Archive for the 'Urban Fantasy' Category

09
Sep
09

Genre dilettante

Even though I’ve been out of it this last week (sorry about that), I’ve been thinking a lot about Nora’s and Rachel’s posts on the boom in urban fantasy and the benefits of Twilight’s or Harry Potter’s popularity.

Spiral Hunt is pretty solidly urban fantasy.  And, if I think about how it got started, there’s a very good case to be made that I was chasing a new boom in the genre.  I remember reading a few of the urban fantasy novels that were out a while back and thinking “huh, that was fun, I wonder if I can do something similar.”  Eventually, the setting and the characters came together, but I wonder if I’d have written it without that first reaction.

Did I write it hoping to cash in on a new fad?  No — not consciously, at least.  But that doesn’t make a difference once the book’s out, and if interest in urban fantasy suddenly dwindles, those intentions won’t matter.

However, when I write short stories, I write in a number of different subgenres, and I don’t think I can bring myself to settle down in just one.  I like writing high secondary-world fantasy, pseudo-science fiction, historical fantasy, fairy tales . . . and often, I’ll be interested in these styles because I’ve been reading a lot of them lately.  The boom triggers interest, which triggers an idea, which shapes the story, etc., etc.  And not all of those subgenres are the kind that stay popular for a long time.

So how do I know that when I’m dabbling in a new subgenre whether it’ll be worth it when I’m done?  Will the steampunk story be finished only after steampunk has burnt itself out?  At what point — if there is one –do I become an urban fantasy author and stop being a writer in many different genres (and if that happens, how easy is it to change?)?

(This is also something that I notice now more than usual, because I’ve hit the dark night of the revision again, and there’s a substantial part of my brain that wants to be working on something other than this novel. ANYTHING. And that’s when all those other, shiny subgenres start looking awfully fun to play in . . .)

If I look at it as a writer, the basic answer — just write — is helpful for the matters at hand, but as Nora pointed out, I do have to think about the greater implications.  If I think about it as a reader, though, a whole new array of questions comes up.  When I’m reading a book by an author I’m familiar with, I’ll inevitably have a preconception of what sort of book it’ll be. And sometimes that gets in the way — sometimes even before I pick up the new book.  (“What?  Author X has written a military science fiction epic?  But he writes fluffy fantasy!  Is this just going to be unicorns in space?” and so on.  No, I didn’t say this was a rational reaction.)

The thing is, at some point I can’t let myself worry about this. How an author perceives the genre of their work may be completely at odds with how either the reader or the publisher sees it. I might convince myself that I’m writing a noir pastiche, only to find that it’s read as high fantasy, or attempt to set a contemporary fantasy in a trailer park and discover later on that I’ve written horror. If my track record of judging my own work’s genre is anything to go by, then I shouldn’t worry about whether my maneating squid story will be too late for the SquidLit Manifesto, because chances are it’s actually a period romance.

I’m afraid this is a pretty disjointed post, but what I’m getting at (I think) is this: how much does an author’s prior work influence how you read their new work?  I know it’s possible to compartmentalize — I can’t think of The Curse of Chalion in the same headspace as Shards of Honor, much as I like both, and the same goes for “Sandkings” and A Game of Thrones.   But I also know that it does have an effect on how I buy books.

And is it possible to keep steampunk alive at least till I finish the girl-and-her-stamping-press story?

04
Sep
09

Why we should all say thank you to Stephanie Meyer and J.K. Rowling

This post was partially inspired by Nora’s excelent post on the Urban Fantasy boom (one scroll down, no turns) and partially by my normal answer to the “what do you think of Twilight?!” question.

Seeing as how nearly all of my conversations somehow come back to books, I get asked what I think of Twilight on a fairly regular basis. This question comes either from people trying to see if they’ve found another fan to gush with or from those testing the waters to see if Twilight bashing is socially acceptable. My answer, however, is always the same: I’ve never read Twilight, but I love it, and I hope its popularity continues to grow unchecked.

This answer tends to cause headscratching among both camps, so I often append the following: Any book that gets petulant teenagers to willingly enter a bookstore is a book I love. At least for the moment, Twilight has taken reading from what it was when I was in highschool, something nerdy kids did at lunch because they couldn’t sit with the in crowd, and turned it into the cool thing. Not only is reading acceptable, it’s socially required, and it’s not just teenagers. I see soroity girls reading Twilight at the bus stop, moms reading it in the checkout line at the grocery store, I see Wuthering Heights getting on the NYT Bestseller list because Edward Cullen likes it! This is awesome! If people who don’t normally read are reading one thing obsessively, they might just decide that books aren’t so lame after all and try something else. Maybe my book, maybe yours.

