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Friday, September 27, 2013

BEYOND SCIENCE FICTION VS. ROMANCE, PART I



Must all our heroes be alone in the galaxy?
This may indeed have been the year that the rest of the world discovered that romance had somehow infiltrated the ranks of science fiction.  But for those of us who had been reading, writing and loving science fiction romance for the better part of our lifetimes, the question of whether the two genres are compatible had been resolved long ago.  Even the debates around how much of one and how much of another have grown rather stale within the SFR community, given that we have rehashed them so often.

Yes, it’s true that for a tiny fringe group in the science fiction community, the thought of “contaminating” their “pure” SF with romance is an abomination.  My answer to them is “too bad”.  Obviously my books—and the books many of my SFR brothers and sisters write—are not for you.  I won’t waste time trying to sell to you.

The idea of romantic elements in science fiction is nothing new to those familiar with the work of any of the Golden Age authors, with writers like Zenna Henderson, Ursula K. Leguin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Theodore Sturgeon, Anne McCaffery and others of the New Age, or with trailblazers like Linnea Sinclair, Susan Grant or Ann Aguirre of the modern age.  The thought of setting romance in a science fiction framework is likewise not unknown or unpalatable to the thousands of fans of romance superstars Sherrilyn Kenyon, Nalini Singh, Suzanne Brockman, Gena Showalter or Jayne Ann Krentz.

So let’s leave the old issue of whether science fiction romance to the dinosaurs, shall we?  As writers and advocates of this genre we need to move on to more difficult and complex questions.

What is our target audience?  Really.  If the first answer that comes to mind is “women who like science fiction”, then you’re thinking way too small.  The SF-reading audience is tiny to begin with; reduce that to the number of women who read SF and we can practically call them by name.  We might expand it a bit if we include women who like watching SF—fans of beloved TV shows, J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, AVATAR and the like.  And their significant others, or males like them.  But, still, this is a very small slice of the reading pie.

How about “romance readers who like adventure”?  Or “romance readers who like kick-ass heroines or wounded heroes”?  Okay, now we’ve expanded our target audience by a mega-factor.  We might draw in urban fantasy readers or paranormal readers by thinking of our readers that way.  I think of my readers as romantic suspense readers who might be open to a little alien twist.  Or fans of J.J. Abrams and Linda Howard—both of whom work close to home, though J.J. often throws in a little weirdness.

Are we willing to broaden our approach to the story? Writers used to be told to write what they know.  Now, it seems, we’re supposed to write what we love.  But that doesn’t have to mean that the story of your heart is so narrowly focused that you exclude the vast majority of the reading public.

I’ve read too many SFR stories in which the author used the characters for therapy, the world-building as a second job or the romantic arc as an afterthought.  Your friends might go along with you in the first case, hard-core SF fans in the second or third, but if you are trying to sell to a broader audience, no one will be interested.  

Must all of our heroes and heroines be alone in the galaxy, serious as an alien attack and without any sort of longing for the relatably human needs we all share—hearth, home, comfort?  If it’s a romance, there is usually some sort of sex, but sexual tension and emotion are too often lacking.  Romance readers, in particular, look for these familiar things in a story.  They want humor. They want the hero and heroine to have friends and a home, something to sustain them, even when the romance is not going well.   It can be a ship, or a crew.  Why do you think STAR TREK was so successful?

Next week:  Moving beyond our “dime novel” niche.

Cheers, Donna

12 comments:

  1. I have found that romance readers in general are the most welcoming when it comes to SFR. Paranormal readers too. And you're right about the SF watchers, since I've had a few Doctor Who fans reviewing my books.

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  2. That's sort of the stance I've taken in marketing my Endure series, and I've had moderate success with it. I think the problem is that so many readers have grown accustomed to looking at certain subgenres on Amazon and whathaveyou, and are only choosing books from those narrowed down categories. It's the problem with these smaller boxes. I can see why some authors purposely miscategorize their work. While there's the distinct possibility it'll vanish from visibility, it might introduce new readers to your work who are only looking at very small genres. Something to think about, I suppose.

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  3. >debates around how much of one and how much of another have grown rather stale

    Indeed. It's past time to take the SF-Romance mix as a given in all of its forms, as well as to be unapologetic about what we like.

    >the author used the characters for therapy

    Even though I worked as a mental health therapist for many years, I'm not sure what you mean by this. LOL! Would you mind clarifying when you have a chance?

