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For more than three years, I've been writing and re-writing my novel involving immortal characters.

Now I'm finally gathering courage to write a query letter and begin searching for agents. My problem is that I don't know what kind of agents to contact, as my book seems to fall somewhere in between genres.

Without actually getting into the plot, my book is an ensemble piece involving seven immortal characters, some who have lived merely decades, others centuries or millennia. The setting is contemporary (2018, mostly inside a hotel). The book borrows a lot of tropes from the mystery genre, especially from traditional mysteries (a murder in a confined space where all the characters know and suspect each other, lots of red herrings, a fair challenge to the reader where all the clues are presented throughout). The central question is not a whodunnit, however, but a whydunnit and it involves something related to the characters' condition as immortals (not the origin of immortality itself).

Here's the difficult part. These immortals are simply long-lived characters who come back to life upon death; nothing sets them apart from normal people besides their prolonged existence. They don't have any special powers. There is no magical system inside the story. There are no other paranormal beings inside the narrative (think ghosts or vampires or werewolves). Thus this can't fall into the paranormal mystery subgenre.

I've turned to fantasy too, but most subgenres that seemed somewhat plausible (contemporary fantasy or urban fantasy, for example), seemed to be quite heavy with the supernatural elements; my book isn't. If anything, it has a pretty rational approach to the issue of immortality.

Somebody in my writing club suggested magical realism. The problem is that this genre is about the complete opposite of my book in terms of tone (since it involves a certain mysticism, languid pace and flowery prose). My book is fast-paced, full of snappy dialogues and does actually treat immortality as something special, rather than a natural occurrence.

I'm afraid if I pitch my book as just a mystery, most agents/publishers/mystery readers will be turned off by the supernatural element. If I pitch this as fantasy or paranormal mystery, they will be expecting magic and paranormal beings. I don't know enough about SF subgenres to see if there's anything that fits, as I've only read a bunch of classic SF novels. Thus, I can't seem to figure out my audience either.

Thoughts? Also, are there any other books that fall between similar genres that you could tell me about (mystery with a slight supernatural twist)? It might help me tremendously, as I'd have a starting point in seeing what kind of audience these books attracted.

Edit: My book is somewhat similar to Death Note in that the supernatural element is more of a plot device/means for the mystery to happen, not the mystery investigated itself. If you suspend your disbelief and accept that Shinigami/Death Notes (or in my case, immortality) exist, then the mystery itself focuses on a (series of) murder(s), involving humans and caused by humans. That's one of the extra reasons why I hesitate to call this fantasy.

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    If I look at something like the highlander books which is somewhat close to what you are aiming for, except the beheadings and "There can be only one" stuff. This is just called fantasy. If you have some sort detective element. Why not just call it a detective fantasy novel? – Totumus Maximus Oct 24 '18 at 13:29
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    @TotumusMaximus Fantasy, as a genre, carries a strong connotation - I'm guessing undecided will rather avoid that. – Liquid Oct 24 '18 at 14:16
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    The tone sounds a little bit to me like Tuck Everlasting. I'm not sure how that one was actually classified, but it never really felt like a fantasy, despite the immortality theme. Of course, children's literature often gets a pass for fantastical elements. – Chris Sunami Oct 24 '18 at 19:10
  • @ChrisSunami Wow, never heard of that novel, but I absolutely love the premise! Thanks! – undecided Oct 24 '18 at 21:53
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Your novel has a major supernatural element in it: people come back from the dead.

No matter how you spin it, the central premise of your novel is supernatural. Correct me if I am wrong, but if you remove this element the story is not at all the same. This supernatural occurrence is a major plot device which the characters discuss in-world. Even if it's origin goes unexplained, your story is set in a supernatural universe (of which some of your characters may be ignorant, but they still live in it).

