At the Back Fence Issue #278

September 10, 2007

Several years ago we created a “romance family tree” series of columns to explore the roots of the current genre romance. Not long ago it occurred to me that we ought not leave that tree as is, as new branches have/are becoming prominent. No…we’re not going to do another chick lit column (I think we’ve already done four in the last six years), but we are going to write about the ever-expanding world of erotic romance and [again] about paranormal/fantasy romance. Anne comes at these sub-genres with a perspective that differs from mine; I’ll be writing about urban fantasy and its influence shortly. This time, though, we present Anne’s roundtable with several authors who write paranormal/fantasy/SF romance. Because of its length, we’ve broken it down into parts and suggest you read it in more than one sitting. We invite you to post your comments after finishing each section…or after you’ve finished the column in its entirety.

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

Authors at Their Best: Mary Jo Putney

Part I
| Part II | Part III

Part I

I’ve been following paranormal and SF/fantasy romances before most people knew they existed. Does anyone else remember Janelle Taylor’s SF romance, Moondust and Madness? I bought it the moment I saw it on the shelf in 1986. Unfortunately, I never made it past Chapter One because of major scientific errors and plot holes. I should have known better when I read an interview where Taylor said only men wrote SF. Where had she been for the last few decades? Not only that, but the plot was about aliens kidnapping human women as sex slaves. Ick.

Not swayed from my quest to find genre-bending books, I bought more, scarfing up the Leisure futuristics, the earliest Silhouette Shadows titles, early futuristics by JAK, and even Phoebe Conn’s futuristic romance. On the fantasy side, there was Rebecca Brandewyne’s fantasy romance, Passion Moon Rising (1988) , with a majorly alpha hero and an interesting setting, but the trilogy died on the vine. My interests waned as I realized most of the futuristics had little to do with the future.

I also read SF and fantasy books that blended romance and SF, such as Anne McCaffrey’s books or some of Lois McMaster Bujold’s books. For years, paranormal romances have been like Dracula in those Hammer films – they die die for a while and then come back, sometimes stronger than ever. Only recently have they truly taken off, and only now have SF and fantasy romances really caught on. Maybe because today’s authors know the difference between galaxies and solar systems. Today, the field is no longer made up of “futuristics” but rather of science fiction romances.

It’s hard to believe that our roundtable on paranormal romances was published way back in the fall of 2004. Paranormals are still going strong. On the other hand, the market has changed. Back in 2004, who would have imagined that urban fantasy would have become such an influence or one of the most popular paranormal series would be about vampire heroes with names like Rhage and Zsadist? Or that fantasy and SF romances would have come on so strong? At the same time, there are always plenty of fans who are sick of the paranormal and wish it wouldn’t take up so much shelf space because they can’t imagine what’s so attractive about a vampire or a werewolf, just as there are readers who can’t get into fantasy or SF romances because the worlds seem so foreign.

Shiloh Walker, Linnea Sinclair, Eve Silver/Kenin, Meljean Brook, Alyssa Day, Susan Grant, and Cathy Clamp join us in this discussion. Like many of today’s paranormal authors, Walker was first e-pubbed, by a publisher of erotic romance. She drove her stake into the paranormal field when the latest trend was just “heating up”. Her third published romance, an e-pubbed book, was a paranormal with a ghost. Her fourth or fifth was a vampire book, the first of the Hunters series. At that time, the e-book industry was more open than print to paranormal and futuristic romance stories, although, the author declares, “I don’t follow the trends as much because I write what is in my head and my head doesn’t pay attention to trends very well.” That Hunter book caught the attention of an editor at Berkley, and that’s how she became a print author. While she’s written about vamps, her paranormals have also included everything from a cross between urban fantasy/alternative reality/sci fi to psychics. Because of this, and because her editors and readers understand that she writes in multiple genres, she has never been boxed in. Paranormal/fantasy author Brook may be different because she got published after the trend had already become hot. On the other hand, as a reader, she remembers “those days when it was near impossible to find a paranormal book.”

Grant’s first book was a time travel, because she was told time travel was hot. But by 2000, when Once a Pirate was published, time travel was no longer hot. Her next book was the RITA-nominated The Star King, and nobody wanted to touch it. Not only was it SF romance, but the hero and heroine were in their 40s. “Being ahead of a trend sucks when no editor or agent will open their minds to an ‘out there’ concept.” She looked through pages and pages of agents, and kept encountering those who said ‘no paranormal romance.’ “I was lucky in that Dorchester, a publisher that never abandoned paranormal, bought my first books, and through that I gained an editor who loved SF romance. How rare!” At that time, publishers would “disguise” the books, writing back cover copy that didn’t mention aliens or space, and even calling her books “aviation romance.” “There’s even an interview in Publishers Weekly where we tell them how we disguised the books!” Then Dara Joy took off, followed by Christine Feehan, paving the way for writers like Sherrilyn Kenyon, who had always wanted to publish PSF (paranormal/SF) but couldn’t find publishers willing to take a risk. In this new environment, Grant was able to keep publishing SF romance. “It’s been straight up from there. I think it’s fantastic so many different kinds of romances can be published now. Moonstruck, my June 2008 book, takes place entirely in space, and the lead characters are aliens. Harlequin is publishing it. Harlequin! To someone like me who remembers all-too vividly the barriers in place before, and all the resistance, being able to publish what I love to write the most by publishing houses previously closed to it is a miracle that I never take for granted.”

