Monday, September 30, 2013

BEYOND SCIENCE FICTION VS. ROMANCE PART II

Actual dime novel cover/ Syracuse U. library.


In Friday's post I argued that those of us who read, write and love Science Fiction Romance need to move beyond the old issue of whether SF and romance belong together and start asking ourselves some tougher questions.  This next one might be the toughest one of all. 

Can we move beyond our “dime novel” niche?  In the latter part of the 19th and the first part of the 20th Century, the new genres of science fiction, mystery and romance were launched as cheap short stories sold for as little as a penny (“penny dreadfuls”) and later as novels sold for the extravagant price of a dime.  This “pulp fiction” was not known for the quality of its production or its prose, and it earned its authors almost nothing, but it did keep its working class audience supplied with an endless stream of (mostly forgettable) stories.  Yes, some great authors did emerge from this sea of words—Edgar Allen Poe, among the earliest, Edgar Rice Burroughs, E.E. “Doc” Smith and others later on—but many others remain unknown today.

The digital revolution of recent years has opened up the world of publishing to new authors and new genres in much the same way.  Got a manuscript and agents and the legacy publishers won’t give you the time of day?  No worries.  There are dozens of digital-first and digital-only publishers to try.  If you don’t have the patience to submit to these publishers, you can always self-publish, with any number of helpers standing ready to provide editing, cover artwork, formatting and other services (for a price).

Digital publishing has been very welcoming to SFR, putting out dozens of titles over the past few years as digital-first or digital-only.  And yet, the digital revolution has come with its own problems.   The best-selling digital titles across the board are erotica, and SFR seems to be no exception.  Visit the website of the oldest and most established digital publisher online and it is visually impossible to sort out the strictly romantic SFR from the erotic SFR.  I like a good alien sandwich as much as the next gal, but that’s not what I’m looking for every time.  And it gives the impression, like the pulp fiction of old, that this is all we are.

The quality of self-pubbed titles (and even those from some digital houses) varies wildly and a few bad apples can really spoil the barrel.   Get burned a few times and a reader may begin to blame 1) digital publishing or 2) SFR.

Pricing is an ongoing conundrum and finding the sweet spot for a digital offering is anyone’s guess.  The idea that giving away books in hopes of gaining readers has become so entrenched in the digital world that it is almost a lost cause to argue against it.  Self-pubbers, especially, believe giving their hard work away for free or for $.99 will eventually get them a loyal audience.  Personally, I believe this practice drags us all down.  Because of the profusion of free stuff, readers have begun to expect to read for free.  That only encourages piracy.  In art as in life, you get what you pay for.  You should expect to pay for quality work.

Digital titles also tend to be short—novella length or shorter.  Since we can assume that the cost of producing a longer novel is not a major factor influencing the publishers here, what is driving this trend?  Is it truly that our readers don’t want to read longer stories?  Or that the current readers aren’t interested?  Or are we settling for stories that feature the same old kickass heroines and emotionally distant heroes, few secondary characters, a single, easily resolved plot and no subplots, a quickly sketched world and the clich├ęd aliens to go with it?  This is pulp fiction at its worst—or our version of category romance.  It has its place, I suppose, but we need to move beyond it or we will never “break out” in the market or in readers’ minds.

Finally, how do we find the gold beneath the dross—and make sure it shines? When was the last time you were so excited by a science fiction romance novel you’d read that you just had to tell someone about it?  What SFR author’s books will you rush to buy without even stopping to ask what they’re about?  Where do you go consistently to get recommendations you trust about the best in new SFR?  (This last question, at least, I have an answer for—Heather Massey at The Galaxy Express is my go-to for reading recommendations.)

We, as a budding “industry”, need to do a better job of sorting through all the masses of titles out there to make it easy for readers to find the kind of SFR they’re looking for—military, space opera, “hearth and home” (Heather’s term for mundane or Earth-based SFR and I love it!), erotica, science thriller—and find the authors they’ll like.  

There is a multi-blog effort afoot (of which Spacefreighters Lounge hopes to be a part) to do an SFR/mainstream author comparison, as in “if you like Sherrilyn Kenyon’s League Series you’ll like Marcella Burnard’s Enemy Within”.  A new online magazine, the Sci Fi Romance Quarterly, launching in November and edited by K.S. Augustin, Diane Dooley and Heather Massey, will also be devoted to all things SFR, including book reviews.  And, of course, there are the blogs and websites listed here on SL that stay on the cutting edge of SFR.

These things will help, but they are only a beginning as we move into the next phase of advocating for science fiction romance.  What other questions should we be asking, and where will we find the answers?

Cheers, Donna

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

Friday, September 20, 2013

IF IT'S BEEN A ROUGH WEEK FOR YOU . . .

Okay, I admit it.  Things have caught up with me this week.  So no words of wisdom from my corner.  But I did find this AWESOME clip of a talented otter, courtesy of my favorite website io9.com.   ENJOY!



Cheers, Donna






Sunday, September 15, 2013

1,600 Pounds of Writerly Inspiration

Now, Voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find. 
—Walt Whitman, 1819-1892

As a species, we experienced something amazing this past week. The realization we have a starship--an honest to goodness starship--the first man-made craft confirmed to have ventured into the unknown depths of interstellar space.



