Thursday, April 26, 2018

The vagaries of genre or where does my book fit?


Laurie's recent post about science fiction romance as a genre resonated with me. I sometimes wonder how big the market is for stories like mine. I can't in all conscience adorn my covers with beautiful male chests, although I'll admit I did try it, a long time ago. (See left) I suspect it worked, too, because readers at least read the blurb. But over time, my stories have become less explicit when it comes to sex, and I believe lots of man-titty signals explicit sex. On the flame scale, I wouldn't put my books at more than 2-3. They're not fade to black when the bedroom door closes, but you wouldn't want to use them as a 'how to'.

Science fiction is such a hard genre to define and the merge with fantasy is unavoidable. We write about 'science' that does not exist. It may in the future, but it's impossible now. Artificial gravity, forms of faster-than-light travel, advanced artificial intelligence, lifelike avatars, alien beings - the list goes on. It's not magic. We don't have magic in our SF worlds. But we can have shifters, vampires, strange alien psi powers and the like. Anything, really - as long as we claim a scientific explanation.

Anne McCaffrey's much-loved Pern series is one that has often been poo-pooed by the SF purists. It has dragons and mental telepathy, so it's fantasy. But the dragons are genetically engineered local species, with powers that evolved so the little fire lizards could escape the ravages of thread. Somebody once described the dragons as an ecologically sustainable air force. I like that. As far as I'm concerned, that's SF, not fantasy. As we say in the copyright notice on our books, "any resemblance to any person (or animal) is purely coincidental".

I actually find it harder to fit the romance half of the title. I'd be much more comfortable being in Science Fiction - romance. Genre, you see. It’s all about marketing. Into which pigeonhole does this book fit? I had some fun drawing a diagram to illustrate some of the complexities of genre.

 Some genres are pretty easy. In romance, the romance must be the focus of the plot, and it must have a happy ever after (HEA) ending or a happy for now (HFN) ending. I talked about the rules of romance here. But every genre has ‘shades of grey’ (yeah, yeah). Science fiction ranges between hard SF and soft SF. I discussed that here. On the hard SF – soft SF line, I’d put most space opera sort of in the middle. Star Wars and Star Trek would definitely be down the soft SF end, McDevitt’s books would be down the hard SF end. Romance has its continuum, too, often expressed in degrees of ‘heat’ (ie explicit sex scenes). In ‘sweet’ romance, the scene stops at the bedroom door. In erotic romance, the sex is explicit.

Now we get to science fiction romance, which is a combination of two genres. The SCIENCE romance – ROMANCE science line indicates what is the most important focus of the work. Would we have a story without the romance? Would we have a story without the science? I would suggest that real SFR should be down the science ROMANCE end – I think Avatar is a good example. Without the romance, there is no story. And in Avatar the explicitness of the sex component is most definitely ‘sweet’. Interestingly enough, one of McCaffrey’s early works, Restoree, is listed in science fiction. Yet Restoree is without a doubt science fiction romance, with a ‘sweet’ tag on the sex register. So SFR has been around for a while, mixed in with SF. But there isn't a lot. When I went looking, Linnea Sinclair's books were in romance, not SF.

It’s a pretty complex combination of components.

When I started writing, I knew I’d write SF because that’s what I like. But I wanted to add a bit of emotion to my writing. Most SF either seemed to leave out love and sex (Asimov), or it was so understated that it almost disappeared. An example of the latter is Moon’s Serrano series. SF was pulp fiction, with an expectation that it was fast-paced action-adventure. A response to a query I sent to a publisher around 2008 reinforced that belief. “Well written, but needs more action.” So I added more action. Still no cigar.

Okay, what about science fiction romance? Ah, but most SFR books are in the romance section. This has an advantage in one way, because romance sales are way, way more than SF. But it seems only a small subset of romance readers will read SF. Moreover, the expectation for the romance genre is that the romance is the core of the book. No romance, no story. I can honestly say that not one of my books fits that definition. Of them all, the Iron Admiral duo come closest and even with those two I had to do some serious tweaking for my editor to agree it had earned a romance tag.

We are told that sticking to one genre when writing is a good idea. And it makes sense. With that in mind, I resolved to write SFR, albeit with less emphasis on the romance.

