Tag Archives: genre

Reader expectations – a mixed blessing

There has been outrage amongst my circle of writer friends about the response to E.L. James’s new contribution to literature. For those just emerging from a cave or whatever, this is Grey, the same story told in her Fifty Shades trilogy, but from Christian Grey’s point of view. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to be disappointed and frustrated to learn that Grey sold in excess of one million copies in four days. The question, inevitably, is why?

It’s not JUST marketing. Whether we like it or not, James’s faux BDSM rode the crest of a popularity wave, from whence it was picked up by Random House. Despite the cries of lousy writing, lack of editing, and the depiction of an abusive relationship, the books have out-sold everything except the Bible. People queued for this latest missive.

I should be so lucky.

James hit a nerve. She excited people’s imagination – even, dare I say, the many, many people who bought the books just to see if they were really as awful as everyone said they were. I read a few excerpts online but BDSM erotica (if that’s what it is) is not my thing, so I wasn’t tempted to read any more.

And that brings me back to the real point of this post – reader expectations. If you get it right, as James clearly did, riding on the coat tails of the mystifyingly popular Twilight, you make a killing.

My very good friend, Nya Rawlyns, writes in a variety of genres but these days her books seem to be classified as gay romance. Which is sad, because often it isn’t true. Take her latest offering The Eagle and the Fox.

TEaTFJosiah Foxglove is given a second chance when he takes over his family’s spread in the shadow of the Snowy Range. A veteran of the Gulf War, he came back broken in body and spirit.

Marcus Colton buried his long-time lover and best friend three years ago. Lonely and still grieving, Marcus finds solace in keeping his business afloat but that doesn’t help him get through the long, dark nights.

Damaged souls converge as violence wracks the small community of Centurion, WY. The town protects its own so when Kit Golden Eagle shows up, it’s easy to place blame on the stranger.

Kit Golden Eagle is running. From poverty, from abuse. Forced to live by his wits, the Ojibwe teen slowly succumbs to living a life of hate and lies.

It looks open and shut, but for Josiah and Marcus the facts simply don’t add up.

Something’s rotten in Centurion, something that smacks of a hate crime…

Unfortunately, this excellent book is diminished by reader expectations. Some look at the cover and expect a paranormal with shape shifters. (The eagle and the fox, you see.) Others will read the blurb and realise Kit Golden Eagle and Josiah Foxglove might be the eagle and the fox. That, and the fact no mention is made of shape shifting and the book isn’t listed as paranormal. Heck, it’s not even listed as a romance, yet it has been judged as one.

Expectations, you see.

If it’s listed in gay literature, it has to be a romance, it has to be steamy. Except it’s not. Sure, there’s a romance arc – with sex, even. Life tends to be like that – love will find a way. But it’s a loooong way short of the whole story.

What this book is is a slice of life in a small American town, where the drought hits hard and despair hits harder. Foxglove is a war vet with PTSD. Marcus is an in-the-closet gay man who has lost his partner. Petilune is a vulnerable young girl with a learning disability and Kit Golden Eagle is an embittered Native American kid making his way in the world as best he can. And, as the blurb says, something’s rotten in Centurion which will enmesh the whole community.

I love the way Rawlyns brings the tiny town of Centurion, overshadowed by Wyoming’s Snowy Range, to life. You don’t have to be American to relate. Transfer the story to a dusty wheat belt town in Western Australia and it’ll still make sense. Because it’s about the characters, you see. It isn’t a boiler plate, paint by numbers romance, it’s a slice of life with all the complexity that involves. Nothing like the nasty, fantasy world of Christian Grey.

This book is very difficult to slot into a box. I’ve spent some time considering where I’d put it on a bookshelf. Let’s see now… a slice of life starring a range of disadvantaged, damaged people. A small town mystery, hope and despair, starting again, love and loss… <Sigh> I guess it’s just going to have to go into Literature.

Oh – and for those to whom these things matter, it’s beautifully written. Go on, give it a try. There’s a link on the cover.

I’m busy #amwriting but I also talk about genre

Starfield shipThe title says it all, folks. I’m writing up a storm – or trying to. Writing is just like any other pastime – cooking, hockey, netball, swimming, tatting. If you stop doing it, the skills atrophy. But I’m around 6k into what will be a longish short story, and it’s all coming back to me. Like riding a bike.