Image courtesy of NASA
Interstellar space! Just think of that, the dark and empty void between the stars. Out beyond the heliosphere--that bubble around our home system made up of charged-particle plasma ejecta from our Sun, into the unchartered space where this million-mile-per-hour solar wind gives way to a cooler, density space awash with charged particles from around the galaxy. Via Voyager 1, we learned that boundary lies at about 11.3 billion miles out from our Sun.

But Voyager 1, and its sister ship, Voyager 2, have been flying through space for over 36 years and though largely forgotten until this major milestone brought them back to light, they've made history in a number of ways. 


  • The Voyager mission was conceived in 1960 as a Planetary Grand Tour, using Jupiter's gravity as a slingshot to send the crafts on to Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The slingshot effect was later named gravity assist.
  • Voyager I and 2 were originally to be named Mariner 11 and 12, however budget cuts forced a scale-back of the primary mission. Later referred to as the Mariner Jupiter-Saturn Probes, they were eventually renamed Voyager I and 2.
  • Voyager 2 was actually launched before Voyager 1, on August 20, 1977. Voyager I was launched on September 5, 1977.
  • Both crafts carry the famous Golden Record containing sounds of Earth--including human voices in several languages, insects, frogs, rain, whalesong, volcanoes, and symphonies. They contain the famous greeting "Hello from the children of planet Earth" recorded by Carl Sagan's young son, and a schematic of how to play the record in addition to a depiction of Earth's location in relation to several pulsars.
  • Voyager I entered the asteroid belt on December 10, 1977. Nine days later, on December 19, Voyager I overtook Voyager 2.
  • Image courtesy of Wikipedia
  • Voyager I's primary mission ended on November 2, 1980, after exploring Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1980. It was the first probe to provide detailed images of the two gas giants and their many moons. (Go HERE and scroll down the page to see an amazing time lapse video of Voyager 1's approach to Jupiter on the right sidebar.)
  • Differences between photos of the Jovian moon Europa taken in 1979 resulted in scientists theorizing that Europa may have a 30 mile deep liquid water ocean interior, below 19 miles of ice.
  • The Voyager probes discovered volcanic activity on Jupiter's moon Io that had not been discovered by the earlier Pioneer probes.
  • After Voyager 2 observed a thick atmospheric haze over the Saturn moon Titan, Voyager 1 was diverted for a closer fly-by. Its trajectory later carrying it out of the ecliptic plane of the solar system and ending its Grand Tour which originally would have taken it by Pluto after observing Saturn.
  • On February 14, 1990, Voyager 1 took the famous solar system "Family Portrait"--a mosaic of 60 frames taken from 6 billion miles out--and showing six planets--Jupiter, Earth, Venus, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune--as well as our Sun. The famous image of Earth became known as the "Pale Blue Dot" and inspired Carl Sagan's book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. The photos were taken at 40.11 AU and 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane of the solar system.
  • Voyager I overtook the earlier Pioneer 10 craft on February 17, 1998 at a distance of about 69.4 AUs. (An AU, or Astronomical Unit, is the distance between Earth and the Sun.) Pioneer 10 was launched 5-1/2 years earlier in March 1972 and was traveling outbound at approximately 28,000 mph. The last detectable signal received from Pioneer 10 was on January 23, 2003. It was well beyond 80 AU at the time.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
  • Voyager 2 reached a distance of 100 AU on November 12, 2012, only the third craft to have reached this point in the wake of Voyager 1 (at 122 AU) and Pioneer 10 (at 107 AU). However, only the two Voyager craft are still communicating with Earth.
  • Although Voyager I was confirmed to have crossed the heliosphere on September 12, 2013, it required over a year to determine that the craft had actually made the transition on August 25, 2012. It took over 35 years to reach interstellar space traveling at a speed of about 38,110 miles per hour.
  • Voyager I's radio signals (which travel at the speed of light in space) reach Earth in only about 17 hours 23 minutes.
  • Voyager 1 and 2 are expected to run out of power sometime between 2025-2030--over 48 years after their launches--but a shutdown of the science instruments will take place in 2020.

The Voyager probes have given humankind major breakthroughs in the understanding of our world, our solar system, and our universe. As a Science Fiction/Romance writer, I owe these pioneers of space exploration a debt of gratitude. So many of their discoveries and imagery have provided the backbone of research and the spark of inspiration for my work.

On Friday, an invitation was extended to the public to send a message to Voyager 1 via @NASAVoyager using the hashtag #MessagetoVoyager. I was happy to add my tweet to the many other greetings and well wishes aimed at Voyager I:



Godspeed, Voyagers.


Friday, September 13, 2013

A FAREWELL TO ANN CRISPIN


For the second time in less than a month I find myself writing in memory of a lost mentor.  On September 6, 2013, noted science fiction author Ann C. Crispin lost a two-year fight with cancer and died at the age of 63.
 