Silver started out writing historical Gothics, and she’s finishing her fourth one and coming up with ideas for her fifth, so those are still going strong. She also writers dark contemporary paranormals as Eve Silver, and as Eve Kenin, has now published her first speculative action romance for the SHOMI imprint, which earned DIK status at AAR last week. But she doesn’t see this as jumping on a bandwagon – she writes the stories that pop into her head. She didn’t write Driven because of marketing or a bandwagon but because the story spoke to her and demanded to be written, and she finished it before she knew about Dorchester’s new SHOMI imprint. But she’s glad the book found a home there because SHOMI is perfect for that book. “Because, let’s face it, there aren’t too many post-apocalyptic, trans-Siberian trucker romances out there right now.” What about Demon’s Kiss, her first dark paranormal? She wrote it because her agent pointed out that her dark tone might work for a paranormal. She loved paranormals but hadn’t thought of writing one before, but once given the idea, the story and characters sprang to life. Day doesn’t follow trends, either — in fact, she doesn’t know what they are because she reads across so many genres. Rather than following trends, she writes the ideas that are screaming in her head to be let out. Her advice for writers? Ignore the “trends” because by the time you can write it and sell it, the next “big thing” will be in its place.

Sinclair first wrote a fantasy novel, Wintertide, back in the early 1980s, before the days of word processing and the Internet. However, at 65,000 words, it was far too short for a novel, and it was rejected. It wasn’t until 1999 that she got back into writing – and submitting. She published Wintertide with LTDBooks, a reputable e-book and trade paperback publisher that only recently closed its doors, and stayed with them until Bantam Spectra bought Finders Keepers. By that time, SF romance had become popular again, thanks to authors such as JAK, Susan Grant, Dara Joy, Catherine Asaro. Sinclair thinks the field is still growing and that cross-genre books have made the market even more complex.

In the case of Cathy Clamp, who writes for the Tor Paranormal line with co-author C. T. Adams, paranormal was their first excursion into the field – and all they’d ever wanted to write. Cathy knows more authors who are now writing contemporaries and mysteries who wanted to write PSF romances but couldn’t because of the market than authors who write PSF and want to write something else. “I don’t think it’s a bandwagon so much as a dusting off of manuscripts or ideas for manuscripts from long ago. Also, authors like to spread their wings and experiment. There’s always a desire to try something different – just to see if you can. Maybe it’s a fear of being “typecast” or getting bored with the same old world. Depends on the person. But it’s a real, pressing desire with an awful lot of authors I’ve met.”

Where do all those new readers come from? Walker thinks readers have been influenced by TV shows such as Buffy, Charmed, and Angel. Also, some readers have been lured over to paranormal romance because they were fans of cross-genre authors, such as Laurell K. Hamilton, and they started looking for similar books. As far as deeper reasons, she admits that she’s not the best person to ask because she reads for pure entertainment and doesn’t dwell a lot on why some books appeal to her and others don’t. On the other hand, Clamp thinks paranormals are selling for deeper reasons, not just the market. “Right now, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world. Fantasy and paranormal romances are an exaggeration of danger that makes a reader feel, oddly, more ‘safe.’ The enemy in paranormal is simple – easy to identify, with canine teeth or fur or feathers – in a world where the friendly guy next door that looks just like you might be a mass murderer or planning the next 9/11.” She thinks that fantasy and SF romance latch onto these same feelings. While those fields aren’t as hot, she thinks their time is coming and that it will only take one awesome fantasy or SF romance to make readers demand more.

 Susan Grant sees SF romance getting more popular. While others see the influence of TV shows and movies as the cause of the trend, Grant sees the popularity of shows such as Battlestar Galactica as an indicator of the trend. In a show like Battlestar Galactica, “science fiction goes hand-in-hand with romance between the characters” – just like SF romance. “Publishers on both sides of the fence, romance and SF, are publishing more SF romances/romantic SF. As a writer of this sub-genre, I hear booksellers telling me all the time that readers want more of these kinds of books.”

Sinclair thinks readers have been influenced by both the media and deeper issues. What did most of us grow up watching? Talking animals such as Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. Fairies such as Tinker Bell. Not to mention Mr. Ed, I Dream of Jeannie, Lost in Space, My Favorite Martian, and of course, Star Trek (from the original, to Enterprise, with ten movies in between) . Younger readers had reruns of those shows plus Dark Shadows, Battlestar Galactica, StarGate, Beauty and the Beast, Firefly and Serenity, and more. PSF stories have been with us for a long time, but popular media such as TV means that “instead of twenty villagers sitting around a hearth listening to a bard’s tale of a talking horse, we had Mr. Ed on television being beamed out to hundreds of thousands of viewers.” Sinclair thinks the rise in PSF romance is a result of growing up surrounded by those stories.

But what about those deeper issues? Sinclair believes paranormals stories address “our curiosity about ‘the other” – the other being anything other than ourselves but more so in paranormal, being something vastly different from ourselves, and yet alike. I know. Confusing. But if you look at ancient fables, the players in these tales were often gods with magical powers, animals with magical powers, inanimate objects with magical powers…gee, do we see a trend? I think as human beings we have an innate curiosity about the “fantastical other” as something against which we compare (or contrast) our mundane lives. It addresses wish fulfillment: something or someone more powerful fixes what’s wrong. It gives us hope. It also gives us something to aspire toward.” Some series, like Star Trek, work because the creators can take a fantastic world and make it mundane by making it relate to our current issues. Others, like Buffy, work because despite the fantastic elements, the setting is familiar.

