Friday, April 15, 2011


We call it Science Fiction Romance. We're trying to attract romance readers. But let me tell you, sister, it is so easy to lose them. Let us count the ways:

5) Let the plot take over your book. KISS is not just a principle of politics. You should know you’re in trouble when you can’t reduce your story to one or two lines for that famous elevator pitch. If it has more subplots than a cemetery, maybe we’re talking series here. And if you need a diagram, two flowcharts, a playbook for the characters and color-coding to keep it all straight, call J. Michael Strazynski. I hear he’s pitching a sequel to Babylon 5 in Hollywood. Good luck to you both.

4) Give in to your burning desire to tell us “how things work”. This goes for the technology, the politics or the cultures of your brave new world, which you just can’t help but describe in endless, glowing passages (or endless, minute details, as the case may be). Doesn’t matter whether the info dump is “disguised” as dialogue: “Of course, the Ixtrbians were once a great and mighty race,” the professor said, “the rulers of four solar systems and traders in utopa and beiberite, before they contracted Itching Fever and . . .” Or interior monologue: Captain Soledad loved her P-245, loved the way it fit in her hand, the special light-absorbing carbonite plastifiber weighing no more than 2.5 grams. It took an ion charge at stations on the ship, but the charge lasted for eight hours and the sight had a range . . .” Or plain description: no, I won’t do that to you. I’m bored, too.

3) Make the heroine tougher than the hero. Back in the day, writers of Star Trek fan fiction were warned against the creation of the dreaded “Mary Sue”. Now, Mary Sue had many laughable qualities: she was inevitably young, beautiful and “plucky”, she could do anything—pilot the ship, hack a computer, conduct brain surgery—and she always drew Kirk’s eye, which, granted, was never hard to do. But the one unforgiveable characteristic of Mary Sue was that she was allowed to step in and save the day, which as we all know, was Kirk’s (or Spock’s or sometimes McCoy’s) legitimate job. The Enterprise was Kirk’s ship, after all.

Now here we have the opposite problem. Our heroine may be the captain of the ship. She may legitimately step in to save the day. However, she still risks the label of Mary Sue. Why? Because she’s young, beautiful and “plucky” (or more often “tough”), she can do anything—pilot the ship, hack the computer, conduct field surgery, if not brain surgery. And she always draws the hero’s eye. The question is, what the hell is left for him to do? In too many cases, our heroine is found snarling, “We don’t need no stinkin’ heroes.” The book then becomes an urban fantasy. In space.

2) Be extra creative with your place names, character names and bits of colorful language. We all know those aliens don’t speak English or any other language known to humans. But for the sake of the poor humans who must wade through your novel, please, please, please try just once to read the thing out loud before you impose it on the world. The reader can only stumble over a passage like this so many times before she tosses the book across the room and picks up a nice, relaxing copy of War and Peace: “Flaxztk!” Captain Soledad cursed. “It’s the Ixtrbian fleet coming out of warp at 154,000 klicks. Lieutenant Mverzb! Hit ‘em between the eyes with ion blasters, now! Then get us to spacedock on Schmernlab, quick!” Is it me or are we in the middle of Spaceballs?

And finally, the Number One way to guarantee romance readers will hate your SFR novel:

1) Forget the romance. Remember Number Three? Well, those heroes are vital if you hope to keep your romance readers. In a romance the relationship is just as important as any other element of your novel—it equals the plot, the science, the world-building and anything else. It is not all right to neglect this element, tacking it on as an afterthought, and still call your novel a romance. “She kissed him hard, wishing she could do more, then turned to the nav board,” does not constitute a love scene for romance readers. Yes, there can be all levels of heat in SFR, but some heat must be detectable. And don’t forget, to qualify as a romance, the lovers must end up happily ever after (HEA) or at least happy for now (HFN). Yeah, it’s a rule. Don’t like it, you can call your work "science fiction with romantic elements" and avoid all the trouble.

And that goes for all the other rules, too.

Donna’s Journal


Actions I've taken as a writer. Where am I? What am I doing?

Revisions continue on Trouble in Mind, so any new work on the third book in the series, Fools Rush In, is on pause temporarily. I’m also starting preparation of my entry for this year’s Tampa Area Romance Authors contest, due May 1. The TARA contest was a lucky one for me last year (I won First Place for Unchained Memory), but the challenge will be trimming my shortest TIM entry by 1000 words for the requirements of this contest. Back to the computer for me!

I had to take my own advice on Number Two above after my daughter read my manuscripts and gave me some feedback. The names were making her stumble. It’s one of my own rules and I had (apparently) broken it! My critique partner had never raised the alarm since I usually read out loud to her and I had the pronunciation clear in my own head. (But then, she said, she’d always admired the way I named my characters. Her aliens would probably end up being named “Bob”, short for “Robert”. Good thing she writes historicals.)




