Category Archives: Romance & Erotica

Wading Through the Muddy Middles

Even with a fantastic opening hook and an explosive inciting incident, many stories spend time slogging through the “muddy middles.” As the name suggests, the middles are the time part way through act two where the story no longer benefits from the momentum of the inciting incident, but also hasn’t reached the point where it is drawn forward by the climax. This sag in tension is a dangerous time for any story as it allows the reader to put the book down. Therefore, deciding how to draw your audience through the middles is an essential part of any plotting.

If you ask a dozen authors how to best navigate the middles, you will often get fourteen answers. In truth, the “best” method depends on what sort of story you are trying to tell and what are the strongest emotional draws for your audience. Rather than listing all the possibilities, I’ll focus my discussion on four techniques that I think can be used in a variety of different stories.

Many thrillers and action/adventure stories will bridge the middles with a series of explosive scenes. By doing so, the author simplifies their task to propelling the reader from scene to scene rather than from initiating event to climax. As the reader progresses through the story, the duration between action sequences should shrink. This gives the illusion of accelerating right up into the climax.

Consider as an example the action/adventure film John Wick. The introduction and inciting incident occur in the first fifteen minutes of the movie and the climax occurs at roughly one hour and fifteen minutes. Taken at a very high level, what happens during the hour between those two points? First, there is a period of milieu and character work to establish the character of John Wick and the rest of the world. Then there is a beating delivered by the big bad and the big bad’s first try/fail cycle to resolve the issue without violence. This is followed by a gun fight, a short period of world exploration, a gun fight, a brief pause for recovery, a fist fight, a briefer pause for a few wise cracks, a gun fight, a yet briefer pause in which John Wick sets some stuff on fire, and once again a gun fight that ends in a capture sequence. John then escapes captivity and dives straight into the climax of the movie. The tension is not allowed to slacken for a moment because John is near constantly either in danger and/or kicking some ass.

Though the thriller model is effective, it won’t work universally. After all, mystery audiences won’t be satisfied by explosions and flying fists. Instead, they are looking for intellectual stimulation. However, it isn’t enough to simply give them a puzzle. As the story continues, they need to feel as if they are coming closer to the solution. The key here is to ensure that each new answer they find along the way complicates the puzzle by being either incomplete, misleading, or raising yet more questions. The best, recent example I can think of to illustrate this style of plotting is the movie Arrival. Don’t worry about spoilers. Unlike John Wick (2014), Arrival (2016) is still new enough that I will only speak in broad strokes.

I believe that the story of Arrival works as well as it does because everyone goes into a first contact story expecting an overt conflict between humanity and the aliens. However, twists this trope on its head, which is intriguing in and of itself. The main story is a mystery driven by the question, “What do the aliens want?” Along the way, we the audience are given pieces of the puzzle in such a way that they don’t all come together until the very end. This plotting structure latches onto our fundamental human curiosity and pulls us forward with the illusion of progress towards getting an ultimate answer.

Where action/adventure plots seek to satisfy a sense of physicality and mysteries work to stimulate intellectual curiosity, romances play on the human need for connection. Will our point of view character be able to woo their paramour? Can our protagonist choose between two appealing, yet opposing romantic interests? How will our two (or more) romantic leads be able to overcome whatever forces hold them apart and end the story together? No matter the details, the drive is still the same. Will our protagonist(s) be able to achieve their need for connection? As such, we writers need to maintain tension by repeatedly denying our characters, and by proxy the readers, the connection they desire. We can do this in two major ways.

First is by introducing conflict internal to the relationship. By giving the romantic interests compelling personal conflicts and reservations, you allow them to stand in the way of their own happiness. It’s important to note that the reasons holding your characters apart need to be fundamental to their character, something substantial enough that it can withstand several try/fail cycles and significant enough that it poses a legitimate threat to the relationship. An example of this technique can be found in the early relationship between Eve Dallas and Roarke in Naked in Death by JD Robb. During her investigation of a sensitive homicide, Lieutenant Dallas meets Roarke and sparks fly. She feels conflicted because she can’t eliminate him as a suspect in her case, but also increasingly can’t deny her developing feelings for him. Her gut tells her that Roarke is innocent, but she can’t prove it. Robb draws us through the romantic arc by having Dallas’ blooming feelings clash with her sense of duty.