Alyssa Day believes these stories are popular because there’s “a great need for escapist fiction now”. She notes that whenever she watches the news, she sees and hears about some new disaster, adding, “For me as a writer, creating a paranormal world means that I can guarantee that the good will triumph over evil and that happily ever after really does exist. In a contemporary reality where the lines between good and evil often shade into nuances of ambiguity, as a reader I often like to know that justice will triumph and true love will prevail.”

Brook doesn’t think paranormal romance is hot because of shows like Buffy – instead, she thinks shows like that made paranormals more accessible to a wider audience. Like many romance fans, she’s seen readers say that they don’t “get” paranormals. Many focus on the inhuman characteristics, such as cold skin, blood drinking, or an animal form. “But it isn’t as hard to understand why some readers might find vampires sexy after watching Angel or Spike fall for the Slayer.” That, of course, doesn’t mean readers just want Buffy clones. Instead, Buffy humanized the monsters for a lot of viewers. Viewers who once viewed the vampire as cold and dead now realized that they could be heroes. Because of shows like Buffy, or before that, Dark Shadows and Forever Knight, readers who passed up paranormals in the past might have picked it up and fallen in love with the genre.

Brook also believes that “the popularity of paranormals is an offshoot of – or perhaps a complement to – the rise in popularity of sexually explicit romances. “These trends also reflect society. Behaviors once thought of as deviant or fringe are now becoming accepted. Just as Buffy humanized vampires for many readers, erotic romances humanized certain types of sexual relationships, letting readers become more comfortable about exploring their fantasies. This is about more than just the lure of bondage or threesomes, but the dangerous yet sexy lure of the other. Characters not only explore the other (be it vampires, werewolves, faeries, or even demons), they eventually “embrace it and defeat it (either by mastering and domesticating whatever was deemed dangerous, or showing that it isn’t the Evil it was originally thought to be.)” This is an appealing fantasy, much like the fantasy of taming an alpha hero or becoming the woman who reforms a rake. As powerful as taming an alpha can be, embracing and taming a vampire or a demon is even more powerful. At the same time, while Brook loves hotter romances, she only likes them if the hotter elements fit the story and characters. She doesn’t want to read stories that are just about people boinking. She wants that emotional element there, whether or not they boink.

Walker writes erotic paranormals, and she recognizes that it’s a trend – one she thinks will level off even as more and more readers discover that they like the books after all. Yet not all readers like erotic content, and not all like the same erotic content. For example, the biggest complaint she gets from readers is about threesomes, and most of those stories don’t appeal to her, either. “The book that is really going to pull me in is the one that grabbed the author by the throat and demanded she write the story for the story’s sake. not because the author saw the trend was popular and decided to take a stab it.” Like those readers, she prefers an HEA and a hero and a heroine, not a hero and a heroine and a hero. As far as the level of sensuality goes, she’s seen complaints coming from both sides. While readers of her mass market books have been surprised by the heat level in her books, no one has exactly… complained. On the other hand, some readers have complained that some of her books aren’t as hot as expected. But she can’t help that – not everything she writes is going to be blazing hot. She gets bored writing the same type of sub-genre. Sure, some of her books will be hotter than others, but she doesn’t write them just to make them hot – she writes them the way the play out in her head. If the story calls for it, she’ll make it hot, but if not, she’s not going to force it. She’d rather be true to her story. Just as not every Walker book is burning hot, not every PSF book is hot. Sinclair’s books aren’t erotic, and so far, no one has complained (she’s even won a RITA). She does include intense sexual tension – just not the graphic element. She even fades to black a lot. On the other hand, she does think the erotic elements of PSF romance have brought some interesting twists into the field.

Grant hears “from both sides of the fence – readers wanting more, and readers preferring less. I don’t force the sensuality. It depends of the story/characters, and so it varies book to book for me. I do see the trend toward more erotic language and sex, but I hate when an author forces it in the story. There should be room for all levels of sensuality. I do see authors who close the bedroom door – or leave it only partially open – doing really, really well, so I think it is a mistake to say every reader wants highly erotic content (or coarse language, or explicit words for various body parts or functions).” Clamp sees the trend as a pendulum. “Right now, readers are swinging toward both extremes – highly erotic or inspirational/sweet.” She thinks that the trend toward erotic will fall off, although readers don’t mind erotic scenes with a point to them. In the books she writes with her partner, not as much sexual content is included – usually “one or two scenes, with some ‘near-misses.'”

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Part II

Just as the lines between erotic romance and romance have blurred, the lines between genres have been blurred. This wasn’t always the case. Booksellers saw the lines as very clearly delineated – books were SF or horror or romance. But now, you can have something like Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s Dream Spy, a vampire romance thriller set in outer space. I haven’t read that one, but I loved Lichtenberg’s earlier Dushau trilogy, which combined SF with an unrequited romance and managed to make a furry blue hero sound sexy. Unlike booksellers, readers don’t mind cross-genre books and can go from genre to genre, so the same reader can enjoy everything from J. D. Robb’s In Death series to the Crimson City series or Susan Grant’s recent series, which combine SF and humor. And let’s not forget Susan Squires, who has written SF romance as well as vampire romances and romantic suspense.