As A.C. Crispin, she wrote the first STAR TREK pro novel to hit the NY TIMES bestseller list (Yesterday’s Son, a sequel to the classic TREK episode ALL OUR YESTERDAYS).  She built on that success with two other wildly popular Vulcan-themed TREK pro novels, Time for Yesterday and Sarek.  In addition, she gave Han Solo a new love interest in a STAR WARS pro novel trilogy and wrote pro novels for the television shows ALIEN and V.

Despite being named a Grandmaster by the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers in 2013, Ann created her own worlds as well, with the seven-book SF Starbridge series aimed at younger readers, and the Witch World series (with Andre Norton).

Science fiction writers knew Ann as a Regional Director, then Vice President of the Science Fiction Writers of America for a number of years.  But it was as co-founder (with Victoria Strauss) and lead watchdog of Writers Beware!, an organization created to protect writers from scammers and fraud, that scribblers of all genres owe Ann a huge debt of gratitude.

Before Ann and Victoria founded Writers Beware! in 1998, there was no one place to go to check out agents or publishers, to learn about all the ways you might be exploited as an author and to find out how to protect yourself.  There was word of mouth, of course, and there were a few good books.  Writers Beware! gave writers a place to check out iffy agencies and schemes that seem too good to be true.  Ann and her partner, Victoria, were tireless in their pursuit of the bad apples out there who tend to spoil the publishing barrel.  Victoria has vowed to carry on the good fight in Ann’s name.

Of course, a few lucky people have Ann to thank for a much more direct impact on their careers.  I consider myself to be one of them.  For many years, Ann taught a writers’ workshop at the Shore Leave STAR TREK convention in Towson, Maryland.  Shore Leave is the biggest fan-run con in the country, and it is heavily writer-oriented.  Peter David, Harold Weinstein, Kathy Rausch, Jacqueline Lichtenberg and others are frequent attendees.  The dealers’ room is home to plenty of fan fiction publishers, including Orion Press, publisher of my early TREK novels and short stories.

A couple of years in to my Shore Leave experiences, I got brave enough to sign up for one of Ann’s workshops.  This was no commonplace act of idle curiosity.  I’d seen Ms. Crispin charging up and down the crowded convention hallways, her curly red hair flying in her self-created breeze.  People scattered before her like wind-driven leaves.  They approached her with trepidation.  She was a Force To Be Reckoned With.  And I wanted her to read my useless drivel?  Ulp.

I didn’t feel much better after the general workshop session.  Oh, yes, she was funny and smart and her presentation was to the point.  I learned vast amounts about how to put a story together.  (Most important lesson and one I’ll never forget:  story is all about giving your protagonist problems, the more the better.  Now every time I see a movie or read a book where it seems the writer is just piling on the poor hero, I think of Ann.)  But she didn’t tolerate stupid questions—or worse, stupid answers.  And, God forbid that you would try to defend an indefensible position—fifty pages of dull exposition, for example.  She would cut you to ribbons along with your boring tale.

So I was sweating my individual critique session. (And, yes.  Ann gave individual critiques.  She read all of my 100-page TREK novella for the very reasonable price of this workshop.  I still can’t believe it.)  But I needn’t have worried. She told me the story was “perfectly publishable.”  Not that the powers that be would publish it.  My female lead was too strong—the editors would accuse her of being a Mary Sue.

Of course, Ann had to explain to me who and what Mary Sue was—I’d never heard of the term at the time.  But my lone wolf trader Captain Kate Logan, though not a Mary Sue, was definitely a strong female character—she had to be to capture the attention of Jim Kirk.  At least my rejection from Pocket Books now made some kind of sense.

I took another workshop from Ann the following year and submitted a little SFR short story of my own called “Rose-Colored Glasses.” This critique wasn’t such a success, at least I didn’t think so at first.  Ann called me out on a detail of life in the nursing home where the story was set, and then she made this momentous comment:  “You have a real talent for writing romance.”

I’m sure my face turned Security red.  Romance?  Really?  Well, okay, all my TREK novels had a lot of romance and, well, this story was a romance, but, it was supposed to be science fiction.  Hey . . . wait a minute!

I have to say that Ding! moment was a while in coming.  I shook my head over that romance comment for a long time.  Not until nearly a year later, when I discovered the idea of time travel romance in Karen Marie Moning’s Highlander books did I figure out the connection.  Yeah, I’m slow like that.

But all of a sudden the science fiction plot I’d been working on made much more sense—as a romance.  And Unchained Memory came to be.  When I’d finished the manuscript, I took it to Ann for a once-over.  She pronounced it ready for prime time, even suggested an agent and allowed me to use her name in introduction.  Although that didn’t lead to a contract, I’ll always be grateful for the encouragement.

One year at Shore Leave Ann dragged a young woman into the Pro Writers’ room all flushed with excitement and introduced her as a former graduate of one of her workshops who’d just sold her first book.  She was so proud of her, and the newbie writer was speechless with joy.  I’d always hoped one day I’d be in that girl’s shoes.  Now I won’t have the chance. 

There are others I carry with me, though they are no longer on this plane of existence.  Ann joins them now, and I hope she’ll still have the chance for a little pride in my accomplishments one day, thanks to the gifts she gave me.

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.