After a few months and a lot of rejection (and I mean a lot), I’ve decided to stop querying for The Shape of Things. For those of you who are new (thanks for following me!), TSOT is this science fantasy novel I wrote during sophomore year, about two disaster lesbians stuck in a desert. One is an amnesiac trying to figure out what in tarnation is going on and the other has absolutely never done anything wrong ever and does not deserve any of this. It has dying multi-planet empires, evilish emperor uncles, nonexistent gender binaries, lots of tea, court intrigue…but in space, politics…but also in space, scary scary birds, all-encompassing super religions, sacrilege (oh so much), sassy robots, butt-kicking side-eye-giving glove-wearing brigadier generals, murderous rebels who are sometimes surprisingly polite, chonky sand worms, obnoxious ritual sacrifices, gratuitous food porn, assassins, and massive blaster battles in the middle of the desert. Which I think sounds awesome, right?
But it’s also a really weird book, and I’m not sure if I mean that in a good way. There are two reasons for that. ONE, I wrote it for myself. I’m a weird person. So the book has lots of fancy language I picked up from the fancy literature I was reading at the time (I’m easily influenced), which would normally make it more adult. But
TSOT is also very much YA in many ways. There’s no cursing (this is before I started punctuating sentences with ‘fuck’). I made up my own profanity based on the in-world religion, and though there’s a good reason for it, the world’s worst cuss word is ‘Crunch.’ I know. And the main character, Sona, spends most of the novel figuring out who she is and relearning everything she’s been taught. That’s a very YA storyline. I’m going to be honest and finally admit that Sona is a shameless self-insert—at the time, I was also figuring out who I was. I’d just realized I was a nonbinary woman and a lesbian—not a het ace and not bi and not pan, as I’d thought at various times throughout high school and the beginning of college. But the themes are complex—humanity and what that means, the price of power, the cost of knowledge, the impact of memories, what is gender???, etc. Sona and Yuen (her estranged best bud and love interest) are also twenty-ish, and are thus a bit too old to be classified as YA characters. Now, these categories (YA and Adult) are simply for marketing purposes and therefore rather meaningless. Unless you want to actually market your book, as I’ve discovered. Agents, understandably, were hesitant to represent a novel for which it’d be somewhat difficult to find an audience.
TWO, I was still learning how to write as I wrote it. TSOT isn’t my first novel, or even my longest one. But my previous stories were written without outlines, and while I think I’m naturally a panster, I’m not a good one. The pacing was way too fast. Why? Well, I was mostly only interested in characterization. Sona, the last fragment of a collapsing Empire, discovers she was the unintentional orchestrator of the Empire’s fall. Chronologically, she starts out as the villain and becomes a hero. Meanwhile, Yuen, the somewhat laidback warden of the planetary prison Sona finds herself on, struggles to forgive Sona for a huge betrayal she doesn’t even remember. Lots of juicy character development there. I didn’t want to spend time drawing out scenes where Sona and Yuen weren’t doing some significant personal growth (or flirting or fighting).
I poured my heart into this story. The world of TSOT is one I’d want to live in. Okay, maybe not—it starts out ruled by a tyrannical dictator and there’s this whole extremely bloody revolution thing going on. But every character is POC and/or queer, genders aren’t assigned at birth, there’s no racism/sexism/homophobia/transphobia, and there’s all-you-can-drink tea. Frankly, I wanted to write a tale about a queer black woman with a redemption arc set in space. There aren’t many queer POC in sci-fi (if you know any, share in the comments! I need more stuff to read/watch), and I have yet to see one be redeemed. I have absolutely no idea why, but for some reason society prefers to redeem pale white cishet men with black hair (eg: Kyle Ron, Snape, Loki. I could go on).
Again, I poured my heart into this story. And it was a bit soul-crushing to have over a hundred agents dismiss it without any explanation. (It’s really not their fault. Most agents review a ridiculous amount of queries every day and simply don’t have the time to write out personal messages. Besides, I already sort of knew what was wrong; I just had no idea how to fix it.) It was soul-crushing on several levels. I wanted people to see themselves represented on the page, in a world where people who looked and talked and just were like them lived without fear or hatred.
On top of this, my plan was to donate the majority of any money I might make to organizations that uplift, protect, and otherwise serve POC and queer people. Since I wasn’t able to protest due to health concerns (I live with people who are severely at risk of dying from coronavirus), I had hoped that TSOT would be how I could contribute to the movement. (Of course, advances aren’t paid all at once and royalties are weird, but still. It was something. Or a plan for it, at least.) There were a few weeks when I was ready to give up on writing altogether and stick to science, which I know I’m decent at. But as I finally got back into reading (I didn’t even realize I’d stopped!) and found fantastic new speculative fiction role models (N.K. Jemisin! Nnedi Okorafor! Ann Leckie!), I was able to rediscover the enthusiasm I’d lost. I’ve recently started a new novel with even more representation, about a grouchy tea assassin and the axe-wielding, cinnamon roll space emperor who’s simping for her.
Wish me luck!