Sinclair believes this blurring of genres might be because on-line bookstores can shelve books under more than one category. Bricks and mortar bookstores, however, still have problems with shelving cross-genre books. “I bounce back and forth (well my books do, not me) between the SF aisles and the romance aisles.” Some stores will shelve the In Death books under romance, while others will put them under mystery or under general fiction. More recently, Lisa Shearin’s Magic Lost, Trouble Found is published as a fantasy, but Sinclair sees it as “fantasy/detective/romance/adventure with a strong snarky, almost chick-lit voice. ” Sinclair’s books range from the space opera romance of Finders Keepers to space opera romance with magic in An Accidental Goddess to her upcoming The Down Home Zombie Blues, which she describes as “Men In Black meets CSI:Miami (science fiction romance police procedural with humor!).” How does she define the sub-genres? “As great books to read.” Sure, there are genre definitions, but those distinctions are for writers, editors, agents, booksellers, etc. Not for readers. Sinclair doesn’t think that readers use those distinctions, and doubts that they should. She went into how the publishing industry views futuristic romance, science fiction romance, and romantic science fiction in an interview a year or so ago: She thinks the field is still evolving.

Like Sinclair, I have watched the SF/F field evolve. I remember being so excited when the first SF/F romances came out, and then being so disappointed when most turned out to have science worthy of a 1950s “Bugs from Outer Space” movie. (Note to authors: Please learn the difference between solar systems and galaxies!) Sure, now and then you had something like Sweet Starfire by Jayne Ann Krentz, which felt like real science fiction. But a year later, I read Lois McMaster Bujold’s first SF novel, Shards of Honor, and even Sweet Starfire couldn’t hold a candle to it. Yet while I loved my SF and fantasy, I also got frustrated with the way so many of the writers handled romantic elements. Now, on the other hand, we have new publishers entering the fray, such as Tor Paranormal and Harlequin’s Luna imprint, as well as specialized small presses such as Juno Books. Editors and publishers have realized that readers who read both romance and SF/F are not mythological creatures.

Like me, Walker is an SF fan, so while she’s eager to read more SF/F romances, she’s picky about them. She wants them to be good, and at present, finds too many of them to be a bit too hokey – a problem I had with many of the earlier futuristics. (Did every hero have to be a space pirate? Did every heroine have to be as naive as a Regency miss?) .She thinks SF/F romances will become huge, and then level off until the next big trend takes over. It’s been her experience that readers of paranormals also tend to like SF/F romance, as long as they find the story appealing. Sinclair finds that her readers tend to read lots of different genres – including PSF. Some paranormal fans have admitted that they don’t want to read SF romance because they’re afraid it will be too technical – “(too many spaceships and things that blink and beep).” In those cases, she suggests that they try something that blurs the lines between SF and fantasy, such as Robin D. Owen’s Heart Mate series or her own Accidental Goddess, about a sorceress who ends up stranded on a space station. What she does find is that some types of readers will try any sub-genre if the story appeals to them. For example, she picked up a lot of new readers because the hero of Games of Command was a male virgin. “I don’t think it mattered much if the story was werewolf or spaceship at that point (and they picked up Susan Grant’s How To Lose An Extraterrestrial in 10 Days for the same reason, and no, Susan and I did not coordinate creating male virgin heroes. It was just one of those crazy and fun things that happens when you write.)”

One thing that may have kept some readers away from PSF romance was the worldbuilding. Of course, all writers have to worldbuild in some way. Historical authors have to set their story in the past, whether in drawing rooms or on pirate ships. Romantic suspense writers have to make us believe in cops or SEALs and FBI agents. And many contemporaries highlight fascinating industries, from event planning to jewelry making. But PSF writers have the challenge of taking place in a whole new world, or at least an altered version of our world. That doesn’t mean they should scare you away. The best writers can plunge you right into those worlds without making you question what you’re doing there. These books can be like gateway drugs that lure readers into a genre they thought they wouldn’t like.

How does the writer do this? Grant finds most of it instinctive and tries to “craft a story to give as much dimension to the world as possible without overwhelming the love story.” She argues that it’s not all the different from writing an historical, adding that in an historical, “You want to feel as if you are there in that world but you don’t the details so numerous that you feel as if you’re reading a college textbook; nor do you want the historical details as mere ‘wallpaper.’ It’s a balancing act. Same in the writing of SF romance.” She has also found that readers are comfortable with different levels of worldbuilding. Just as some historical fans want historicals with lots and lots of details, and others only want “wallpaper” settings, some PSF fans want just a flavor of the setting, and “others want it rich and deep.”

To Walker, the characters are all important. The writer has to pay as much attention to the characters, their relationships, and their struggles as they do to the worldbuilding.”If you concentrate on painting a mental picture for the readers so that they can see the world, hear the sound of the animals and smell the air, but you don’t focus on the people, you’re missing something important.” That world has to be more than just scenery – it had to be a part of the characters’ lives. At the same time, the world can’t be the entire story.

