (Beggars in Spain, Speed of Dark, Farthing, A Scanner Darkly, 334, Flowers for Algernon, Stand on Zanzibar) have no action. Actually, Stand on Zanzibar might have some. I can’t remember, since I still have no idea what the actual plot of the book was.

So you can write non action-oriented adult SF. But…you’re kind of a marginal figure. I realized this when I was looking for books to review for Strange Horizons. The vast majority of books that come out in SF are series fiction: trilogies about fantasy heroes; never-ending series’ about paranormal detectives; books about spaceships shooting at each other with lasers. And all of those things are great! But if you don’t write those things, then you’re kind of at the fringes of the SF world.

In YA, that’s not true. Although dystopian / SF / Fantasy novels are popular, they don’t necessarily need to have these adventure-hero plots. And, furthermore, there’s the whole contemporary subgenre, where you pretty much never have that kind of plot. It’s not that there’s more freedom, it’s just that there’s more of a possibility that the thing you produce while being free might actually, you know, sell some copies. In SF, the most sophisticated writers either settle down to writing (very sophisticated) fantasy trilogies or detective novels or space operas, or they accustom themselves to being left out.

And that’s not what I want for myself.

The problem with YA is that, even though I like writing it, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life writing entirely about the lives and problems of 15-19 year olds. I do, at some point, want to write about adults.

But I’m seriously considering going all literary. Literary fiction isn’t a very big sector, but (in terms of sales) it’s about equal with SF (both are about 6% of the total book market; and both are dwarfed by mysteries, which are, in turn, dwarfed by romance). It feels like in literary fiction, just like in SF, people are primarily looking for more commercial stuff, but their definition of “more-commercial” is way different. They just want some high-concept lit-fic that actually has a plot. And I can do that. Plot is in my DNA. I’m never gonna write a novel that doesn’t move.

So yeah, I have an idea for a literary fiction novel (i.e. no speculative elements at all). I already produced a novella (27,000 word) version of it, and I am seriously pondering how to expand it to 60-70,000 words. I can’t speak to where my sense inspiration will take me, but I’ve found that my sense of inspiration tends to be very closely aligned with my professional self-interest. And, professionally, I think it’d be a pretty good career move to polish that thing up and try to make it my first-published adult novel. That way, even if I wrote more-speculative work later on, I’d be firmly established as a literary writer.

And yes, part of this is just I sort of just want to test out the correctness of my theory re: how one can get into the New Yorker =)

But of course, all of this is just dreaming. Generally speaking, it’s pretty difficult (for a number of reasons) to plan this sort of stuff out.


Oh, and as a final note, none of this will affect my short fiction output, of course. I love the SF short fiction market. It’s way more fun and vibrant than the literary fiction market. I honestly think I’d rather publish in F&SF than in McSweeney’s.

Comments (



  1. Morlock Publishing (@MorlockP)

    I like the universe I’m building for my two adult SF novels, but the one character that I’ve really fallen in love with is a minor one: Ewoma, a 12 year old Nigerian girl who works with her folks in a small restaurant in the Aristillus moon colony. She’s sharp as a tack, brave, and likes being useful.

    About a year ago I thought that after I finished the two core novels, I’d like to work up a YA novel featuring her.

    So, yes, take this as a vote of confidence in your thoughts; I’m largely in agreement.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      That sounds really cool. I think it’s not uncommon to have these YA cross-overs in SF series. Probably just because YA is hot now, so publishers are willing to throw anything at the wall.

  2. Morlock Publishing (@MorlockP)

    … I should also add that I think the smaller wordcount of YA novels would be a win for me: the huge sprawling 270k word series I’ve been working for 2.3 years is exhausting. Limiting myself to 60-80k words would be nice.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      In general, I _am_ a fall of smaller wordcount novels.

  3. debs

    You could write something like ‘The Road’, Rahul. Literary, beautiful, sf theme and incredibly successful. With your interests in both the literary and spec worlds you could do it.

    But here’s my twist: something cheerful. I would love to read that.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Hmm, cheerful. I don’t know if I know how to do that….