Meanwhile, pop on over to this week’s post on Spacefreighters, where I talk about genre and what it means in science fiction romance.

Science fiction romance – caught between a rock and a hard place

Talking about what constitutes ‘romance’ seems to be a bit like climbing over the fence into the lions’ compound knowing they haven’t been fed for a while. But I have to say I find the debate a little bit perplexing when it comes to the genre I mostly write – science fiction romance.

couple on the beach silhouetteOn the one hand, the born-again romance readers insist that without a HEA (happily ever after ending, for those not in the know) or at the very least a HFN (Happy For Now) then the story doesn’t qualify as ‘romance’. On the other hand there’s more than a suggestion from the science fiction fraternity (I use the word deliberately) that all that soppy love stuff doesn’t belong in science fiction.canstockphoto19778842

I’m not really a romance reader and I’d be the first to say that my stories are SF action/adventure with a strong romance arc. Mostly. I think. And we get back to the old question of genre.

Back in the very recent past we didn’t have a science fiction romance genre. You had a choice: science fiction or romance. So you took your chances. Have your book panned by the hard-line SFers who didn’t want any of the smulchy squishy stuff, or have your book panned by the romance die-hards who protested your story wasn’t a romance because it wasn’t the raison d’etre of the plot.

Let’s consider my latest effort, Crisis at Validor, because… just because.

Is it a romance?Picture of cover for Crisis at Validor

I’ve included the Romance Writers of America definition of romance.

Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

  • A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.
  • An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction. Click here to better understand the subgenres within romance.

So that’s what the RWA had to say. Let’s get back to Crisis at Validor.

Is it a love story? Yes. Two people who had been in ‘love’ in their teens meet up and find the ember still glows

Is it the main plot arc? I believe you can tell this by asking the question – if you take out the romance would you still have a story? And the answer to that (IMO) is also yes. (But the romance raises the stakes for both parties)

So it’s not a romance, it just has a romantic arc with a couple of non-specific squishy scenes. I think.

Is it science fiction?

Is it SF? When we’re discussing speculative fiction (which we are) Orson Scott Card gives a very interesting definition of the difference between science fiction and fantasy. “If the story is set in a universe that follows the same rules as ours, it’s science fiction. If it’s set in a universe that doesn’t follow our rules, it’s fantasy.” “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy” p22. On that definition Crisis at Validor certainly is SF.

Is it hard SF? No, it’s not. It’s space opera which the purists consider to be ‘soft’ SF. But it is SF, with non-humanoid aliens with their own politics and their own problems, space ships, inter-planetary travel and the like. There’s no magic, even if inter-planetary travel is pretty slick. If you want an explanation, see my post on planet hopping.

But I’m sure as hell certain that with that cover and that romance arc, it won’t be popular with the ‘straight’ SF community. I recently saw a request by a prominent SF writer (female) who is collecting data for a degree. She wanted the names of women who have published in science fiction since 2000. That’s fine – but she very specifically states that she doesn’t want straight science fiction romance.

And that, folks, sums it up for me. Pick your cliché

  • rock and a hard place
  • devil and the deep blue sea
  • out of the frying pan into the fire

The fact is, we have to pick a genre when we publish. I’ve opted for the soft and squishy SFR option – and I firmly believe that if you can classify Romeo and Juliet, Gone with the Wind and Doctor Zhivago as ‘romances’ then there’s room for romance arcs that don’t necessarily end up as HEA or HFN. I’ve said before I see the SFR genre as a continuum, and I hold to that view. There’s room for all kinds of nuances on that line.

I’d love to hear your take on this debate.

Do we really need all this segmentation?

I was idly scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed this morning and came across an interesting promo for a book. So I had a look at the blurb and the cover and noticed a reference to “a great new NA book”. (Or words to that effect.) I frowned. NA? Not applicable? New Age? And then I twigged.

‘New Adult’. I’d seen a reference to it somewhere before. It’s a market segment. Hey, segmentation is a perfectly legitimate approach and it’s why Facebook keeps asking questions like where do you live? In my case, they’d know not to bother trying to push ads for American restaurants at me.

