Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Anne Marble
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First, some definitions. Fantasy romances cover a wide ranges of "things that could never be," from elves and fairies and mythical creatures to adventures taking place in invented worlds (think "Lord of the Rings" with the focus shifted away from the battles and toward Aragorn and Arwen). Futuristic romances take place in science fictional settings -- think Star Wars and Star Trek. Paranormal romances are where the creatures of nightmare lurk -- vampires and werewolves and ghosts. But in paranormal romances, the creatures of nightmare often turn out to be the heroes! The lines do blur. Many people consider fantasy romance to be a part of paranormal romance. Also, many futuristic romances often take place in worlds that could be straight out of a fantasy novel, complete with barbarians and swordplay, while others (such as Robin Owens' HeartMate) include elements such as psychic abilities, which are generally considered a part of paranormal romance.
Don't Forget the Romance
Remember, you're not writing a fantasy or science fiction novel or a horror novel. You're writing a romance. So the romance has to come first. The romance must be what drives the book. You aren't writing Bram Stoke's horror novel Dracula, told in letters, diary entries and the like, about the evil count trying to find new prey in England and the people who join forces to stop him or die trying. But you might be writing something like Christine Feehan's Dark Prince, first in her Carpathian series, a paranormal romance where the hero is saved from turning into a vampire because he finds his life-mate in the heroine. You aren't writing Frank Herbert's Dune, an acclaimed SF novel full of complex politics and metaphysics and political intrigue with a huge cast of characters. But you might be writing something like Jayne Ann Krentz's Sweet Starfire, which is pretty much a futuristic road trip in space, with almost the entire book devoted to interaction (and arguing) between the hero and heroine.
In Feehan's Dark Prince, the love drives the story because Carpathian men who don't find their life-mates go mad and become evil vampires. Without that love story, there would be no plot. But the idea of the Carpathian hero finding salvation by finding the heroine makes for great material for a paranormal romance. In Krentz's Sweet Starfire, while the plot is about the heroine looking for an artifact that will give her telepathic powers, the real story is about how she meets and falls in love with the hero, the spaceship pilot she hires.
Making the HEA Believable
You've got an immortal vampire hero. You've got a mortal heroine. They're in love. Eventually, she's going to die. He won't. Uh-oh, now you're in trouble. One of the main requirements of a romance, if not the requirement, is the HEA (happily ever after) ending. Now what do you do?
When a man and woman in a normal romance fall in love, their path to love can be fraught with disaster, but we know that once they work out their problems, they can be together without having to worry about spaceships, immortality, and the what-not. In the FF&P romance, we know it won't be so easy. If you're writing an FF&P romance, you can run into huge barriers to the HEA ending. The hero and heroine may literally come from different worlds. How do you keep them together? The simple answer is "Use your imagination." As with so many simple answers, that isn't so simple, is it? On top of that, the "solution" you pick can actually make things worse for the hero and heroine. If that's the case, go with it!
Whatever solution you use shouldn't be the easy way out. OK, let's say your hero is a werewolf. Do you remove the curse that made him a werewolf and give him a normal life? That's not always the best solution. These days, many werewolf characters do not believe they have been cursed, and if you told them you were going to make them normal, they'd "rip your lungs out, Jim." So do you turn the heroine into a werewolf then? If she's game, that might be the best solution. But what if she's not. Well, then, you have conflict. As any writer knows, that's a good thing!
And whatever you do, make sure that the solution to your HEA is spelled out in the story. I once read a paranormal romance where the vampire hero wanted to become a human again. For centuries, he had been told this was impossible. Near the end of the book, he found out that there was a way to accomplish this after all. I'm sure I wasn't the only reader to say "Wha?!" Like many others, I felt cheated by that ending as it was something of a deux ex machina.
Worldbuilding is crucial to science fiction and fantasy novels. Some SF and fantasy writers put astonishing amounts of work into their worldbuilding. As an example, J. R. R. Tolkien spent years creating the backdrop of the Lord of the Ring trilogy. He even created languages and history and tales and songs -- enough to fill several volumes after his death.
Luckily, the writers of FF&P romance don't have to go to those extremes when they create their worlds. Most fans of FF&P romance wouldn't have the patience for a world that detailed. They're not coming to you to read about a world so richly detailed that fans will know the name of your heroine's great-great-grandmother. They want to read about a hero and heroine in a truly exotic setting.