What’s the outcome? Well, if you’re looking for a fast-paced, action-packed read with a complex plot – come on in, sit right down. Would you like to call that pulp fiction? Sure. Will there be some emotional elements, some sex? Sure. Love is a powerful emotion, sex is a fundamental driving force. You’ll find those things in everything I write. Do I do my research? You bet I do. I try to make my science sound, my history correct, my settings convincing. I suppose, when it comes right down to it, I’d prefer to see my books in the science fiction section. Both they, and I, feel more comfortable there - but SF is still not comfortable with soppy emotion. Just as well I don't have to pay a mortgage with my earnings.


Monday, April 23, 2018

Am I Writing the Wrong Kind of SFR?

I recently wondered if I've come to a creative crossroads. Come muse with me a bit on the status quo of SFR.

When I started penning SFR about ten years ago, the "flavor" of the genre that inspired me was Space Opera Romance. That fit nicely with what some of the big names in SFR were also writing at that time, like Linnea Sinclair, Susan Grant, Ann Aguirre, Lois McMaster Bujold and some of Catherine Asaro's work. It wasn't a copycat scenario for me, in the least. Space Opera has always inspired and moved me, and adding the "R" only enhanced the stakes, in my very humble opinion. It's always been what I've been inspired to write.

I like big, visual, high-stakes SFR--with equally high-stakes romances--whether set on an advanced phototype ship, in an alien civilization, or a near future solar system expedition.

But in the last couple of years I've noted a definite paradigm shift in popularity from Space Opera SFR to Shifter SFR. That would be Dragon, Wolf, Bear, Lion, Tiger shapeshifters, in spaaaaaaace. And other flavors of SF that edge into the Paranormal sectors of fiction.

Hmmm. Is my work out of step with the times? And what does this mean for the genre?

It concerns me that SFR's already tiny sliver of the Romance pie is now being further divided by these new trends. The genre has always been wildly diverse flavor-wise, but it's struggling (yet again) with what it wants to be when it grows up.

For reference, this is the list of current "types" of SFR that fall under the SFR Brigade's umbrella:
  • alien romance
  • alternate history romance (with technology, aka Battlestar Galactica)
  • apocalyptic romance
  • bio-engineered romance
  • biopunk romance
  • cli-fi romance (severe or catastrophic climate change not due to magic)
  • colonization romance
  • contemporary science fiction romance
  • cyberpunk romance
  • cyborg romance
  • distant future romance (takes place far in the future with advanced tech, etc.)
  • dystopian romance
  • Earth-based science fiction romance (such as Jurassic Park)
  • erotica science fiction romance
  • first contact romance
  • futuristic romance
  • interstellar adventure romance
  • military science fiction romance
  • medical science fiction romance
  • near future romance
  • parallel dimension romance (when technology or physics is incorporated)
  • planetary colonization romance (romance happens during space colonization efforts)
  • planetary romance (romance happens on another planet)
  • psi-fi romance (story has a basis in science, technology or physics)
  • space colonization romance
  • space opera romance
  • science fantasy romance (technology blended with metaphysical elements ala Star Wars)
  • slipstream (sci-fi with fantasy, horror, etc. with technical/scientific elements)
  • steampunk romance
  • superhero romance (when superpowers are based on technology or science)
  • time travel romance (when technology or physics, not magic, enables the time travel)
  • top gun romance (top pilot or captain in space)
  • young adult romance or new adult romance with any of the above


  • Whew! That's a very broad spectrum for one genre. (Or even one sub-genre, if that's how you choose to classify it.)

    Though Shifter SFR isn't yet specifically mentioned, most could probably fall under science fantasy romance, futuristic, slipstream, bio-engineered or alien romance, depending on the level and type of science elements introduced to explain (or not explain) the "shifter" characters.

    Looking closer, SFR now seems to be morphing into Paranormal-based SFR and SF-based SFR. That trend concerns me, for a number of reasons.

    SFR seems to be about the only genre struggling with this breakdown. Historical Romance is much more cut and dried in what its readership expects--era-based romances. Contemporary Romance is the same--modern themes and complications. Suspense Romance may be a little more diverse in what creates the "suspense" elements for readers.

    But SFR?---it's all over the frickin' board!

    Some SFR readers like shapeshifters in space. Some like cyborgs. Some like gladiators. Some prefer alien warriors. A unifying theme sometimes helps, like the Pets in Space collections, that joins various genre-diverse stories in a common element. But, all-in-all, the readership of one SFR may not transfer to another.