Sinclair approaches worldbuilding in SF romances the same way she’d approach a contemporary. “If I’m writing a novel set in present day Columbus, Ohio, I’m not going to have my character walk into her kitchen and say, ‘Oh, look! There’s my microwave oven which works by passing nonionizing microwave radiation, usually at a frequency of 2.45 GHz (a wavelength of 12.24 cm), through my food.’ (explanation courtesy of Wikipedia) Actually, prior to googling that just now, I had no idea of the wavelength frequency of a microwave and honestly, I don’t care. I know it pops my popcorn in about three minutes. That’s all I care. And that’s all my character would care about because a microwave oven is something commonplace in her world.” Similarly, in Gabriel’s Ghost, her character Chaz Bergren knows how an Imperial X7A hyperspace jump drive works because of her experience as a military space fleet pilot, but she doesn’t know them as an engineer or a drive mechanic would.

In Sinclair’s books, if her character takes something for granted, she doesn’t explain it. She uses the same rule for the political, sociological, religious, and economic structures in her worlds. After all, not every character is politically aware or even interested in politics. As an author. Sinclair keeps a lot of detail on her worlds, but she doesn’t share it with the reader unless it’s necessary because that’s one of the easiest ways to bore the reader. Yes! Exactly! Thank you, Linnea Sinclair! I wish more writers would “get” this! I have books sitting around and getting dusty because the author decided to tell me the history of several planets. Compare that to Sinclair’s Accidental Goddess, which plunges into the action on page one. On the first few pages, we learn the heroine is missing more than 300 years, that she can remove her essence out of her body, that her ship talks to her with a snarky voice inside her head, that she is on a space station, and that the people on this space ship have made her into a goddess. Whoops. Yet she manages to get all of that across without lapsing into the “As you know, Bob” lectures so many authors succumb to, and without info dumps.

Day also hates the info dump, particularly the way some authors work them into series, “when suddenly the first 100 pages of each book are ‘here’s what happened in the first five books plus all the intricate rules and details of my worldbuilding.’ It bores me to tears.” So she avoids it in her own books. On the other hand, she finds that she sometimes goes too far in the other direction. “My editor will call me and say “who is Jane and why is she suddenly in chapter three?” Oops! Once in a while you need a little backstory. I give the readers a look into the worldbuilding when it’s appropriate to the story I’m writing.” She also keeps in mind the series goals and arcs in mind, taking lots of notes so that she can make sure later books don’t later contradict the earlier ones.

Clamp points out that PSF romances “simply wouldn’t exist without worldbuilding. It must be an integral element of the plot and the character’s reality. Readers are more than willing to accept the customs of the characters, no matter how strange or unusual, so long as you explain it properly. And that doesn’t mean a dump of backstory. It can be a couple of simple sentences.” For example, in one of their Thrall books, Adams and Clamp use only one paragraph to relate the fact that because female werewolves are born sterile, human surrogates are required to breed new wolves. Then they use dialogue and a few questions to explain the details. “It’s actually not really tricky to get it all in, because the reader doesn’t mind not knowing everything. If you explain every detail of every world rule, what’s there to talk about amongst readers? Readers like to guess, to wonder, to discuss things hinted at. It’s part of the fun of the genre.”

Brook points out that worldbuilding is important in any romance, whether paranormal, historical, or contemporary. In all cases, it must be an integral part of both the conflict and plot, adding, “It can’t just be a background or wallpaper; it has to be a living, breathing part of the book, influencing character, their actions, everything – so that the worldbuilding and history is a part of who they are and a seamless part of the narrative.” She also recognizes that’s the ideal. A book can have too much information, or too little. Writing a series allows the author to add complexity over the course of multiple books. But then the author runs the risk of making a world so complex that it must be explained to new readers – but how do you do that without boring existing readers when familiar elements are explained to them again? In all cases, however, each book in a series much have a primary plot, its own beginning, middle, and end. There can be dangling threads, but the main plot of that book must have closure. Series are common in SF and fantasy, in part because some stories are larger than a single book. For Brook, “If romance adopts the complex worldbuilding of those genres, it seems natural that it also adopts some of those multiple-book formats to tell that larger story. The problem with the format and an overreaching story arc is that when a reader comes in late to the series, there will be missing pieces.” The writer has to fill in the backstory, without losing focus on the current book. This is frustrating to many readers, but others love watching the puzzle unfold over time.

Why do paranormal readers love series? Simply, readers want to see more and more of a world and revisit favorite characters. Lynn Viehl’s Darkyn books and J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood books are a great example of this because readers get to know the popular characters before they star in their own books, and of course, the In Death books follow Eve and Roarke through their lives. Like me, Day loves series because if a world is interesting enough, she falls in love with both the characters and the world and wants to read more about that world. “That’s why I decided to write the Warriors of Poseidon series, so I could enjoy the fun of creating a family and world that readers would care about. My readers love it and are continually demanding that I write “their” favorite warrior next!” Walker herself has created the popular The Hunters series. She says that series are popular because “When a reader loves a series…they really love a series. They want to immerse themselves in it. If the story can be told in just the pages of one story, they can’t immerse themselves in it as well.” Besides, as she points out, a series give the writer more room to explore a complex world. The first book can just scratch the surface, and later books give a better glimpse of the world. I thought one great example of that was the first Sazi book by Adams and Clamp. Because the hero is thrust into a world he never knew existed, the reader learned about it as he did. And according to Clamp, creating a series goes back to “the complexity of the worldbuilding.” Because of the constraints of publishing, “it’s hard to create an entire world and make it believable in the space of 100,000 words.” Publishers are far less willing to buy 200K paperbacks because readers don’t like paying more than $8.00 for a mass market paperback. But by creating a series, an author can create a more complex, richer world without getting in the way of the plot.