    >Must all of our heroes and heroines be alone in the galaxy

    I can't help but wonder if this is a result of SFR not yet having taken advantage of all the story possibilities out there. We're not seeing it very much simply because it hasn't been written.

    Another factor: stories that come with a heavy dose of community are often tied to series, based on what I've seen in other romance subgenres.

    One can certainly create a good ensemble-based, standalone SFR, but if authors are going to do that much worldbuilding, they might as well exploit the setting with multiple books or novellas (e.g., spinoff stories featuring a different couple per book).

    SFR could certainly benefit from more of the "hearth, home, comfort" type of stories that many readers enjoy, but it would also mean more authors would have to make serious time investments in offering substantial series. Or at least trilogies.

    And I'm not sure how many have the resources or motivation to do that, especially when most digital-first authors aren't getting advances or mainstream distribution.

    Or maybe I'm over thinking the issue. Could more community-type standalone SFRs be the way to start?

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  4. @Heather - I think I can address part of your question, having written one of those writer therapy books. :) In the earliest draft of GHOST PLANET, the heroine needed a lot of "taking care of" by other people in the story. In hindsight, I know this was because I was going through a hard transition in my life, and felt like I needed to be taken care of.

    Interesting to note, however: it was partly due to rewriting this character to make her strong that I found the strength to deal with the issues in my real life that I'd been avoiding.

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  5. @Sharon Ah, that makes sense. Thanks for your input.

    I don't know if I've run across that to any great degree in the stories I've read. Probably not, or I would have remembered, I think.

    But gee, aren't there an awful lot of romances where the hero is depicted as a nurturing god, catering to a heroine's every need? Seems like many readers enjoy that fantasy...!

    What's the difference between incorporating wish-fulfillment fantasies into a text and using the text for therapy, I wonder? Frequency of the fantasy? Seems like a murky boundary if there ever was one.

    I wouldn't mind reading an academic paper on the subject. Laura Vivanco probably has one around somewhere...

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  6. Actually, Heather and Sharon, I meant something a little simpler with that comment. Writers often have their own issues that they need to work out and do it creatively in their work--Sherrilyn Kenyon is a good example. But when the communication between characters seems to be a private discussion that we're only eavesdropping on (that is, it only makes sense to the author), then it belongs in a journal, not a novel. Sometimes even Kenyon is guilty of this.

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  7. Interesting, I don't think I've bumped against that!

    I agree, Heather, I would be really interested to read research or in-depth commentary about that - how writers' baggage plays out in their work, how often it works as a therapeutic tool, whether or not intentional, etc...

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  8. Sorry, my computer is not cooperating today! I also meant to say that a story is better when the characters have broader appeal. They don't have to be completely likable, perhaps, but they should be relatable, redeemable, have something in common with the reader as well as the writer.

    I think, too, that it's possible to provide a sense of community or connection without having to write in a whole ensemble cast. Just a few well-drawn secondary characters or a vivid setting (that the hero/heroine clearly loves) can do the job. That's the emotional component of the worldbuilding task that we often let slip.

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  9. >seems to be a private discussion

    Whoa! I don't think I've encountered that, either. Would love to read some sample text.

    >the worldbuilding task that we often let slip

    I regularly encounter stories where the hero and heroine are isolated for long periods of time, whether that be on a space ship/airship, a hideout, or what have you.

    Alone time for couples is important, but perhaps it might be worth exploring ways to rework that kind of structure in order to feature the community connection angle. One idea, anyway.

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  10. @Heather--part of this "emotional worldbuilding" or sense of community that I often feel is lacking is due to the short word-count of so many SFR stories. There's just no time for adding secondary characters or putting the h/h in a setting other than a hideout or ship hurtling through space (where they need that "alone time" :)). See my post above.

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  11. I think the romance audience, esp. paranormal or urban fantasy audience would be most open to SFR. That and fans of SF media. The romance audience will expect romance, obviously, but I think are forgiving if you don't have a strict HEA/HFN plot but have strong characters such as a spaceship crew. This attachment to character is probably why so many paranormal romance fans and urban fantasy fans cross over.

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  12. I do think many paranormal romance readers would like SFR if they read it.

    I prefer to write people in community, with loved ones. Even though I have two books in my Diaspora series where the couple are stuck in the wilderness, they are book ended by their community, and family. I write children and parenthood, and one of theses days I a kick a$$ heroine who gets pregnant...lol.

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