    This made me take a hard look at my planned series to ponder if the vision is still valid for SFR readers.

    And my intuition tells me it is.

    Expanded novella coming soon
    But that said, a course correction may be in order. Going forward, I need to focus a little more on how I'm going to market my books, since they do venture dramatically close, or even cross over into the fringes of SF territory--where romance plot threads are sometimes immediately discounted by some SF fans. (See my previous blog: Re-Visiting an Old Battle: Keep Your R out of my SF!)

    The flipside of that is I'm seeing romance themes getting more and more acceptable with SF, since they're now found--or at least given a bit of air time--in some very popular series (televised or otherwise). Even The Martian, where author Andy Weir has stated he intentionally created a hero without a love interest back home on Earth, explored a very subtly portrayed romance between two of the crewmembers, Chris Beck and Beth Johanssen (though the scenes where Commander Lewis actually deals with their mission-taboo romance were cut from the original movie and are only seen in the extended cut version).

    So, after much pondering, my advice to myself (to quote a line from an old Star Wars episode) is to: "Stay on target."

    So back to writing my SORs (Space Opera Romances).

    Have a great week.




    Friday, April 20, 2018

    EIGHTY YEARS OF THE MAN OF STEEL


    Happy birthday, Superman! It may be a little early, but what the heck. At 80 years old, you deserve the cake and balloons, you big hunk of red and blue! 

    Hard to believe it, but DC Comics just released Action Comics #1000 this week, 80 years after the Man of Steel debuted in June, 1938. And, as James Whitbrook notes in his post on 109.com, the writers/artists used the occasion to give Supe’s well-known origin story a few new twists.

    You know the tale (and if you don’t, where have you been hiding?): the infant Kal-El is placed aboard an Earth-bound spaceship by his parents to save him from the destruction of his birth planet of Krypton. The spaceship crashes in a cornfield in Kansas, where it is found by Ma and Pa Kent, who raise the Baby Kryptonian as their own darling Clark, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, outrace a speeding bullet, yada, yada.

    Up to now, the various depictions of the destruction of Krypton have all pretty much blamed natural causes (geological instability/solar expansion), war, overweening scientific arrogance or some such. But the new prequel TV show Krypton, set in Kal-El’s grandfather’s time, offers another explanation for Krypton’s destruction. A villain familiar to Superman fans—Brainiac—turns up in a much more menacing form here, threatening to swallow the planet whole. The hero of the show, Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe)—Supe’s young grandfather—must find a way to stop the creature (while fending off a barrage of lesser threats).

    The show allows Superman fans like me a chance to explore the planet and culture of Krypton in a way we’ve never been able to before. We meet the scientific caste, which at one time included the El family (and will again) and the military caste, which includes the Zod family, villains of the future. We even get an eyeful of the original Fortress of Solitude. And we’re introduced to DC Comics’ time-traveling Adam Strange, who comes to warn Seg of what he must do to protect the future.


    By contrast, the comic writers and artists in charge of Action’s Man of Steel have chosen to take the destruction of Krypton in another direction, Their approach gives them leeway to follow dramatic pathways in Supe’s present here on Earth—not a bad thing, really. I won’t spoil it for you in case you want to run out to your nearest comic book store and see for yourself. But Whitbrook is not so constrained in his post, if you just can’t wait to find out.
    In the meantime, lift a glass for the original superhero today and Look! Up in the Sky! It’s Superman!

    Cheers, Donna

    Information for today’s post taken from “Action Comics #1000 Honors 80 Years of Superman with Another Wrinkle in His Origin Story,” by James Whitbrook, io9.com, April 18, 2018. https://io9.gizmodo.com/action-comics-1000-honors-80-years-of-superman-with-an-1825366834
     
     



    Monday, April 16, 2018

    Revisiting an Old Battle: Keep Your R out of my SF

    The other day I was perusing old posts for some specific info when I stumbled on the blog below from nearly five years ago. I read it, sat back, and thought. "Whoa! I'd forgotten about that heated old SFR vs SF battle."