Grant says, “Over the past few years, I do see readers automatically assuming any book I write will be a series. I take this to mean many readers prefer series, i.e. a world that will become familiar and comfortable, and, hopefully, enjoyable. Definitely it’s got me thinking in terms of a series with each new single title I begin. Even if it’s not intended to be a series, the fan mail comes in: ‘Will so-and-so have their own story,’ etc., so you do feel compelled to give the reader more of what they want, in this case, connected books. Now whenever I begin a book, I think: can this work as a series?” On the other hand, not everyone “does” series, so readers who don’t like series can still find something Sinclair is only now writing her first sequel – Shades of Dark, the follow-up to her RITA Award-winning Gabriel’s Ghost. She does enjoy writing series, but so far, Bantam has bought single titles from her.

Another growing trend is romance hybrids. These include everything from books in Harlequin’s Luna imprint to erotic paranormals that verge on erotica. Many readers love these genre-bending books, as long as the stories are good. But most do demand one thing – the HEA. Walker must have an HEA, although that HEA can be different from what the readers expect. For example, her summer release, Hunter’s Salvation, ended differently than what some readers expected – and most readers accepted that. On the other hand, she would never kill the hero or heroine at the end. She has killed one or two at the beginning, but that’s OK because they’re undead — so maybe they were un-killed. In PSF romance, being undead is okay as long as they live happily ever after. Hybrids are okay by Day, too. She’s not wild about the idea of “rules” in writing. “Writing is art, and the writer should write whatever is in her heart and mind and creativity to write. As always, readers will buy and read what they like to read. I love, love, love that as readers, we all have such a wide range and variety of choices in the marketplace.”

Brook loves “seeing the new elements brought into romance, and authors taking risks with plot, setting, and characters.” But if it doesn’t have an HEA, or at least a happy for now, ending, she doesn’t want it labeled as a romance. What’s important about the HEA isn’t whether the characters get married or have babies, but rather, she wants to know – and believe – that the love will last after the story closes. “That ‘believing’ part is where I think most readers feel the romance is suffering – and it probably is. With so much complex worldbuilding (and very likely a high-energy, action-packed plot) there isn’t much room left to believably develop a relationship. Paranormal romance might need to take a hint from fantasy: any book that complex could likely benefit from a higher word count.” As far as the HEA, that’s an issue of labeling. If it doesn’t have an HEA, it’s not, in her opinion, a romance, even if it’s strongly romantic. At the same time, if it’s not labeled as a romance, even if it doesn’t have an HEA, she thinks most romance fans will be satisfied if the story is good. As an example, many romance fans loved The Time-Traveler’s Wife, despite the ending. But if it had been labeled a romance, many more fans would have been furious about the ending, even though the story was great. Even when there’s an HEA, however, there can still be confusion about what exactly a story is. Clamp admits that her books are “probably miscategorized on the romance shelves even though there’s an HEA in every one” and thinks that they should be shelved as urban fantasy. She and writing partner Adams have struggled to find a balance between the romance and the paranormal with each book, with some being more paranormal and some more romance than paranormal. They think their upcoming October release is their best balance to date, and some of the reviews they’ve seen live up to that belief. But they still do include that HEA because that’s a true demand of the field. “The furthest an author can reasonably get from the traditional HEA is an uneasy truce – a ‘satisfactory’ ending that provides hope the main characters will get together. But it’ll never be enough for true romance fans. Oh, and an author can get away with a duology or trilogy, provided the author fulfills the promise of the HEA at the end. Readers don’t mind going along for the ride – being tantalized like on a soap opera. But if you end the series without that resolution . . . woo boy! Watch out!”

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Part III

Satisfying both romance and non-romance fans can be a challenge. Clamp finds that to satisfy SF and fantasy fans, you must include action, a good plot, and worldbuilding. If those are there, then they’ll be happy and they’ll even “put up” with the romance. Grant finds that many of her fans are “dedicated SF readers who crossed over. But since I am being published by a romance line, I try to satisfy the romance reader first because they are my targeted market. If it was an SF publisher who was putting out my books, I’d beef up the SF elements. I have no struggle with whom to satisfy because I keep in mind who’s writing my meal ticket. It’s that simple. While her books are about 50% romance and 50% SF, Sinclair still includes the HEA, so romance readers do get their happy ending. At the same time, she has no problem with paranormals that don’t conform to the traditional HEA – for example, the In Death series, where Eve and Roarke are still defining their relationship. We don’t all define the HEA in the same way, so while some HEAs involve being married and having lots of kids, another character’s HEA might involve finding the right partner. In Sinclair’s view, paranormals and SF/F romance provide a great venue for exploring a variety of HEA endings. The only negative feedback she gets is from hard-core SF readers who don’t like romance in SF novels. “To them, an author can write about loyalty, patriotism, ambition, fear, and greed, but not about love. Well, I believe love is as much a part of our lives as ambition, fear and loyalty and the rest. The quest for companionship, platonic and romantic, forms a large part of what motivates us. Removing that aspect from any story seems unnatural to me.”

