Wednesday, March 19, 2008

More on why I'm loving urban fantasy right now

During my post last week about alpha males, I started a digression but decided to listen to the editor inside me and sliced it out to save for another post...
And reading both Sinead's post about Cinderella in a modern world and Molly's post about baby poop, dog poop and people pooping on category romance, made me think about my digression again.

The topic is really back to my often touched upon subject of why I'm not writing category romance at the moment. And while my reason is certainly not disdain -- I have huge admiration for writers who can write good category romance -- there probably is at least an element of ambivalence. It's not what I read. In fact, romance full stop isn't what I typically read, and as we all know trying to write something you don't love just doesn't work.

I really loved writing the women's fiction books I've written, but alas, they have yet to sell and so digging up the motivation to finish another was proving hard.

So, imagine my delight on discovering a sub-genre of romance that I actually love -- urban fantasy. Writers like J.R. Ward and Kelley Armstrong and Eve Kenin have really opened my eyes to what's possible in that genre. That it's possible to combine suspense and mythology and world building and whatever the hell you want, within a romance. (Eve's DRIVEN is futuristic... but I think it has more--or at least as much--in common with urban fantasy as with science fiction.)

I could go on for ages about why I like urban fantasy when it's done well (and hate it when it's not done well), but what I was thinking about, during my edited out digression on the alpha-male post, was why I personally struggled with category romance -- or contemporary romances full stop -- when I tried to write them. Now, some of it was certainly the aforementioned ambivalence, (not to mention my real-life preference for beta-type men) and some was just learning curve. I'm less ambivalent now, having seen how great these books can be when done well, and having improved my writing and storytelling skills, I expect if I tried again I might have more success.

But one of the core problems I had would still exist, and that's how hard it is to create believable romantic conflict in a contemporary setting that's strong enough to carry the core plot of a book (and doesn't repulse my feminist ideals***). (The recent popularity of romantic suspense backs up my theory here, I think... Readers are obviously enjoying having a big slice of suspense along with their romance plot.)

Why is creating a strong romance conflict in contemporaries so hard? I've thought about this a lot and this is part of what I've come up with:
I think in our modern, everyone's-in-touch-with-their-inner-child and way-too-familiar-with-psychobabble world, it's really hard to build an internal conflict between a man and a woman, who are obviously into and right for each other, where readers don't want to shake the characters and say, "get over it", or "get some therapy" or "freaking talk to him/her about it already." Without the help of society's rules or other taboos (that you have in historicals) or race and family obstacles that have become antiquated in today's society, it's hard to come up with believable and fresh new devices to keep a man and a woman who love each other apart.

Now, some writers of contemporary romance handle this brilliantly. Molly O'Keefe, for example, solves this conundrum, (based on my analysis anyway), by having great external conflicts between the couple, and/or by making a lot of the hero's and heroine's internal conflicts relate to someone other than the other half of the couple -- a parent, a child, a sibling, themselves... Yes, those internal conflicts complicate the developing relationship, but their conflicts deeper than the weak I've-been-hurt-before-so-I'll-never-love-again-type conflicts all to common in so many contest entries I read (and even in way too many published books I've read).

I can't tell you how much I admire writers who can make me believe in a couple and their problems in a contemporary setting. But so far, I've been unable to do it.

But add a fantasy element? some suspense? some danger? and let me make up some rules and even new religions to keep my hero and heroine apart? -- and it's fun, fun, fun. For me, anyway.

Time will tell whether or not an editor and readers will ever love what I'm working on as much as I'm enjoying writing it. But what a feeling to find something to write that you truly, truly enjoy in a genre that's actually popular. I felt that way when I started my first women's fiction, too.. but the market had fallen apart by the time I finished it and landed an agent. Fingers crossed that doesn't happen to me again. At least I can skip the find an agent step this time.

Am I alone in my recent urban fantasy obsession? Who else should I be reading?

*** I'm now regretting adding the line about feminist ideals... I did it on my final edit of the post and wish I hadn't. I was thinking about Sinead's Cinderella woes... but did not in any way mean to imply that contemp romance these days is about men saving women or the books put women in down or back in time. That's an antiquated stereotype about the romance genre that I know isn't true. I'd edit my post, but then Kristin's comment wouldn't make sense... So, I'll just say. Ooops. Didn't mean it the way it came out. And I fear it takes away from what I wanted to say with this post... That it's way easier (for me) to write romance when you (I) include elements other than just romance... That it's really hard to carry an entire book with just a romance plot and I admire writers who can do it.


K J Gillenwater said...

Hmmm, I think I have to disagree with you on this topic. I think there are plenty of ways to bring conflict to a contemporary romance. Watch any movie or television show, and they are still managing to keep viewers interest with love story conflicts.

And I don't think they insult modern women...

You can get a ton of therapy...sure...but most people don't. Unless you are royally screwed up. However, if everyone in the real world went to therapy, we probably would have all the problems we have in our society today. People still grow up in abusive homes. People still feel abandoned as a child after they go through divorce. People have terrible things happen to the ones they love: cancer, accidents, suicides. And all of these life events alter how we handle relationships.

I know women who are too driven by their work to get serious with any man until its too late. I know women who pick the absolute wrong guy every time b/c she is looking for a certain, limited 'type' of man. I know women who had a chance at love early on in their lives, but for some reason turned it down and regret it later in life.

So many things interfere with finding a lasting love...and there are plenty of ways to write about them without appearing trite or silly or less-than-feminist.

Maureen McGowan said...

Kristin... I actually don't think it's not possible. Just really hard.