By the same idea of "what world does this story belong to", murder-mysteries take place in a murder-universe where serial killings are normal (even expected), and murderers are caught by ridiculous details like buttoning their coat wrong. Agatha Christie did not write about the supernatural, but her stories are not set in the real world. Murder-mysteries follow their own logic, but there's a difference between borrowing tropes to subvert them, and setting your story within the genre's "universal rules".

Since your immortals can't die, they violate a fundamental tenet of the murder mystery genre. It's my attempt to be objective, but I think most murder-mystery fans would say that a murderer who "fakes his death" by actually dying, then comes back later alive and turns out to have been the killer all along, would not be an acceptable "solution" within the mystery-universe.

Go for Contemporary Fantasy or as Chris Sunami suggests the popular subgenre of Fantasy-Mystery. I see no reason why you'd want to avoid an existing label if it could give you a marketing boost. Sure, we all hope that our writing surpasses genre labels, but why deliberately shun the people who would be actively looking for a story like this.

Don't worry about not being "supernatural-enough" (or murder-mystery-enough, or comic-relief-enough, or Hemmingway-enough) even genre-fans enjoy a range…. Unless a publisher is offering you a bag of money to shove a few extra ghosts and werewolves and magic swords into it for fan service, stick with the rules of your universe.

When immortals show up in sci-fi, fantasy and horror no one even blinks. I think this might be a case where you would be better off not jarring the reader out of story, even though it feels like it's not a major theme that is explored.

  • FWIW, John Dickson Carr dropped occasional references to the supernatural in his mysteries. In one, the detective explained things very carefully using only natural elements, and at the end it's shown that it was supernatural after all. At least one prominent Agatha Christie novel had the killer fake his own death, and actually dying to fake death would be reasonable if the ability to come back from the dead had been previously established. – David Thornley Oct 24 '18 at 17:35
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    In the Agatha Christie novel which we will not name for SPOILERS where the killer fakes his death, another character confirms it as a plot misdirection. Nothing supernatural about it at all – you could just as easily say Hercule Poirot and Santa Claus would be best friends if Santa Claus was ever in a Poirot mystery (the T-Rex from Jurassic Park too!)… He wasn't and they weren't, and I STILL don't think the average murder mystery fan would accept it (except as parody). – wetcircuit Oct 24 '18 at 17:51
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    @wetcircuit There's a murder in my book (an immortal character is killed and later returns to life; the others know he will.) The way the murder is committed involves no supernatural element. It doesn't violate Knox's 2nd rule of writing mystery. The central mystery is not the murder, but more of a why-were-all-these-characters-gathered-together sort, which I guess does violate Knox's 2nd, as it relates to their immortality. Hence my confusion to call it fantasy. Your explanation makes sense, thank you! I've avoided fantasy-mystery so far because the murder employed no fantastical element. – undecided Oct 24 '18 at 18:28
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    Stick to the rules of your universe. In the age of gonzo anthologies like Buffy and True Blood, it can feel like picking a genre is promising a fruit basket of tropes. You might try pitching it a few ways, even tailoring the pitch to the type of publisher or agent. – wetcircuit Oct 24 '18 at 18:44
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    @undecided, I kind of think your story is a "What If…?" which is sort of a sub-genre of sci-fi, but fits with many Twilight Zone episodes and other mid-century short stories that pre-date over-codified genre-bloat. – wetcircuit Oct 24 '18 at 19:01
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Keep in mind, genre isn't an exact science, it's a marketing tool, and cross-genre books can actually do very well. Neuromancer is science-fiction noir. Star Wars is science-fiction fairy tale. Harry Potter is fantasy/mystery/teen-series. Books fall outside the lines all the time, that just gets glossed over in the marketing materials!

