Hi there! My name is James L. Sutter, and for almost 20 years I’ve worked in science fiction and fantasy. I was a co-creator of the Pathfinder and Starfinder Roleplaying Games, and worked as both Starfinder’s Creative Director and the Executive Editor in charge of Pathfinder’s tie-in novels with Tor. I’ve written official Dungeons & Dragons adventures, comics, video games, short fiction for places like Nightmare and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and two adult fantasy novels set in the Pathfinder world.
With all of that in mind, here’s the pitch for my newest novel, Darkhearts:
When David stormed out of his band, he missed his shot at fame, trapped in an ordinary high school life while his ex-best friend, Chance, became the hottest teen pop star in America.
Then tragedy throws David and Chance back into contact. As old wounds break open, the boys find themselves trading frenemy status for a confusing, secret romance―one that could be David’s ticket back into the band and the spotlight.
As the mixture of business and pleasure becomes a powder keg, David will have to choose: Is this his second chance at glory? Or his second chance at Chance?
Perfect for fans of Alice Oseman and Red, White, & Royal Blue, Darkhearts is a hilarious, heartfelt, enemies-to-lovers romance about love, celebrity, and what happens when the two collide.
Not exactly what you expected, right? Yeah, me either. Genre-wise, young adult contemporary romance is about as far from my previous work as you can get. But while it’s been a sometimes bumpy road from there to here, I’ve never been happier with my writing career, creatively or financially. So in the interest of transparency, here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way.
You are not too big to fail.
In 2017, after leading the Starfinder RPG team through a wildly successful launch, I left my job in the game industry in order to write novels full-time.
I know, I know—I can’t count the number of times I’ve told people to hold onto their day job as long as possible, and especially a creatively fulfilling one. But I honestly thought I’d hit the point where working full time was holding back my career as a novelist. I already had two well-received fantasy novels under my belt, and a respectable following online. I had a bigshot agent and a new novel out on submission. I also had a wife with a tech job who was happy to support me. It was time to stop building my runway and actually take off… right?
A month after I quit my job, my wife got so sick that she had to quit her job—permanently. Suddenly I, the freelance author, was our sole breadwinner (plus full-time caretaker and househusband). Fortunately, we’d planned ahead and had a comfortable safety buffer. And I still had that novel on sub.
Except that novel didn’t sell.
So I wrote another novel.
But my agent didn’t like it.
So I got a new agent.
Except that novel didn’t sell either.
So I wrote another novel.
But my agent didn’t like it.
So I got a new agent…
That’s not a copy-paste error: despite having sold the first two novels I’d ever written, it took me four years, three more novels, and three agents to sell another. And that’s with an established fanbase and all the industry connections you could ask for.
Which brings me to my point: It might seem like success in one genre should transfer over to an adjacent one. And sometimes it does! But just as often, straying from your lane even slightly means you’re going to have to start all over again at the bottom.
You don’t need an agent—you need the right agent.
We don’t talk enough in this industry about the importance of switching agents. We worry that people will wonder what was wrong with us that the relationship didn’t work out. We remember how hard it was to get our first agent, and worry that we’ll never get another. (Which is bullshit: if your work was good enough to get one agent, it’s good enough to get another. And if it’s not, it’s probably better to polish it some more before you go public anyway.)
Switching isn’t necessarily about good agents vs. bad agents, either. Obviously, if your agent sucks—if they aren’t behaving ethically, if they don’t treat you with respect, if they aren’t selling books for anybody—you should move on. But more often, as with dating, it’s about finding the right fit for you. Someone who meshes with you on communication styles, editorial comments, and vision for your career.
In my case, my first two agents were objectively good at their jobs—they have big clients, get good deals, conduct themselves in a professional manner. But like any relationship, agents and clients can grow apart. My first agent had signed me based on a YA fantasy romance, so when I came to her with an SF thriller that read more like adult—and a bunch of other ideas that felt similarly outside her wheelhouse—she suggested I find someone else. So I signed with an adult SFF agent—which was fine until I found myself unexpectedly writing YA contemporary romance and loving it. Neither situation was their fault.