I admire writers who can pull off a romance without a suspense or fantasy or other type of element.

I couldn't do it... **Maureen pouts**

Maureen McGowan said...

Also... this probably just is a matter of personal preference. As I said, contemp romance is not my favorite genre, so I'm very picky and probably get angry with a lot of stories fans of the genre love.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Maureen. I am loving urban fantasy as well.
Any good romance these days. I feel like I need a Susan Elizabeth Phillips fix soon.
And am reading a really great historical, The Spymaster's Lady.
Anyone else read it?

K J Gillenwater said...

I guess what I have a problem with in contemporary romance is annoying heroines. They're either too brilliant, too outspoken and bitchy or the complete opposite. Wimpy and dull.

The plots are not the problem.

I like a fantasy when I it an historical romance or a paranormal one. I want to escape from what is around me, not immerse myself in it.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Maureen - so controversial.

I am a huge lover of romance novels and I love urban fantasy as long as it adds to the romance -- I don't like it as a stand alone subgenre. World-building is amazing if it brings something new to the arc of the couple - but world building for world building sake leaves me a little cold.

Now, the conflict thing. I just read an amazing article in the december RWR about what's wrong with single title contemperary romance and according to Lucia Marco (who would know about such things) the problem lies in single title's roots in category and in particular category size and style conflicts. What works in 55,000 words DOES NOT TRANSLATE to longer books -- not without making the heroine look like an idiot or the hero too stubborn to be interesting.

I agree with you Kristin - there's A LOT of conflict allowed contemp authors and I love all of it when it's done well. When it's not done well it's easy how some women would throw the book against the wall and cry anti-feminist or anti-woman.

How do you take those real life conflicts -- those subtle everyday you've got them and I've got them but we still have to make dinner and live our lives - conflicts and make them gripping - as gripping and page turning as a suspense subplot? That's the problem. ANd the challenge. I love it.

Admin said...

Actually if you talk a lot to the under 20 crowd, I think there are some serious issues preventing a "talk it out and fix all problems" solution.

Many come from broken homes. Many don't believe relationships can last. Many have heard parents say "everything is fine" up to the day they announce they're separating. There is a lack of trust. They don't believe.

So in that envirnment, creating a forever and ever couple is challenging.

'Course in business, I also get to use the "we're co-workers, we can't date" taboo. (Grinning) That's a bit of a cheat.

Kimber Chin said...

Dang, when will I learn to post under the right username??

I was that mysterious admin poster.


Kimber Chin said...

But back to urban fantasy...

It isn't my cup of tea.
I'm a very lazy reader.
I read romance for the relationships
and I have too few brain cells left at the end of the day to handle world building.

My best bud, however, loves this stuff.
I ask her for the executive summary on the books she's read so I don't sound so ignorant.

Maureen McGowan said...

Kristin, I totally agree and wish that's what I'd said **grin**. It's not the plots it's the characters and characterizations. Really great romantic conflict comes from character, so if the characters aren't fully formed, neither is the romantic conflict. And in a pure contemporary romance, the romantic conflict IS the backbone of the plot.

Molly, Lucia Macro is where she is in the industry because she's smart. Very smart. I think that says, much better, what I was trying to say. The conflicts are too small for the size of the book.

I obviously hadn't thought this through long and hard enough before posting... I didn't really mean it to be so controversial. Oh, well.

Obviously falling in love is still fraught with challenges in the modern world -- maybe harder than ever -- but putting that on the page in a believable way and in enough depth to support a full length novel. Hard.

Kimber... I hate to say this, (especially since I know you were being a little flip) but for me the "co-workers can't date conflict" is an example of the kind of thing that makes me crazy when writers try to use that as the main conflict in a book. It's a barrier easily solved. In fact, there are now rules and contracts and formal ways to resolve the issue. Don't get me wrong, I do think it can be a valid conflict to place between a hero and heroine, but certainly not enough, IMO, to carry the plot of a single title romance.

About world building... All great books have some element of world building, even if it's a modern North American setting. But I'm sure you're right that we all have our own limits on how much of it we like in our stories. I'm not big on full-on fantasy books, for example.

The reason I've recently fallen in love with urban fantasy is that 90% of the "world" is familiar -- but that 10% can be so dang cool.

K J Gillenwater said...

Wow, Maureen, thanks for the compliment. Sometimes I worry that I don't make a heck of a lot of sense when I'm trying to express myself on a blog.

I'm a sucker for good characters. The plot could be entirely ho-hum, but if the characters are great, I don't care as much about the originality of plot.

A book that suffered b/c of lack of character development: The DaVinci Code. I wanted to like that book so much...but because the characters were so cardboard, I focused way too much on the weakness in the plot. Oh dear!

I wanted to learn more about why this guy was a cryptology expert and what his background was, but there was just nothing.

So the office taboo romance would work for me, if the characters were real and honest and believable.

Maureen McGowan said...


I think in the best books, plot comes out of character. You can't have one without the other. I've heard this lots of times, but don't always remember it. People talk about character driven vs plot driven books... and I guess I do believe there is a distinction, but it's not like a black and white thing.

But I think great romances, particularly the ones without suspense or fantasy or other elements, need GREAT characters. Books in all genres can be made stronger with amazing characters, but in contemporary romance, the books RELY on them.

Maybe that's what my frustration is... For me, so many romances play it safe with their characters, not wanting to offend or have the heroine in particular do anything unsympathetic... As a result, so many of the books just come off bland to me at best, and silly at worst. But obviously not to other readers, given the popularity of the genre.

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