Phew! That cross-over audience can be a rough crowd. When one of the first paranormal romance anthologies came out, maybe in the early 1990s, an SF magazine reviewed it, and you knew they were reviewing it just to be snarky. After all, when the reviewer spotted the cover, which promised “Romance in other worlds” or something like that, he asked, “Why?” My thought was “Why not?” It was about time, and I thought the reviewer was arrogant. Still, I knew cross-genre books would have a hard time finding fans on both sides of the genre aisle. Some SF and fantasy readers label all romantic elements, however mild, as “cheesy” or “Harlequin romance stuff” or even “smut.” So how does a writer capture that cross-over market and satisfy all types of readers? According to Walker, the books have to provide something besides the romance. While the relationship still has to be the driving force behind the story, it can’t be the only force. Something else has to be there, whether in the main plot or subplots. “A well written paranormal romance with good world building is going to appeal more than just a romance that happens to have a hero with a pair of fangs and a coffin instead of a bed.”

Sinclair believes that she satisfies readers “By giving them characters they care about, putting those characters through challenges and having those characters earn the successes they achieve.” Stories grab us because we enter their lives just when the “sh_t hits the fan” – whether it’s emotional stuff or physical stuff or all of the above. Even more importantly, books must be about characters who are flawed as we relate to those better. Sinclair thinks Joss Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity series is a marvelous example of that. One of her most popular characters is Admiral Branden Kel-Paten of Games of Command, who is perfect in many ways – with super human strength and super human intellectual capacity – and yet who still manages to be “an emotional train wreck.” Readers loved the dichotomy and “cared about him because of his very ineptitude.”

Silver says, “At heart, my stories are romances. But whether I’m writing historicals, paranormals or futuristics, I try to build my world in a believable and seamless manner.” In Driven she researched the science so that SF readers would not be turned off by inaccuracies, but she also balanced the SF elements with the romance. In Demon’s Kiss she created explanations for the paranormal elements so that readers could suspend disbelief. Was she successful? She hopes so. Ultimately, that’s up to the reader.

So what’s in store for PSF romance? What’s hot, what’s not, and what’s to come? Grant sees “a resurgence and new interest in SF romance, definitely, in my own books and for those by talented authors such as Linnea Sinclair. Both of us have been writing in this sub-genre since around 2000, and we both agree that it is becoming more popular. It’s been a slow climb over the past few years, as SFR clings to the rising coattails of paranormal romance, and as romance readers become less wary of the kinds of books we write. It’s exciting to be part of a trend for once!”

When I took on this assignment, Laurie asked me whether or not I thought it was true that demons – and not necessarily Satanic demons (hey, she’d just finished one of Jacquelyn Frank’s books) – and dragons were the new “in” monsters. Sinclair says that “demon romances are hot, pardon the pun. The dark angel, the reformed fallen angel and such. Certainly a great character to work with! And fantasy/urban fantasy with snark (or a chick-lit tone) seems to be popular.” However, “the strongest proponent for any book is strong writing and a unique voice. The trendiest plotline will go nowhere if the writing isn’t there.” Right now, Walker sees the current trends as kick butt heroines (a trend she hopes is here to stay) and “warrior band of brothers” stories, along the lines of the Black Dagger Brotherhood books. At the same time, industry professionals warn “that there are enough vampires right now, enough shifters. I don’t think that means these are on their way out – just that they are looking for something a little different.” Brook spots demons as the hot trend, warning that it’s too early to know whether they’ll have staying power. I’ve heard over and over that vampires are a hard sell and on the way out, but I’ve seen little evidence of that on the shelves. It might be that vampires are not enough to sell – that they have to be placed within a solid fantasy setting that includes other paranormal elements, and that will appeal to the broadest possible readership.” Overall, she believes that PSF are here to stay. She thinks the market will fluctuate so there isn’t such a glut, and that different types of stories will take over from the vampires. The sub-genre itself won’t disappear, although some trends might dwindle away, just as Regency trads and Western romances have dwindled. Clamp says that magic (witches and wizards, for example) are hot, as are demons. While “darker and darker still” is in, humorous paranormals are out, and debut authors are having a tougher time attracting readers.

While paranormals are popular, anyone who follows AAR’s forums knows that many readers are sick of them. Even some paranormal fans are saying “Enough already.” Fans are having a hard time finding books in other sub-genres, such as contemporary romance or historicals. But paranormals? They’re everywhere, because that’s what selling (or at least certain types of them are). And some readers are angry when they see paranormals take over the shelf space in stores, or even take away the slots of authors they like. Walker understands why readers are upset. “There are often times when I am not in the mood for paranormal, and lately, I want suspense or contemporary more. The difference isn’t really much of a difference – it’s just that they are on different sides of the fence. They both want more of what they like and for the non-paranormal lover, they’re having a harder time finding it.” Though she’s a fan of paranormals, she wants more variety. She gets bored with too much of the same thing.