The teenagers reading Twilight now are no strangers to massive book hysteria. These are the Harry Potter girls all grown up.  They know all about reading frenzies and the book you HAVE to have, and their dollars (or rather, their parent’s dollars) have provided the rich soil in which today’s fantasy is blossoming. Unlike the horror boom of the 80s Nora talked about and its subsequent genre collapse, fantasy seems to be using its boom dollars to deversify. Compare the fantasy selection of today to the fantasy selection of 10 years ago and difference is startling. There’s more opportunity than ever in the genre, more books, wider range, more pushing on the boundaries that have traditionally walled fantasy in. This isn’t because authors have suddenly decided to write new stuff, these books have always been out there. The difference is that publishers, flushed with fantasy’s success, are taking more risks, risks they are free to take thanks in large part to the recent spat of fantasy and urban fantasy megahits like Earagon, Twilight, and Harry Potter.

When reading is in vogue, everyone connected to reading benefits. So long as publishing supports diversity of stories, new voices, and wide range of reading choices, booms like Urban Fantasy, Harry Potter, and the Twilight craze only make us stronger. America is currently enamored with fantasy, and so long as we (publishers and authors) don’t shoot ourselves in the foot chasing fads, it should be a long and rewarding love story.  After all, who could get tired of new worlds?

03
Sep
09

Who’s Afraid of Urban Fantasy?

I’m about to step in it big time with this one. I’m primarily a writer of secondary-world epic fantasies, and here I am opening my mouth about urban fantasy. That’s just asking for a smackdown. But here goes.

Read this article at io9, in which Orbit Books’ Tim Holman (disclosure: my trilogy is coming out from Orbit, not that this has anything to do with anything in this case) notes the phenomenal growth of urban fantasy. To the point that it’s rapidly consuming the whole SF field.

Now, I read some urban fantasy. In fact I read both kinds of urban fantasy: the pre-Anita Blake kind (e.g., China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, the Paper Cities anthology) as well as the post-Blake (e.g., Jim Butcher, Marjorie Liu, and yes Laurell K. Hamilton). I even write a little in short story form, though my stuff veers closer to the pre type than the post. I’m aware of the differences between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, or at least to the degree that the issue has been decided (which is to say, not). So I’m not completely ignorant on the subject. Being here at the Magic District helps, actually, because my UF-inclined fellow Districtians’ books are all on the excellent end of the Urban Fantasy continuum, and I’m being exposed to more through their posts.

Despite all this, I had the same reaction as a number of io9 commenters to the news that UF was growing like the Blob: dismay. Because like them, I’ve seen a lot of stuff from the crap end of the UF continuum, and this phenomenal rate of growth probably means that more crap is forthcoming. It’s not nearly as bad as some people are making it out to be; a lot of the rage I see directed at urban fantasy has to do with the preponderance of girl cooties in it. The spec fic field has never been very welcoming towards that. But we still hit the Sturgeon’s Law problem: with so much urban fantasy out there, how am I ever going to be able to sift out the gold nuggets from the flood?

And what does this mean for me as a writer?

Don’t worry; I’m not dumb enough to change my writing in order to try and fit this trend. Think about it: by the time I finish Book 3, write another book, hopefully sell that, and then do the 2-year wait for publication, the trend might be over. But as a writer of primarily epic fantasies, does this trend mean I might have trouble selling my books in the future? After all, the last time there was a trend like this — I’ll cite the surge in psychosexual killer-based horror that happened in the Eighties — the rest of “traditional” speculative fiction suffered mightily. Many publishers, as I understand it from folks who were active at the time, were trying to capitalize on the slasher/splatter/supernatural killer film boom (think, “Nightmare on Elm Street”), so a whole slew of novels in the same vein came out around this time. They sold well, too… for awhile. Then the public got really, really tired of their similarity, and the books stopped selling. There was too much of the stuff out there, and too much of it was crap; the market got glutted, and subsequently contracted. Aside from Stephen King and a few notable others, there was a solid spate of years in which horror was functionally dead. (These days it’s rising from the dead, pun intended, largely on the strength of… wait for it… zombie fiction and vampires. And, of course, urban fantasy and paranormal romance.)