  1. Just love these rules - don't think I've broken any but I might just print them off and pin them above my work space to remind me ...

  2. Totally entertaining article, Donna. And thought-provoking. These are things every SFR writer should examine.


    5) Not usually a problem for me. In fact, I have a problem with the romance overpowering the plot and the setting like a 5 kiloton schvermalskr. (Ha. *smirks* See 2.)

    4) How things work isn't a problem, but I may be occasionally guilty of delving into how things are. Twelve centuries ago... Sometimes you kinda hafta do a bit of that to explain from whence the culture originated. But I try not to overdo.

    3) Heroine tougher than hero? Nada. Some major role reversal? Well, yeah, that's always fun. But men should be men.

    2) I tend to go with really pronouncable names and places. Sair. Ry. Drea. Dartis. Veros. Draxis. Banna. The Ahbahd. Jupiter. (Oh wait, that's not mine.)

    1) I'm a romantic at heart, so it always shows up in my novels in spades. :)

  3. Great post, Donna. I'm a particular enemy of the impossible to pronounce names. NOTHING puts me off more than that in ANY book. Not keen on the apostrophed names either. Makes me want to click when I read them.
    Good luck with the Tampa competition!

  4. I have a sixth - adrenaline attraction does not equal love.

    Basically that means that yes, action is good and so is attraction, but the MCs should never fall in love whilst exchanging laser bolts with the bad guys.

    Relationships need quiet moments - please don't forget them!

  5. Good one, Misa. I'm no fan of the "Constant Car Chase Romance" either. IMHO, explosions and fire fights of the non-romance variety shouldn't take up excessive word count in the story.

  6. The more I learn about writing romance, the more I doubt I'll ever be able to pull it off. My books fit firmly in the "science fiction adventure with romantic elements" category. Now try marketing that. *sigh* Thanks for a great and very enlightening post.

  7. @Jaleta, That's exactly the type of SFR I like! I, too, have trouble writing the R in SFR and that's probably part of the reason I keep getting stuck in my wips. LOL.

  8. Thanks for the informative article and the view from the "other side" of the readership. My wips all are SF with Romantic elements too.

    I admit I don't like long info dumps about how things work either, but I think writers in this combo genre need to strive for a happy medium. There has to be some "how it works" or they'll lose the SF readership. A lot and they can lose the Romance readership.

    For me, if the SF is skimped on or doesn't make sense, I won't read the book twice, if I even finish it. But then, if the Romance doesn't seem to make sense I won't read it twice either.

    It's a tough combo!

  9. @Pippa--My blog hanging over someone's workspace. Aw,shucks! >Blush<
    @Laurie--The way the universe has been smiling on you lately, I'd say you're on the right track!
    @Barbara--Thanks! Scanning my WIP for apostrophe's now!
    @Jaleta and Anna--Nothing wrong with SF w/Romantic Elements. Some of our SFR pioneers could be said to favor that style. The problem as I see it is that many old-school SF fans just won't tolerate any level of romance in their SF. They'll reject your novel if you even hint your protagonist has a love life (or real emotion of any kind). So you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. I think we have a better chance with romance readers overall as long as we don't alienate them (sorry)by insisting they drag out a physics text every time they pick up one of our books.

  10. @Donna, I agree about the physics texts. I don't really want to have to run to one for definitions either during a story. LOL.

    For me, the answer is a "live and let live" approach. SFR has room for both Romance-heavy and SF-heavy stories, there just should be some way to distinguish so readers who prefer one don't get upset when they get the other.

    I know that the SFR group has a bookshelf with tags differentiating steampunk, rsf, futuristic, Space Opera, etc. to make finding some SFRs of your preference easier.

    I agree too that a lot of hardcore SF fans don't want any Romance in their stories. I think there are a LOT of middle of the road readers out there, though, who aren't aware SFR exists as a separate thing.

    Why do I think so? Fandom. I know, it's media related, but in every SF fandom I've ever been in the majority of fiction has Romance in it. All of those people are looking for SFR in some form.

  11. @Anna, I agree 100% about fandom. It's where I got my start and I believe that's where we will find our fan base for SFR. How best to reach them is the question. Something tells me the market remains untapped.

  12. I'm late wandering by (I back-tracked when someone visited my blog from yours), but I wanted to say that I love these rules. Right now I'm working on a contemporary and relatively earth-bound paranormal, but your rules are worth keeping in mind. Especially names--I really hate having to guess at names.


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