Yet while it was these basic logistical conflicts that led me to my current agent (Josh Adams of Adams Literary), now that I’m here, I’ve discovered just what a relief it is to have an agent whose style perfectly matches mine. When I have a question, he gets back to me immediately—sometimes within minutes. For an anxious author like me, who would otherwise probably spend the hours between question and answer pinned to the floor as my brain does panic-donuts inside my skull, those quick responses save me a ton of lost productivity. Plus, he’s excited to represent me in all the different directions I might want to take my career. (And of course, the fact that he sold Darkhearts in two weeks sure doesn’t hurt!)
So if you’re not thrilled with your current agent, or if they don’t support the direction you want to go next, consider switching. It won’t necessarily be easy—the seven months I spent looking for my third agent were significantly more painful than either of my previous agent searches—but now that I’m here, I’m so, so glad that I did it.
Different genre, different money.
Back when I was commissioning tie-in novels for Pathfinder, all the stats I was able to gather suggested that a “normal” advance for a first adult science fiction and fantasy novel was around $5,000 unagented, or $10,000 agented. Sadly, that number doesn’t appear to have changed much over the last decade. So I went into selling my first young adult novel with that as my benchmark.
Turns out, young adult has more money—like, a lot more. Of course, part of that is my glorious shark of an agent, but Darkhearts has only just launched, and I’ve already made an order of magnitude more money off it than from my Pathfinder novels. If you’re considering hopping genres (or media), do some quick googling and see what numbers you can turn up. You might be surprised.
Follow your heart, trust your gut.
Strategically speaking, writing Darkhearts was a bad idea. I was a speculative fiction guy, with a speculative fiction agent and a speculative fiction fanbase. But when the pandemic hit, I found myself struggling with the dystopian book I’d been working on. On the advice of a friend, I started reading a bunch of contemporary YA romance—and absolutely fell in love (no pun intended). It was just such a wonderful escape to sink into something with a funny, sassy voice, where character rules all and you know you’ll get a happy ending. Because I can never read something great without wanting to try my hand at it, I decided to experiment, drawing on my own experience as an underage musician in Seattle (not to mention a confused bisexual teen). And it felt great. The words flowed, the voice felt natural, and suddenly it was all I wanted to work on.
I knew writing this book wasn’t a smart decision. (In fact, I held off on telling my agent about it until I was almost done.) But I’ve come to believe the best indicator of whether an audience will have fun with a book is whether you have fun writing it. And Darkhearts was fun—there are text-message dick jokes between the two boys that still make me laugh. Now, several years and a new agent later, it’s already the most successful fiction I’ve ever written, giving me a whole new career as a YA author.
Maybe I’d feel different if the book had flopped, but all I know is that I wrote the thing that felt good, that pulled from my own experience and talked about the issues I wanted to discuss—and it worked.
Darkhearts is a novel about realizing you no longer fit inside the box you’ve assigned yourself. That’s true of its protagonist, who has to wrestle with not being the rock star (or the straight guy) he thought he’d become. Yet it’s also true of me as the author, realizing that maybe I’m not meant to exist solely within the genres I’m used to.
So if you’re feeling stuck, if writing’s lost its luster—try something out of left field. Play around with genre, media, voice, subject matter. You might find that you’re a more versatile writer than you thought—and that you’re a whole lot happier that way.
James L. Sutter is a co-creator of the Pathfinder and Starfinder Roleplaying Games and the author of the young adult romance novel Darkhearts, as well as the adult fantasy novels Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine. His short stories have appeared in such venues as Nightmare, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Escape Pod, and more. In addition, he’s also written comic books, essays for publications like Clarkesworld and Lightspeed: Queers Destroy Science Fiction, a wealth of tabletop gaming material, and video games. He lives in Seattle, where he’s performed with musical acts ranging from progressive metalcore to musical theater.