The second option is to introduce some element of external conflict, where your romantic interests strive together to try to overcome a barrier from outside the relationship. Again whatever the threat is, it needs to be big enough to possibly end the relationship. Twenty three books later in Innocent in Death, Robb introduces one of Roarke’s old girlfriends into the storyline to give Eve an extra emotional complication on top of her homicide investigation. The ex-girlfriend’s presence causes friction between Eve and Roarke and in so doing threatens their, by then well established, relationship. In both cases, the emotional distance between the characters drives our readers forward; they want to make sure that Eve and Roarke end up together.

It is important to note that though all the techniques I have described are different, they all appeal to the readers’ emotional draws. Ultimately, we need to ensure that our readers are always having fun, even when the momentum slows. Lucky for us, writers start their careers as fans of their genre. We know what fun is for the genre and our own enjoyment can serve as a metric for how well we are achieving that goal. Granted, this doesn’t hold true for the twenty seventh edit where you brains are leaking out of your ears. Rather, how much fun are you having in the moment of drafting? How much do you enjoy reading your story after letting it rest for a time? If you as the writer aren’t having fun, chances are that your readers will feel much the same way.

So if you ever find yourself drafting your manuscript and just slogging through a slow section, take a moment to step back and reevaluate. Why aren’t you having fun? Is there something about this scene you can change to make it more appealing? Does this scene really need to be here or in the book at all? You don’t always have the luxury of changing or dropping a scene. Sometimes you just need to power through it and fix the problem in editing. However, writing should be a joy. If you aren’t having a good time, it’s okay to take a step back and find ways to make your story more awesome.

You Can Ride My Rocket…(Wink Wink)

There are some people who cringe at the idea of combining science fiction and romance. I suspect that these same people also don’t like Firefly so their opinions don’t really matter anyway. Personally I like a spoonful of romance in my steaming cup of science.

Science fiction is a genre that romance plays well with. Okay, I’ll be honest. If romance was a person they would be a double-jointed omnisexual gymnast. Romance can be easily adapted to satisfy everyone’s needs and plays well with every genre. But when it’s combined with science fiction it gives the story a lot of *ahem* unexplored territory in which to boldly go where Kirk has gone before.

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 (Bondage night with Lady Gaga?)

At its heart, science fiction is about exploring new possibilities. Sometimes it’s a new scientific theory, sometimes it’s a new planet, and sometimes you’re running from Shai-Hulud. Regardless of the territory it’s still all about exploration and all of the joy, fear, trepidation, and danger that goes with it. If you boil romance down to its very essence it’s about the same thing. Seriously. What’s more exciting and terrifying than exploring a space cave and nearly getting mauled by a Gorn? What can be more explosive than the Tothian minefield? Relationships!

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(I’m pretty sure the odds of not starting an argument when you suggest that your partner stop and ask for directions is 3,720:1)

Yes, there are a lot of novels where the romance is merely a time slot on the holodeck or a green skinned Mary Sue. But it isn’t limited to that. In fact, it can be a lot more.

When done well, romance can compound a story’s major conflict (cue Ted and Robin salute). In Babylon 5 the romance between Capt. Sheridan and Ambassador Delenn made it a lot harder for them to take necessary risks during the Shadow war. It also made things very awkward when (Spoiler alert) it turned out that Sheridan’s wife wasn’t dead. On the other side of the spectrum, Marcus’ final sacrifice wouldn’t have brought a tear to many viewers eyes, including mine, if his love for Ivanova wasn’t unrequited. The fact that they hadn’t so much as kissed turned what would have been just a noble act into the most romantically tragic moment in the entire show.

Let’s not forget that The Empire Strikes Back wouldn’t be the same without Han and Leia’s love spat or heartbreaking farewell. (Odd that both were in very cold climates.) But that’s enough examples from TV and movies. Let’s turn to books!