During that market contraction, writers in horror and related genres had trouble getting published. (Don’t take my word for it; here’s an interesting 1991 convo between some spec fic writers discussing the matter.) Even some science fiction and fantasy writers suffered — because publisher dollars were being heaped onto the horror pile. And later, when the pile caught fire (to mutilate a metaphor), publisher dollars became scarce as they fought to survive massive financial losses. It’s taken years — decades, literally — for genre and industry to recover.

Now, I’m no expert about the business end of publishing. Frankly I’m a babe in the woods as these things go. But it seems to me that if a trend caused this kind of implosion in one genre market, it could happen here in fantasyland too.

So what am I gonna do about it?

Well, like I said, I’m not going to suddenly start trying to write urban fantasy novels; that way lies danger, Will Robinson, danger! (Though I note with irony that there are substantial urban fantasy elements in Book 2 of the Inheritance Trilogy. Didn’t plan ’em, they just happened. Can’t talk about that without spoiling Book 1, though, so…) I’m also planning to diversify. My next project on the table is a YA novel, possibly a duology or trilogy. If I can establish myself in another genre — and YA SF really is different from adult SF in many ways — that might insulate me somewhat, should another market contraction hit. Also, since many of my fantasy novels contain core romantic elements, I’m hoping to get the attention of the romance industry. Now there’s a financial juggernaut; to paraphrase Carl Sagan, there’s billions and billions of dollars churning out of that engine. Only smart to try and build an audience there.

IMO, this is how writers have to think, nowadays. Yeah, we’re artists, and craft comes first. Still, I dunno about other artists, and I’m indulging in some wishful thinking here, but I want to reap the financial rewards of my art before I kick off, not after, thanks. At the very least, I’d like to continue paying rent and buying food. That means I need to understand how this business works.

So here we are. What do you guys think of the surge in urban fantasy? Is it a good thing? A bad thing? A good thing for now, bad for later? Bueller?

23
Aug
09

Experience in genre

by Diana

I’ve been a member of a local literary society for a while, and, since I have a recent book release, I was invited to be the speaker for the August meeting. It’s a terrific group of people with a common love of books, and even though there’s no emphasis on genre, the group is completely accepting of all fiction and non-fiction, and very supportive of its members and local writers. (Plus, for a five dollar donation, they supply wine and snacks. Win!)

My plan had been to talk about Mark of the Demon, how I came up with the ideas behind the book, and urban fantasy in general. However, before the meeting started, one of the women in the group came up to me to tell me how much she’d enjoyed my book. (And, y’know, I’m totally cool with people telling me that!) But then she said something that left me momentarily speechless: She told me how impressed she’d been by the creative and unusual concept of alternate dimensions that I’d used in my book.

I nearly blurted out, “Are you serious? The use of an alternate dimension/sphere/plane of existence is one of the oldest tricks in SF/F!” (And I’m glad I managed to hold that back, because this person is a talented and award-winning author of literary fiction, and also a lovely, gracious, and genuinely nice person as well.) But it took me a couple of seconds to process the fact that she was completely unfamiliar with the established concepts used in science fiction and fantasy, and a few seconds more to recover from my surprise at that.

My surprise continued during my talk. Only one person there had ever heard the term “urban fantasy” before, and someone else asked me what the difference was between vampires and demons.  Five minutes into my talk, and I had to mentally rewrite it from scratch as I threw out anything that assumed familiarity with genre conventions and standards. I suppose I should have been prepared for that, since it’s not a genre group, but that was the first time I’d really understood just how wide the divide can be between “literary” and genre… and WHY the divide is so wide. This woman had purchased my book purely as a show of support for a local author and member of the group. (And I dearly love her for that!) But under normal circumstances she would most likely never venture into the sort of fiction that deal with alternate worlds, arcane powers, supernatural beings, and the like–which meant that she’d read my book with utterly fresh eyes, unaware of stereotypes, tropes, or concepts that have been explained in other genre books often enough that there’s no need to explain them again.

And now I finally understand why, when a literary author writes about something that we as genre readers consider to be a fairly well-worn trope, the literary world hails it as a bold and astonishingly new concept.  And why it drives genre readers bat-shit crazy when that happens.

12
Aug
09

Life in the big city

Apologies for the lack of a post last week; I was in Montreal on vacation before Worldcon, and the blog completely slipped my mind.  (Blame the tasty duck sandwiches.  No, blame the weather.  No, blame…anyway.)