    For the sake of nostalgia (and because I'm plain flat broke on blog ideas this week) I decided to repost this oldie. I still think it makes some valid points on the old SF vs. SFR debate -- and, in retrospect how books written by women are sometimes (often) discounted and scorned as substandard by certain individuals. Sort of a watered-down literary world version of the #metoo movement, isn't it? But I have to add the caveat that it's not just woman writing SFR, especially in more recent years.

    Here's the old commentary:

    Other than a few comments and one short blog, I've remained pretty quiet on this topic. That's not because it doesn't pain and irritate and sometimes outrage me--believe me, it does. It's just that I'm okay with letting people express opinions that are completely other-side-of-the-universe different from my own.

    Freedom of speech is one of the rights we've always (maybe until recent years) prided ourselves on having in this country. When I was young, we were taught to respect, and even consider [gasp!] opinions expressed by others that didn't fit our personal outlook. There was a time when the general feeling was "everyone is entitled to their opinion" though these days that seems to have morphed into "everyone is entitled to my opinion."

    This "Keep your Romance out of my Sci-Fi!" group seems to be a banner-waving minority who'd like to champion that school of thought. But, IMHO, some may be simply using the topic to enhance their stats.

    Case in point:

    There's a difference between freedom to express your opinion and intentionally inciting a reaction. This is why I am choosing to talk about one specific "opinion piece" without including a link. I'd like to state my own opinion of the motivation behind it without feeding that particular fire.

    This past week we were treated to yet another strongly worded argument on keeping Romance out of Sci-Fi, and an equally strong push back, which was immediately labeled as being an attack on an author who has a right to express his opinion. (In other words, he has a right to express his opinion, but no one has a right to pin his hide to the wall in an articulate rebuttal.)

    In my mind, this wasn't an opinion piece, this was a very sad attempt to stir the pot and feed off the controversy for the sake of hit count. The article was meant to incite, not promote discussion, which became painfully clear by the closing words and the subsequent threats to "turn off the comments." And this is why I don't feel this post was really about stating and defending his opinion at all, it was simply a blatant form of manipulation.

    I'm going to avoid direct quotes from the author unless necessary, but let me paraphrase some of the statements made in the article:
    • Some authors who started off writing "true" Science Fiction soon outed themselves by including Romance and that made it unworthy of being called Science Fiction.
    • "Not true" Science Fiction contains elements that only women find interesting, like "military dress, palace intrigue, gossiping, and whispering in the corridors." [A debunking of the works of Lois McMaster Bujold].
    • "Not true" Science Fiction novels that includes Romance lack necessary tension. [A discrediting of the Sharon Lee/Stephen Miller Liaden Universe series.]
    • Steampunk is declared a Fantasy sub-genre, because the author has no interest in reading about "zombies, fancy dress balls, smooching warriors, or star-lit dinners..." 

    The author closes by claiming he has now, "of course," offended everyone by stating his opinion. Which, judging from his provoking conclusion, was the whole point. Let's stir the pot by insulting some of the most beloved Science Fiction [with Romance] series because they contain elements that don't fit his personal narrow-minded definition of the genre. After all, everyone is entitled to HIS opinion--especially when making such bald, condescending statements will up the site's traffic count and generate a deluge of public backlash. Woohoo! Let's poke the tiger!

    So let's look at Science Fiction and Romance debate in a different way--beyond stat-grabbing, beyond personal likes or dislikes, and beyond a futile attempt to defend the "purity" of one small segment of a genre that is fading from the reading public's interest.

    Here's my view (like it or not, it's your choice):

    >  Science Fiction and Romance are soul mates.

    >  Science Fiction is about exploration and discovery. So is Romance.

    >  Science Fiction is about looking at situations in new ways and adapting to changing times. So is Romance.

    >  Science Fiction is about being inventive, spontaneous and pushing the envelope. So is Romance.

    >  Science Fiction is about being forward-thinking and embracing the possibilities. So is Romance.

    >  Romance not only belongs in Science Fiction, it shares the same DNA.

    So if you think exploring the future, other dimensions or emerging technology isn't tied to romance, you're entitled to think that, I suppose. But there's a growing reading public who vigorously disagrees. And ultimately it's the readers--not the authors, bloggers, reviewers or publishing houses--who will decide what is and isn't Science Fiction.

    I rest my case. Please feel free to make yours.