So how is NA different to YA – young adult? Mind you, I’ve always had a bit of a problem with YA, too. What’s a ‘young adult’? If you’re still at school, do you qualify? If you’re fifteen and an apprentice does that qualify? To my mind, a ‘young adult’ might be somebody who has left school, turned 18 so they can legally drink, have sex, get married. Or is that 16? Or 21? Having a thing called ‘New Adult’ just makes it worse. Do you graduate from YA to NA when you turn 21? When you leave school? And when do you move from NA to… whatever’s next? GU (grown up)? MWK (married with kids)? AD (adult divorced)?

One author explained to me that the NA category gives the buying public an idea of what to expect. A young person newly arrived at adulthood but without experience, somebody in the eighteen to twenty-five age group. It’s a bit like saying YA is for readers in their teens, and this is likely to be a coming-of-age story.

So now, if I want to get a list of books to satisfy my reading needs I guess I have to say ‘science fiction but not dystopian, no zombies or werewolves or vampires, romance ok but not erotic, not GLBT, not childrens, not YA…’ But isn’t that why we have genres, blurbs and covers, and why (if we have an ounce of sense) we read the first few pages before we buy? And why wouldn’t I buy an NA book? Just about every war story involves young people in that 18-25 demographic facing horrible situations. That’s just one example.

As far as I’m concerned, if it’s not for kids it’s for grown-ups. I was reading ‘grown up’ books at quite a young age and now, at quite an old age, I’ll still read books labeled as YA (or younger) such as Harry Potter. It’s hard enough sifting through the myriad micro-slices of genre without adding to the confusion.

Rant over. We will now return to normal programming. Feel free to hit me with your opinions.

 

Into which pigeonhole does this book fit?

picture of bookshelf filled with booksThe recent brouhaha over science fiction and science fiction romance has got me thinking about genre. It’s a necessary concept. When I walk into a bookstore (or look up an online bookstore) I don’t what to have to trawl through the eleventy-billion books I really won’t be interested in reading, so I’m glad the shelves are marked. Personally, I’ll head for the SFF section first (Science Fiction and Fantasy – they always seem to be lumped together). There, you’ll find books by Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Moon, Elspeth Cooper, George R. R. Martin, Jack Mc Devitt, C.J. Cherryh, Star Wars, Star Trek and also vampires, werewolves and the like. But not science fiction romance – not on physical shelves, anyway. I found Linnea Sinclair’s books in the romance section. The only reason I found them was because I was looking – I do not normally read 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.

diagram of ranges in genreSome 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. The science is of less importance. 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.

It’s a pretty complex combination of components.

So what is this analysis all about? I’m reviewing where I want my own work to fit.

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 the 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. Let’s go back to that bookshop and see where we go shopping, how we go shopping. I can give an example from my own experience. I read Elizabeth Moon’s SF books. So I bought Speed of Dark. But that book, award winner though it is, is about her son’s autism. I wasn’t in the least bit interested. I had a similar experience with a Ruth Rendell novel that wasn’t what I had expected,

With that in mind, I resolved to write SFR, albeit with less emphasis on the romance. However, it meant I had to come up with convincing HEA or HFN outcomes for my protagonists. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it hasn’t always been a satisfying outcome for me – or my readers. I’m now going back and making some changes to Starheart, removing the HEA ending and downplaying the romance element. I’ll do some tweaking to Morgan’s Choice, too. Some of the rules of romance just don’t sit comfortably with me.

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.

The Last Analog Summer – and the vexed question of genre

picture of book coverWhat genre does the book fit under? It’s one of the catch-cries of publishing. Where do we put the book on the shelf? Which other books are its peers? That decision isn’t always easy, and Fred Limberg’s The Last Analog Summer is a case study, if you will.

Here’s the blurb

Welcome to Dodge, Iowa. Population: Frustrated. Why? Because it’s a digital dead-zone…a lonely analog island in an ocean of corn.

Old cars, record players, and some radios work okay—but there are no iPods, no internet, no video games or laptop computers, no cell phones, and some days…not much hope, it seems, for kids who’ve visited the big city.

The government insists an ancient magnetic meteorite is buried beneath the town. That’s what fries everything electronic. Uh-huh…right.

