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Friday, November 11, 2011

Beyond Labels: Who R U?


Think of the phoenix, rising from the ashes in triumph. Or the chameleon, changing colors to adapt to its environment, while its shape remains the same. Or, if you prefer as many times I do, imagine the penmonkey*, shrieking insults and hurling, um, coconuts from the leafy canopy down upon the prowling leopards of doubt and criticism.

Or, if none of these images work for you, simply remember the advice of the immortal Bruce Lee: “Be like water, my friend.” Fluid, able to move around obstacles, yet a force powerful enough to wear down mountains. Water can be liquid, solid or gaseous, and yet it is always H20. Which leads me, at last, to my point.

If you have been following this blog and its related links for the past couple of weeks, you are familiar with the ongoing question of identity and nomenclature our SFR community has been batting back and forth like players in a game of intellectual badminton. As a community of writers (and readers, too, perhaps), it does matter how we identify ourselves to the publishing “establishment”. It is true, whether we like it or not, that agents, editors and market professionals want to know where we “fit” when we query them or pitch them. So it helps to have a tag that makes sense, just like the tags on Amazon help sell the books once they get out there.

For what it’s worth, my vote is still with science fiction romance, or SFR, for that tag. We’ve spent a lot of time and energy building momentum behind that label, and I still think it works for the broad community of writers that includes everything from alien erotica to hard SF/military space adventure with romantic elements.

But the label we attach to the finished work is far less important than the elements of the story we put together to create it—the characters, the plot, the setting, the pacing, the goal/motivation/conflict, and most of all, the voice we as authors bring to it. All of that work—from the first glimmer of an idea to the final polished draft—is best done without worrying about whether the manuscript will sell better to an SF audience or a romance audience. The writing should be about the writing—following the story, listening to your Muse, allowing yourself to be truly creative.

Obviously there are rules, and even the most creative among us needs to know them. You can’t get away with breaking them until you know them. A Diane Gabaldon, who wins by breaking all the rules, comes along maybe once in a generation, and no one can figure out how she does it. But if you know and practice your craft until you are confident you’ve found your own true, genuine voice, then that voice will be yours whether the story happens to be about a space captain, a werewolf alpha or a cop looking for a second chance.

This point was brought home to me twice this week. In an article in TV GUIDE, I came across an article about the spotty success of television rehashes such as “Charlie’s Angels” (which bombed) vs. “Hawaii Five-O” (which is a huge hit). If you ask me, that’s a no-duh, given that Alex O’Laughlin anchors H50, but the television producers asked to comment said we’ll see more remakes, even if they are somewhat risky, simply because “the brand is more important than the content”. Yeah. I’ll pause while you consider all the implications of that statement.

Then I was reading Angela Knight’s latest Mageverse novel Master of Shadows (a paranormal romance) and saw an ad for her last SFR title Guardian in the back of the book. Like many successful paranormal writers, Angela also writes SFR (Guardian, from 2009, is her fourth), and they sell mostly because her fans will buy anything she writes. (Sherrilyn Kenyon and Gena Showalter are also in this category.) We could say Angela has a “brand”. I prefer to say her fans know her voice—that combination of breakneck pace, hot sex, great action and hissable villains—and hear it no matter whether the story concerns vampires, witches and Dire wolves created by Merlin or heroes from the future protecting the timeline from super-powerful criminals.

So what would I like my “fans” to expect from my books, no matter what they are about? Great characters, a vivid sense of place, hot sex, suspense, the idea that good triumphs over evil. So far, the stories that occur to me have all fit the science fiction romance label. (Though I’ve seen fit to add “suspense” to my own marketing effort, making it “SF suspense romance”.) But you never know. I may come up with a werewolf romance set in Regency England. (Please, God!) I would just hope they'd all have that Donna Frelick voice to them, something identifiable that my fans are looking for.

True, I don't have fans yet. I haven't convinced an agent or an editor that my voice is special. But is it the label that's holding me back? I don't think so. One day the story and the voice and the right stars in the universe will align. Either that or, well, I'll just start tossing those coconuts.

[*Wondering what a penmonkey is? Check out this terrific blog, hosted by author Chuck Wendig, http://terribleminds.com. ]

Remembering Our Veterans

Thank you to my father (now deceased), my father-in-law, my two brothers, my grandson’s father and all the other men and women who served our country on this day we devote to our combat veterans. May you get the genuine recognition you deserve from your country in return.

P.S.
I'll be taking a little break for a close encounter with medical technology and the Thanksgiving holiday, but I'll be back in two weeks. See ya then!

Cheers, Donna

4 comments:

  1. Extremely well said, as always, Donna. It is really, at heart, about the story, and the story is revealed through the voice.

    Here's to the content always being more important than the brand.

    Just want to throw in my list of veterans while I'm at it. Hats off to my spouse, my brother, my neice and nephews, my Dad (RIP), one of my critique partners, DL Jackson, and all my many coworkers and superiors for their service to our country. We wouldn't live in the world we do, and might not even have a country, if it wasn't for the service and the sacrifice of the brave men and women of our military.

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  2. I enjoyed reading this post, Donna. It's interesting about author branding. I once said (as I'm sure others have) that Nora Roberts could sell her grocery list.

    About us not so famous authors, I think we just need to be true to ourselves and our work and what we want to show the world, maybe.

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  3. Author branding can only take them so far with me - particuarly with authors who write series. In almost all cases, they go on too long - probably pushed by their publishers.
    For us lowly mortals who have to fight for every sale - it is hard to find your voice and then even harder to make yourself heard among the cacophony of other authors who write just as well as you do. All you can do is be true to yourself and write what you love.

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  4. I'm convinced the penmonkey has saved me thousands in therapy.

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