    ~~ * ~~
     
     
    Huh. We lived -- and are still living -- in interesting times. I don't know that SFR has garnered any more respect some five years later, but it seems the efforts to stifle the genre have at least cooled somewhat in more recent years.  
     
    Have a great week.
     
     
     
     
     
    

    Friday, April 13, 2018

    NOT FADE AWAY: A FEW TOUGH CHARACTERS


    The construction of a series is always a complicated task, involving a growing ensemble cast and a multitude of bit players. My SFR Interstellar Rescue series has certainly been no exception, the world I’m building becoming more detailed as I go along. I’m discovering, too, that some of my newer cast members need more than a little bit of “wrangling.”

    My latest novel, Not Fade Away, Interstellar Rescue Book 4 (on pre-order now on Amazon), stars some familiar characters from my previous books in addition to my new romantic couple, Rescue agent Rafe Gordon and home care nurse Charlie McIntyre. That was difficult enough to pull off. But a few unique secondary characters in this book took special handling to get just right on the page.

    Happy, the therapy dog. I introduced Happy in a previous blog post here on Spacefreighters. He was a lot of fun to write, but he was a character in his own right, too, with his own consistent personality and behavior based on his breed and background. I wanted to make sure Happy acted like a real dog, not a Hollywood idea of a dog. I asked my friend Beki Weight, who has years of dog training and fostering experience, to read my manuscript. Her input was invaluable in molding Happy into a believable character.

    Del Gordon, father of the hero. The premise of Not Fade Away is that Rescue agent Rafe Gordon must bring his father, legendary alien fighter Del, now suffering from dementia, to Earth to hide him from alien assassins. Depicting Del in a respectful, yet realistic, way was not easy. 

    I was acutely aware every minute I spent with Del that many of my readers deal with this challenge every day in real life, caring for mothers and fathers, husbands and wives with the heartbreak of Alzheimers, of other forms of dementia, or of traumatic brain injury. To get it right, I did as much research as I could on the specific form of dementia that affects Del (Lewy Body—characterized especially by hallucinations, which figure in the story), and I drew on my years of experience teaching chi gung to dementia patients and assisted-living residents.


    BiN, a sentient computer. At least for Happy or the elderly Del I only had to worry about characterization from the outside. That is, I didn’t attempt to write from either the dog’s POV or the elderly Del’s. (There is extensive flashback material from Del’s younger perspective, though, from a time when his mind was intact.) 

    Building a POV for the character of BiN, the sentient computer, was necessary, since no one else knows what BiN knows of the story. The creature/machine doesn’t become sentient all at once. Like a child, it develops a sense of itself gradually as it accumulates information. And as it accumulates even more information and becomes more curious, it acquires a sense of ethics and morality, a development that was never contemplated or expected by its creators. That’s a major twist in the plot, so must come from BiN’s POV. I had to make it believable, which I just have to hope it is. Not being a programmer, I faked it pretty hard, but real programming language would probably have sent every other reader to sleep within seconds!

    The good thing about writing challenges is that they make for an exciting reading experience in the end. Pre-order your copy of Not Fade Away, Interstellar Rescue Series Book 4 today so you’ll be ready to experience it June 12!

    Earth shielded his secrets--
    Until her love unlocked his heart.

    Rescue agent Rafe Gordon is human, though Earth has never been his home. But when his legendary father Del becomes the target of alien assassins, Rafe must hide the dementia-debilitated hero in the small mountain town where the old man was born—Masey, North Carolina, USA, Earth.

    Home care nurse Charlie McIntyre and her therapy dog, Happy, have never had such challenging clients before. Del’s otherworldly “episodes” are not explained by his diagnosis, making Charlie question everything about her mysterious charge and his dangerously attractive son. Rafe has the answers she needs, but Charlie will have to break through his wall of secrets to get them.

    As the heat rises between Charlie and Rafe, the deadly alien hunters circle closer. The light they seek to extinguish flickers in the gloom of Del’s fading mind—the memory of a planet-killer that threatens to enslave the galaxy.

    Available for pre-order now on Amazon.

    Cheers, Donna


    About Spacefreighters Lounge

    Hosted by 5 Science Fiction Romance authors with 8 RWA Golden Heart finals and a RITA final between them. We aim to entertain with spirited commentary on the past, present, and future of SFR, hot topics, and our take on Science Fiction and SFR books, television, movies and culture.