And, hey…pay no attention to the razor-fenced tower complex way out there in the corn, guarded by gun-toting camo-dudes. What secret compound? What power surges?

What a bunch of Bullthit!

Kevin, Tandy, and Deke, just graduated, are desperate to get out of Dodge. Trouble is, they’re flat broke and stuck in a bad ‘60’s movie. A mountain of debt looms, as well as a mountain of doubt.

Then Deke stumbles across ‘The Stratocaster’ at a farm auction. It’s old…way old…a pristine sunburst ’57 Strat. And it’s valuable…way valuable. They know immediately it’s their ticket out, a head-start on a real life…of having a chance.

The Last Analog Summer is a coming-of-age thriller—quirky, funny, tender at times, and full of worrisome twists. Kev, Tandy, and Deke desperately try to hang onto the old guitar. If it isn’t the town punk tricking them at the auction, it’s his misguided mom giving it to the radio preacher at WWJD, because, well… that’s what Jesus would do. And just when they have Reverend Diz on board— Ivy and Remy’s antics, which are antagonizing the camo-dudes to no end as they try to finally get some answers about the tower surges, go horribly wrong.

Will it take an Act-of-God, intervention by the mysterious and enigmatic Elston Gunn, or maybe…an all-out invasion by the U.S. Army to get the Stratocaster in their hands, once and for all?

****************

On the face of it, this is out-and-out YA. After all, a YA book normally has protagonists in their late teens, and the main plot arc is ‘coming of age’. This book shouts all those things.

But wait…

If you said the names Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper , or Ritchie Valens to your average sixteen-year-old, he/she would give you one of those looks. What? Who? But if you’re my age (I’m in my sixties), the songs would play in your head. You might even start to sing the words. If you knew… Peggy Sue… I’ll stop there.

This book commences with a prologue, on that fatal winter’s day when Holly and his mates died in a plane crash. Old farts like me will know the names, know the songs, know about that accident. It’s a brilliant prologue because when it’s finished, the reader knows something the main characters do not, and this fact adds so much to the story of the Stratocaster, which is the star of the show. I found myself thinking, ‘if you only knew’ – rather a lot. Take heed, all those who favour prologues. They’re fine, if they have a real purpose. This one has.

But as they say, that’s not all. The other aspect of this story which takes it over into adulthood, is the town itself. Dodge, Iowa, with its old cars, vinyl records, an all-purpose bar-come-eatery and church on Sundays. The corn is beginning to grow, the water flows around a great, big rock in the creek, where the kids gather to talk and do a bit of skinny-dipping. Kevin angles for a kiss, and hopes for more. School’s finished, so they need jobs. Any kind of job.

Do you remember all that stuff? I do. Maybe not in small-town, middle America, but it wasn’t so very different down in Western Australia when I was growing up. The offset of that, is I appreciate all the modern technology, so I can indulge in a bit of nostalgia, while still understanding how the kids would feel, effectively cut off from their own generation.

So I was well and truly sucked in. The story is told from eighteen-year-old Kevin’s point of view as he wrestles with all those issues of growing up; honesty, trust, sex and doing what’s right. Limberg has drawn all his characters with loving care. You very quickly get a grasp on the teenagers, and their different personalities. The secondary characters are just as real. I could see this story roll out like a movie script. The only people who are a tad two-dimensional are the bad guys, the camo-dudes protecting the Secret of the Tower – but that’s actually okay, because of the way the book is written. That’s what Kevin thinks, who are you, a mere reader, to argue?

This is a terrific story for people of all ages. It would be one real, Goddam shame if the book is tucked away on some shelf labeled ‘YA’. It’s the last place old farts would go and look. Isn’t it? Personally, I’d rather see books put in the adult section. When I was a kid (as in early teens and up), I rarely looked at the kids’ books, I was past them in reading ability, and subject matter. I’m inclined to think that The Last Analog Summer is more likely to appeal to adults, than to teenagers.

Which shelf? I dunno. Is it a mystery? Not really, although there are a few mysterious goings-on. Is it a thriller? No. It’s a lovely little story that brings the past into the present – and in the end, you have to wonder how much has really changed. So… literary fiction, then? Shudder?

I’d love to know what you think.