What reader is most likely to enjoy your story? Overall, your best bet is to pick the genre it best fits and to sell it as that genre "with a twist." So if it's basically a contemporary mystery, sell it as a mystery, "but the hero lives forever." Or, if the immortality plot is really that deep in the background, you might want to de-emphasize it in your query entirely, and just note in passing that the book has "some supernatural elements." Keep in mind, however, that many readers of realistic fiction are resistant to anything supernatural at all, so it may be a harder sell this way than as a fantasy mystery, where the expectations are much much looser. (It's also worth noting that fantasy mysteries are popular enough that they basically make up their own subgenre.) Conversely, if there's a reasonable way to rationalize the supernatural elements (or to at least make them reasonably ambiguous) it might be worth the effort to make the book more palatable to the core mystery audience.

If your book is really half-and-half, why not write two queries, one selling it as a mystery with a few supernatural elements, and the other selling it as a fantasy mystery? You'll double (more or less) the potential agents/publishers you're reaching out to, and you'll be able to see first hand which approach gets more traction. The markets change all the time, there's really no way to guess if your twist will turn agents away, or if they'll see it as a fresh breath of air in a stale genre.

  • Yes, that was my fear as well - that a supernatural element within mystery (a pretty rational and down-to-earth genre) doesn't sit well with its readers. However, mystery with a twist seems to be the closest to what it is - a book with a mystery-type plot and atmosphere. The double query idea sounds awesome. I'll definitely use that. Many thanks! – undecided Oct 24 '18 at 18:12
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    @undecided It sounds like an intriguing book. Genre expectations can def be tricky. I've read realistic books that lost me when they turned supernatural, and seemingly fantastic books that disappointed me with their realist resolutions. // There is, however, a long and beloved traditions of mysteries that "flirt" with the supernatural. If you can find a way to either rationalize your supernatural elements at the end, or at least leave them ambiguous, people might swallow that better, even if the explanations aren't all that convincing. Also: writing.stackexchange.com/questions/38153 – Chris Sunami Oct 24 '18 at 18:58
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    There are plenty of people who wouldn't be caught dead reading fantasy who will happily eat it up with just a little bit of lampshading: "Obviously, the seven of them couldn't really have been immortals. And yet, it's hard for me to understand how they knew all the things they knew, almost as if they had really lived through them..." or "Just why did they live so long? Some mutation in their DNA?" – Chris Sunami Oct 24 '18 at 19:08
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Yeah, you have to plainly label this as fantasy. Not science-fiction. Because the fantasy elements are ones that would jar the reader if they were expecting reality. And I think it will turn off anyone accessing your book if it wasn't stated upfront.

Your queries can talk about "a mystery" without saying the book belong in the mystery genre. Or you can call it both mystery and fantasy. Your choice.

I would not worry about the subgenres. They're marketing and they will vary depending on the publisher (or reviewer or bookstore, etc). If your book fit neatly into a known subgenre, you could use it. But I don't suggest you try to force it.

I was going to suggest you look at the classification for The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers. Because the fantasy element is very slight and the book is mostly about other things. To my surprise, I'm not seeing it marketed as fantasy at all, though the fantasy part is mentioned directly in descriptions.

But how it is marketed is not necessarily the same as how it is pitched. I bet the word "fantasy" or a similar one was mentioned when Thomas Mullen was trying to sell it. And I would definitely use the word "fantasy" with your book, even if your queries focus on other things.

I'd be curious to hear how it goes for you.

  • That book reminds me of another with a very similar premise I've seen recently in the bookstores, called The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, published just this month. The genres I see listed for it are mystery and thriller, however I have not read it yet and don't know what to believe. I'm also thinking of Rosamund Lupton's Afterwards, which is a mystery/thriller where the dead victims revisit the scenes of the crimes in spirit-form. However, it's put a lot of mystery fans off (me included). I'd never thought of a pitch/marketing difference before, thanks for that! – undecided Oct 24 '18 at 18:40
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    @undecided Thanks for mentioning that book --I read it and loved it, and I don't think I would have ever heard of it otherwise. It definitely seems to be firmly in the mystery genre (and marketed as such), despite its science-fiction/fantasy plot elements. – Chris Sunami Feb 4 at 21:34

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