Still, just as an author of Regency-set historical romances would research the Regency period, so should the writer of FF&P romances work on creating a believable world. This doesn't meant that you should go so far as to create a separate vampire language or write thousands of pages of mythology before starting your fantasy romance. But do try to create a world that's consistent and logical. For one thing, the more work you put into the worldbuilding, the more that worldbuilding will pay off because you might find something there to help your plot or characterization.
And yes, even if you're writing novels set on earth, such as vampire novels set in the present, there will still be some worldbuilding. Are you writing about a world where ordinary people know that the paranormal exists? If so, try to figure out ways in which the world as we know it might be different. Or is the existence of the paranormal hidden from most people? If so, try to figure out how to pull this off.
Whatever you end up creating, remember that there are many levels of worldbuilding, just as there are some historical romances have detailed settings and backgrounds, while others use the history as a wallpaper for the romance. Many FF&P romances use their setting, however exotic, as a wallpaper, although a more exotic wallpaper than that found in a historical romance. They can get away with it as long as the romance is strong enough and their writing can carry the book.
You could still have a successful FF&P romance if your worldbuilding is weak. But you'll have more fun writing it if you create a world people can truly believe exists. Also, the better and more detailed the worldbuilding, the more likely you can create a series based in that world.
Keep It Real
Keep it real? When you're writing about other planets or elves and fairies or vampires or werewolves? But the more far out you go, the more you have to work to keep the story rooted to reality. Give your story concrete details the readers can relate to. That's because those concrete details will help readers believe in your setting. What do your people drink? What do they eat? What music do they listen to? How does the world around them smell? If you can create these details and describe them well, your readers will find themselves plunged into a brave new world. Even more challenging (but more rewarding as well) will be the ability to make those elements spring logically from the world you have created.
Also, find ways to connect your characters to the world as we know it. No matter how far out those characters are, they will have something in common with regular people. Even if your characters are elves or starship pilots, they live and exist in a world that must be made real to your readers. Even elves and starship pilots have fears and dreams, good and bad childhoods, lost loves, and doubts.
MaryJanice Davidson's Undead and Unwed is about Betsy, a woman who is run down by a car and wakes up in her casket to eventually learn that she has become a vampire. That is definitely a far-out premise! Yet MaryJanice Davidson keeps it real. How? Start with the fact that just before she dies, Betsy is turning 30 and gets laid off from her job. And she has a horrid relationship with her stepmother. Then there's her passion for shoes, and the fact that when she wakes up in her casket, she realizes that she is, horror of horrors, wearing Payless shoes! This is a vampire story firmly fixed in the real world. Not only are the details something we can all relate to, but Betsy experiences some of the trials we all go through.
Don't Be Afraid to Break the Rules
We've all seen movies or read books where vampires, werewolves, and other creatures of the paranormal had to live under strict rules. For example, vampires can't go out in sunlight, their reflections can't be seen in mirrors, and so forth. Werewolves are cursed and only turn into wolves when the moon is full and always kill the one they love. Well that last one would be a downer in a romance, wouldn't it?
So don't be afraid to change those rules. Remember, many of those rules aren't even a part of the original folklore -- they were created by novelists or filmmakers and became part of our collective consciousness. So you can do the same. Make your own rules -- especially if you can find a reason to do so. Chances are that most of the existing "rules" won't fit the story you want to tell anyway
Some people might get upset if you break the "rules." You're not writing the story for them. You're writing the story for people who want to read a romance story with something extra. And who's to say that something extra has to stick to the same old rules?
The Dark Side
Because of their very nature, FF&P romances often tread on the dark side. When you're writing about characters such as a space pirate, a barbaric swordfighter, or a vampire or ghost, that's not too difficult. Many fans of FF&P romances turn to them because they are not afraid to walk on the wild side. In the words of Lou Reed, "Doo do doo do doo do do doo."
How dark can things get? With Come to Me, Lisa Cach wrote about a heroine who is a succubus, a type of demon, following it up with an incubus hero in Dream of Me. In Melanie Jackson's "Wildside" series of urban fantasy romances, the good guys strive to defeat the repulsive goblins who are behind society's ills. And the books in Sherrilyn Kenyon's "Dark-Hunters" series have some of the most tortured heroes ever found. Yet for all that, many of these books avoid being unrelentingly dark. All three of these authors are known for including humor in their stories.