Clamp says, “So long as there are readers for a sub-genre, the publishers will keep putting them out. Sad to say, but the reason why so many of the Regency and historical books disappeared is because sales dropped through the floor. But those who missed them really missed them, so they’re back on the upswing.” Clamp also points out that today, even some of the paranormals are historical paranormals, rather than outright paranormals. Also, she reminds readers that “booksellers really do listen to readers, and publishers really do listen to booksellers. It’s important for readers to actually stop and take the time to talk to the bookstore manager. Make them aware what you’re looking for that you can’t find. Ask them to take the request to their district management and from there to the chain/indie store’s book buyer. They meet with publishers all the time, but if they don’t know what the readers are looking for, they can’t ask.” She also doesn’t see much of a difference between paranormal readers and other readers because most readers want a variety, and few want to read only one type of book. I’m the perfect example – yesterday, I was reading Linnea Sinclair, and today, I picked up Carla Kelly’s Beau Crusoe, and later, I’ll finish that Susan Grant or maybe…

Grant finds that opinions vary depending on which forum you visit, although she notes that she has “seen a backlash – I’m not sure that’s the right word – in that readers are seeking out more historicals, or romances with more sexual tension and less erotica, and more readers are searching for SF romance/futuristics when that used to be the ‘poor step-sister’ sub-genre. I think maybe a little boredom has set in, but I think it’s going to be a long, long time before paranormal sinks in popularity, if it ever does again, because the genre is just so broad with so many possibilities.”

So just what are the numbers? Silver walks three worlds because she writes historical Gothics and dark paranormal as Eve Silver and now writes SF romance as Eve Kenin. She checked recent issues of Romantic Times. In the September issue not counting historical fiction and urban fantasy, there were 15 paranormal reviews and 32 historical romance reviews, while the August issue contained 38 historical romance reviews and 17 paranormal reviews. But what does it all come out to? In Silver’s mind, what she wants is a good book, whatever the genre. But she recognizes that other readers have different preferences, and if they think paranormals are driving out the books they like, then they are going to be concerned.

But what about the SF romance side? First, Grant sees SF and fantasy romance as a part of paranormal romance. Just as she’s found that some readers only want paranormals and not SF romance, she has found that many readers want that SF element but not vampires. “I don’t know how you can make a generalization about paranormal romance readers, really. They like what they individually like. Clamp also notes that paranormal fans “are a specific breed. Yeah, there’s a love of SF and fantasy hiding in there, but typically SF and fantasy aren’t as dark. They don’t explore the more elemental/primal natures simply due to the constraints of the genre.” Also, the darker fantasies, when they do exist, tend to be classified as urban fantasy or paranormal.

Sinclair hears readers begging for more. This all comes down to reader expectations. “Some people want very here-and-now stories because of the way they identify with the characters. Others are comfortable in an “other’s” skin and enjoy exploring “otherness”. And while most of us read to escape, some only want a light escape and others are willing to go the whole nine yards, and more.” Reading a novel is an emotional investment. Readers “become” the characters, and not everyone likes that, especially if that character is a werewolf or a demon. This is reflected in what readers often hate about paranormals – they can’t relate to elements such as the undead or werewolves. They often think the books are out-and-out gross. And no amount of paranormals on the shelf is going to convince these readers that vampires aren’t simply gross. Brook likes paranormal as well as SF/F romance, and from her experience, most paranormal fans don’t mind branching out into urban fantasy, fantasy, and SF romance. The same readers like Christine Feehan, J.R. Ward, Anne Bishop, Kelley Armstrong, Patricia Briggs, Charlaine Harris, Nalini Singh, and Marjorie M. Liu, all of whom range from paranormal to straight fantasy to SF romance. Brook has seen few paranormal readers who avoid SF/R romances, such as readers who only want vampire books or werewolf books.

But what about fans who are sick of paranormals…or never liked them to begin with? Brook says that the distinction is clear: Some readers like what’s on the shelves, and some don’t. “That’s not to be dismissive, but the reasons are as varied as the readers, and so although it can be boiled down to those two points, the ingredients are not so easy to discern. Some readers have a general dislike of the sub-genre, and so the high number of paranormals on the market is going to be a frustration. For some fans, as the Other is normalized and accepted into the mainstream, it loses its edge – and therefore its appeal. Some fans are just burned out, because they’ve been reading too many … which happens, I think, with every sub-genre of romance (Regency historicals with spies, anyone?).” But the demand is there, and publishers are keeping up with demands (maybe overdoing it), and as a result, other genres are pushed aside. Over time, “as non-paranormal readers stop buying (or publishers see that money is going to be made from readers willing to spend on books in other sub-genres) the publishers will begin branching out. Whether this means less paranormals or simply more books published per year, I don’t know.” Eventually, she thinks the market will move away from paranormals, but she realizes that because publishing is S L O W, readers who want something else will be frustrated.

On the other hand, Grant thinks the future of paranormal and SF romance is bright. “We’re going to see more and more variety. I for one can’t wait to read it and to write it.” Clamp also thinks that the future is bright. “There’s plenty of room for new ideas. There are dozens of cultures with mythology that hasn’t yet been touched as far as paranormal. And futuristic? Well, there are visions of realities that haven’t yet been explored. I don’t think there’s an end in sight.”

Rather than asking specific questions, we encourage you to simply talk about what struck you as you read the column, Anne’s analysis, and the comments of the authors who participated in our roundtable discussion. There’s a lot of great food for thought and we look forward to hearing your views on the ATBF forum.

Anne Marble,
with Shiloh Walker, Linnea Sinclair, Eve Silver,
Meljean Brook, Alyssa Day, Susan Grant, and Cathy Clamp


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Earlier Paranormal Roundtable

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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