So yeah it’s been a while. It’ll take at least another post, maybe two or three, to talk about November, NaNoWriMo, and all the stuff happening with diversity in the face of, well, adversity. BUT, right now what’s on my mind is genre (which sort of segues into diversity).
This last weekend was the DFW Writers’ Conference (dfwcon.org for those of you who are interested in checking out a great conference). I try to attend every year, and I’m pretty sure I’ve made several other posts about it. Sure, part of why I attend is to see other writers & friends I don’t get to see any other time of the year, but there are also great classes, chances to meet new friends, chances to pitch to agents (I’ll get to that), and an all-around sense of re-energizing and re-focusing on writing and the reasons why we write.
Last convention, I had an agent chase me down trying to get a hold of my story. While it didn’t end-up going anywhere (except to reaffirm that there are still problems with it), it did indicate that the times have changed. A couple years prior, I was the one chasing the agents. Also of note, he’d heard of wuxia, so it’s not like it’s something wholly alien. Again, times have changed.
Some of the rejections I’ve gotten on Righteous Mantis said that stories based on revenge and murder are a bit too “mature” for YA. Stinky & I basically opened our pitches with “we write wuxia, which is basically YA fantasy.” While that statement might be true, it’s also true that wuxia is its own thing, in its own category, and one could argue that wuxia has been around a lot longer than Western YA. So I decided that I was done trying to pretend to fit in with the American / Western / “traditional” categories and to just call it what it is – wuxia, and something magical happened.
Language shapes our thoughts, and when you stop trying to force something to fit and instead set it aside and call it what it is, you start thinking of it differently. Wuxia may have similarities to YA fantasy, but let’s step back and remember that it’s rooted in another culture, and that it’s been its own thing for a very long time, and that simply combining Western ideas of YA and fantasy doesn’t necessarily bridge the gap into wuxia. If it did, why not flip it and say “Hunger Games is a futuristic Western wuxia without Chinese people and Chinese story tropes”?
So this conference, I walked in and pitched to an agent, starting with, “I write wuxia.” Much later in the conversation I mentioned how it could maybe fall into YA fantasy, but it was more like an addendum than the main setup. “I write wuxia. It’s a Chinese genre, some could argue it’s ancient, and its hallmarks are martial arts, adventure, romance, and chivalry. The story is about…”
I’ll admit the agent I pitched to was a bit of a hard sell, and that I worked harder to get a request for pages than ever before, but I got a request for pages. Later I attended another So Close, but So Far” session. If you’re not familiar with my previous post, is a sort of small panel where you talk with a few agents about the kind of rejection letters you’ve been getting. I had great success with it last year, and I’ve found them to be highly insightful because the folks who signed up to petition get so much attention. This time around, there were two agents, neither of which repped anything resembling fantasy or anything I might haphazardly try to fit wuxia into. When I told them about wuxia and my story, their jaws dropped and their eyes nearly burst from their heads. We had a great discussion, and then the entire conference took a dinner break, and I’m pretty sure that’s where the magic happened.
A couple hours later, we returned for the “mixer,” where us plebians get to drink, talk to agents, pitch to them, chit-chat, etc. I walked up to one agent to pitch and didn’t get much further than, “I write wuxia,” when she stopped me and said, “oh, you’re the guy. Yeah at least four other agents have been talking about this. Just send me pages.”
Four other agents. I’d think this was a fluke, but it happened again the next day.
I can only surmise that over dinner, someone asked if wuxia was a real genre or if I was just making something up. Maybe they did research, maybe they didn’t, but the end result was this : twice when I went to pitch, I didn’t even get to talk about the characters or the story. They didn’t want YA fantasy version of a half-Chinese orphan girl who goes on a martial arts adventure across Ming dynasty China to avenge the assassination of her adopted father and teacher. They wanted wuxia.
If it weren’t an already-established and long-standing genre, I’m not sure it would’ve worked. Just making up a name to re-brand something usually takes time and saying it over and over again, but the Chinese did that with wuxia a long time ago (actually the Japanese played a part in that too, but that’s a slightly different story). So this post isn’t a recommendation that you should just re-brand your genre in hopes of getting the same recognition and attention. That may or may not work for you, depending on how different your story actually is, but it might help if it fell into another already-existing genre.
And sure, maybe someday in the future, the publishing industry (or whoever makes decisions on what genre is what) might fit wuxia underneath the YA or fantasy umbrellas, but right now it’s unknown enough in America that it’s not. Also, if that ever happens, Ima write a wuxia that’s totally about older folks and doesn’t involve fantastical martial arts. “Detective wuxias” are a thing that already exists and would probably fall outside both those categories. Just sayin’. :)
I’m Benjamin Inn, and I write wuxia.