The future can be dark, too. Nora Robert's "In Death" series (written under the penname "J. D. Robb") are futuristic romantic suspense novels about a woman cop who solves murders in the near future. The stories are gritty, the language is strong, and the crimes are gruesome. Heroine Eve Dallas is a tough and capable cop with a troubled past, and the hero, Roarke, is no stranger to the dark side. Yet all this hasn't stopped these books from becoming incredibly popular with readers. Even readers who don't like the gruesome murders sometimes read the books because they want to catch up with the relationship between Eve and Roarke. For all the darkness, these two are in love, and Roarke helps Eve face her demons.
Let this be a reminder that as dark the FF&P stories can get, they are still romances. The hero and heroine can tread the dark side, but they shouldn't fall off the edge and plunge into the dark side. Instead, they should be there for each other in the end.
Also, keep in mind that most romance readers don't come to FF&P romances to read about scary or overly violent stories. This is a romance, not a "splatterpunk" horror novel. Follow your instincts and avoid grossing out readers. If you must, keep the gruesome stuff off-stage.
The Funny Side
Dark or not, FF&P romances can be funny. Many writers avoid going for the jugular vein and head for the funny bone instead. While not everyone liked her style, many people credited Dara Joy with reviving futuristic romances with the highly sensual "Knight of a Trillion Stars." In "George and the Virgin," Lisa Cach wrote a fun romance about a professional wrestler who travels back in time to slay a dragon, and ends up meeting the heroine, would-be dragon bait. Lynsay Sands and Katie MacAlister have both written romances that combined humor and the paranormal.
As the actor in the anecdote says, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." For everyone who chuckled over the romances listed above, there were others who rolled their eyes or even threw the books against the wall. Humorous romances are already difficult to write. Combining humor and otherworldly elements adds yet another challenge. This could be because you're already asking the reader to accept the existence of the otherworldly. Asking them to buy into humorous situations on top of that might stretch their willing suspension of disbelief too far -- especially if you bring in slapstick situations.
Still, readers who are sick of brooding vampires and depressed werewolves may be eager to sink their teeth into a read that mocks the stereotypes they have grown so weary of.
Creating a Series
Today, many writers of FF&P romance aren't content to write one book set in their created world. They'd rather work in series. Some of the most popular FF&P books are parts of series, from the J. D. Robb "In Death" books to Christine Feehan's Carpathian books and Sherrilyn Kenyon's increasingly popular "Dark-Hunters" series. If your concept is strong enough to hold up several books, you might be able to join them.
If you do create a series, however, be prepared to face new challenges unique to series. The first one is that not everybody reading book four of your series has read books one through three. They might have started with book four. You have to balance your book so that new readers are somehow told what's going on but existing fans aren't bored out of their minds.
The longer a series goes on, and the more returning characters and old plot threads you have to deal with, the greater your challenge will be. Some readers have complained that later the books in Sherrilyn Kenyon's "Dark-Hunters" series can be too hard for new fans to get into because of the intertwined relationships. On the other hand, some readers solve this problem by simply buying as many of the books in the series as they can and then catching up.
How do you avoid turning off new readers with series set in complex worlds? Start out by telling readers only what they need to know -- but at the same time, don't be vague, or they will get frustrated trying to learn new terminology. Are returning characters you want to bring back into the story? Don't introduce them all at once. If you have a favorite romance series, reread the books and try to consider what a new fan would think after starting those books. Take note of the ways authors use to keep readers informed. Also, take notes of things that you realize might confuse a new fan, and brainstorm about ways you can avoid doing that in your own series.
A lot of writers (and their fans) have learned that the otherworldly and sex go well together. Heroes and heroines with something extra can bring that "extra" to their love scenes. Is your heroine psychic? Then maybe she can read the hero's mind during sex. Wow! Is your hero a werewolf? Then maybe he is especially attuned to the scent of the heroine's perfume. And sex in the future might be in zero gravity!
In fact, these days, it's hard to think of FF&P romances without thinking of hot hot sex. One reason is that romantica publishers such as Red Sage Publishing (a small press publisher) and Ellora's Cave (an e-book publisher) have given otherworldly romances a shot in the arm with erotica fantasy, futuristic, and paranormal romances. Authors such as Jaid Black, MaryJanice Davidson, and Angela Knight have gone from these publishers to hit the big time with major publishers. Other writers, such as Emma Holly, have joined them.
But if you're not comfortable with writing hot sex scenes, don't write them. And if hot sex doesn't belong in your story, then leave it out. Just because a lot of people are writing FF&P romances with highly sensual love scenes, that doesn't mean you should join them. Do what's right for your book.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Anne M. Marble has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.