Montreal’s a beautiful city, and completely unlike any other I’ve visited.  I was trying to make comparisons for the first couple of days I was there — this part is like that one section of San Francisco, this part is like New York, this is like Paris — but it completely fell apart before long, and I think it’s because I was going about it the wrong way.

Cities can be compared one to another, but each one has its own soul, and it’s sometimes difficult to remember that when writing.  Particularly if, like me, you’re from a small town and all cities have that first shock of Too Many People and Too Many Buildings.  It’s really tempting to write all of them from that point of view, to assume all cities are like the one city you know well, or just to ignore the individual differences between cities, concentrating instead on the action and treating the tall buildings as just something more for your hero to pose atop.

But readers notice — even if it doesn’t kick them out of the story, they notice when something’s done well.  Night Watch wouldn’t be the same without the film of Moscow clinging to it, and I probably wouldn’t like it so well.  Last Call captures a sense of Las Vegas that blends with the mythical underpinnings of the story so well that I can’t see pictures of certain casinos without shivering.  Neverwhere might be about London Below, but it’s still London.  If any one of these were set in, say, New York, they wouldn’t feel right.  The city shapes the story.

This carries over into fictional cities as well: New Crobuzon is a very different city from Ankh-Morpork, despite the superficial similarity of “corrrupt and squalid city inhabited by many strange varieties of people.”  Riverside is not the same place as Camorr.  Palimpsest is not Ashamoil.  Tavernel is not King’s Landing.  Even though some of the difference we as readers see has to do with the stories that are set there, the cities still have to have their own personalities.

For a city to work — for a fantasy to be urban — it needs to be a character in its own right.  And though it can have echoes of other cities, the same way that Vieux-Montreal echoes certain European cities, the same way that many glittering downtowns echo New York, it can’t be just a reflection of one.  It has to be an entirely new place — and as with any new place, it’ll give a visitor culture shock.

What cities have come through in what you’ve read?  Which would you most like to explore?

23
May
09

Bitches and Bosoms, oh boy!

I’m doing something a little different here this week. Those of you who’ve followed my posts here for a while know that I have a tendency to rant write about the “ghetto” of science fiction, whether it’s perceived or real, and how much of it is self-created. Well, today I’m mixing things up and interviewing a representative from the neighboring ghetto of Romance fiction. Sarah Wendell is one half of the Smart Bitches at smartbitchestrashybooks.com, and co-author (with fellow Smart Bitch, Candy Tan) of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels.  This book is not only a wickedly fun read, but it also gives interesting and thought-provoking insights into the history, the tropes, the future, and the shame of Romance. (I dare anyone who has ever dismissed Romance as being formulaic or shallow to give this book a read. I can definitely say that my eyes were opened on a number of topics!)

DR: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions for me! Sales of romance novels dominate the book industry. Why do you think it’s such a huge market?

SW: Courtships stories have been part of narrative tradition since someone decided it might be a good idea to have a narrative tradition. It’s the most consistent drama humans face that is most often happy – attraction, arousal, allure, and the commitment that may follow are intensely powerful events for people, no matter how blasé or cool they might seem. So reading about that experience and knowing that it ends happily is a consistent element of storytelling. Plus, just about every other fictional narrative contains a romance element. Whether romance is the main focus or an ancillary element, like Prego, it’s in there.

DR: I’ve blogged before about science fiction and fantasy being a “ghetto” of sorts. Do you think that romance is also a ghetto, albeit a much larger one?

SW: As Candy said in this blog post at Powells: http://www.powells.com/blog/?p=5980

…it’s the genre ghetto’s genre ghetto. Romance is the country music of literature: “at least I don’t like romance novels” will justify admiration of anything that skirts the line of questionable taste.

DR: There are many genre readers who will never venture near the romance section of the bookstore, even though they will gladly pick up books in the SF/F section that clearly have romantic subplots. Is there anything you could think to say to these people to encourage them to dip their toes in the romance pool?

SW: Three words: Lois McMaster Bujold. She will lead you to the light and the truth that the romance, it kicks the ass. From there, the world is your throbbing pink oyster.

DR: There’s a pervasive view that romance readers are just bored housewives, and science fiction/fantasy readers are nerds who live in their mother’s garage. Why do you think these stereotypes still persist even when the genres have clearly moved beyond them?

SW: I think deep down we carry high school with us, and are often afraid of being permanently labeled “uncool” or  being marginalized because we enjoy something off-beat and different. It’s easier to stick with stereotypes than actually ponder the nuances and sophisticated elements at work in your average science fiction/fantasy novel, or romance novel.

DR: How has romance embraced concepts that are near and dear to science fiction and fantasy fans? Are you seeing more crossover?

SW: Oh yessssss. Urban fantasy is often a neat blend of two or all three, as are many of the steampunk novels being published. Just about every sci fi or fantasy novel incorporates some romantic elements, even if there’s no happy ever after for the protagonists — the three are very much intertwined.

DR: Why do you think paranormal romance and urban fantasy have become so popular?

SW: My theory: in a world in which we are constantly reminded of the presence of terror, having a villain who is readily identifiable (hairy in moonlight? Driven to commit acts of exsanguination?) and either vanquished by emotional affirmation or utterly and completely decimated is, to put it simply, reassuring. When the villain in the “real world” is unidentifiable, the obvious “other” is captivating in an entirely new way. As for urban fantasy, the reliance on the Kickass Heroine means that a whole new realm of female autonomy, actualization, and sexual agency can be explored, to which I say, HELL TO THE YES.

DR: How do you feel about Cover Shame, i.e. those lurid or obnoxious covers in both romance and sf/f that are almost embarrassing to have?

SW: Neither the authors nor the readers are responsible, and anything that is THAT absurd is epic comedy win.

DR: You have a book! What do you think Beyond Heaving Bosoms can offer people who are not already readers of romance?

SW: The Bosoms? Creative uses of the word “cuntmonkey.” Examinations of what makes a romance novel cover Extra More Gooder.

Seriously: It’s a guide for anyone who loves romance and is tired of taking crap for it, and for anyone who has ever wondered, “What is it about romance novels?” Since, as I mentioned, every fictional narrative contains romantic elements, the appeal is not exclusive, and neither is our book.

 Beyond Heaving Bosoms

Thanks again to Sarah Wendell for stopping in at the Magic District!

11
May
09

Happily ever aftering

by Diana 

This was supposed to be posted on Saturday, but, well…  it wasn’t. Life intrudes. 😛 So now I’m squeezing it in between the Sunday Quickies and the regular Monday post, so that I don’t feel like a total slacker!

So. Happily ever after.  I never realized that this was a Very Big Deal until I started talking to romance novelists. Apparently, the Happily Ever After (or HEA) is considered by most to be THE defining characteristic of a romance novel. The reader who picks up a romance expects that, by the end of the book, the romance will be successfully consummated and that the two lead characters will live happily ever after–or at least will be on the road to happily ever after. There’s a happy ending, a satisfying conclusion.**

Personally, I disagree with the idea that Romance is defined as a story that has the Happily Ever After. After hearing romance folks talk about the importance of the HEA, it got me thinking about other genres. HEA is important in every genre, not just romance.  Ultimately what makes a romance a romance is the fact that the core of the story is about the development of a romantic relationship between characters. But what makes an HEA an HEA is not the fact that the prince and the princess (or whoever) get married in the end. It’s not about two people finding Twu Wuv. It’s about the satisfying conclusion to the tension and conflict that was introduced in the story. Boiling it down to its most basic principles: In a romance, yes, it’s about the resolution of the romantic tension. In a mystery, it’s about finding/catching/stopping the bad guy. In fantasy/science fiction it’s about good triumphing over evil (or variations on that theme.)

Therefore, I would argue that in all commercial fiction ***, the HEA, in one form or another, is a requirement. Depending on genre it might take several books to get to that HEA, and depending on genre that HEA may take on vastly different forms, but at the end of the book or the series, if the storylines are not tied up in a satisfying manner that makes the reader feel glad for at least some of the characters, the reader is going to feel a large measure of disappointment, chagrin, or outright anger.

Thoughts?

** Romance purists will probably have plenty to jump on me about the above summary, but please don’t come down too hard on me. I’m not maligning the genre, I’m just trying to give a brief précis. I have a point. I think. 

*** I know that there are many people who are going to jump up and down and point to a particular title that might happen to be shelved in SF that does not have an HEA. I’m going to go out on another limb here and say that just because a book is shelved in a genre section, does not make it commercial fiction. My personal definition of commercial fiction is fiction that is satisfying entertainment. There’s a lot of literary fiction that is shelved in genre sections simply because it has SF/F elements. I’m not saying that literary fiction can’t be satisfying entertainment, but I don’t believe that it’s the primary goal.