Linnea Sinclair writes some of the best sci-fi romances I’ve read. In fact, her novel, Shades of Dark made me cry. Some of hers are exactly what you would expect a sci-fi romance to be. However, in Shades of Dark the protagonist couple’s relationship become strained to the point of breaking when one of them starts learning how to use their latent alien abilities. They realize, almost too late, that their ignorance and folly not only hurt their relationship but put their partner in very real danger. It’s this last twist that for me makes this romantic conflict real. I mean we probably all know someone or were with someone who became so obsessed with something that it almost destroyed, or did destroy, a happy relationship.

In The Postman by David Brin the protagonist falls in love with an idea more than an actual person. When he stumbles upon a quiet, and safe community the idea of staying and building a life there rather than taking on the mantle of responsibility of being a postman is incredibly appealing. In some ways it’s strange to think of an idea as being romantic. Think if it this way: when you’ve been up late working on a manuscript and have to get ready for work at the crack of dawn, the idea of calling in sick has a lot of appeal. This is the same thing except their desire for comfort and ease is so idealized that it takes on a romantic quality.

Dara Joy is an amazing romance writer whose stories sometimes has a sci-fi twist. She has a duology, High Energy and High Intensity, that’s set in the real world but uses science in an… interesting way. The main character’s love interest is a sexy physicist who decides to teach them the basics of physics through sex. I know. It sounds super cheesy but take my word for it. It’s hot! Besides, who wouldn’t want to go to that physics class?

Okay. I’ll admit that last one was a traditional romance. While it doesn’t use romantic elements in a creative was she does get bonus points for including science in a creative way. This partnership does work both ways after all.

Whether you use a little or a lot, use more romance or use more science, or use a romanticized idea is up to you. It’s also by no means a requirement that there be romance in every science-fiction story. Rather, it’s another tool that can perform more than one task. It’s entirely up to you whether or not to use it, as well as how you want to use it.

Don’t be Diss’n the Myth

A guest post by T.L. Smith.

Star_People_Legacy_Cover_for_Kindle“One man’s myth is another man’s religion.” Many variations of this quote exists, so I won’t try to figure out who said it first. I only bring it up because that’s a popular trope for writers. I’m one of them. But for all the vast potential we can pull from mythology/religion, I think authors should keep in mind how easy it is to cross the line from entertaining, to insulting.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not all up into ‘political correctness’, or afraid I’ll insult someone and they’ll come hunt me down. No, I’m talking about is how, with e-books and international markets, our writing crosses cultural borders all around the world. Even borders who try to regulate their internet and what their citizens can see. Our potential markets are virtually limitless.

I personally like the idea that a reader in some far corner of the world might get their hands on my book… and like it… and order more. With that in mind, I believe it’s possible to write a myth/religion based fiction, without insulting a large number of your potential readers. Whether you believe in their faith, or not.

It’s not pandering, it’s respect. In fact, internally I cringe when I use the word ‘myth’ out loud. Whether the followers truly believe(d) these characters exist(ed), or were created, they believe the purpose of God(s) is to guide humanity onto more enlightened paths. To better lives. To brighter futures. Even God(s) of destruction are there to cleanse and prepare the world for another attempt towards perfection.

So I put a lot of research into the characters I incorporate into my stories. I study them, good or evil, until I can see the person in my head. Until I can hear their voices, until I sense their intent to exist. Then I try to translate their personalities and motives onto the page and into my own stories.

Currently I’m working on a ‘gods are aliens’ Science Fiction novel series, that one day might see the light of day. All my gods, demi-gods, demons and humans, however obscure or popular, exist somewhere in the stories passed down through the world’s cultures.

The material available is vast and consuming, and in many cases…ewwwww. There’s some pretty twisted mentalities at play. Which makes me wonder about the original sources. Makes me sometimes wonder about myself too, as I try to bring these characters back to life in my own stories…just saying.

But back to paying proper homage to the trope… It might seem an easy task We see the ‘gods are aliens’ theories repeatedly on TV, but it’s not. It takes the right myth, the right region of the country of origin and an explanation to weave it into the fiction you’re writing. I just don’t see Zeus rampaging through modern Norway. Maybe waking from a long slumber to look down from Mt. Olympus and say “WTF?”

I wouldn’t add to Ulysses’ ordeal, but I might take on his mythical creatures and give them lives of their own, struggling to make this strange blue planet home after exile from their own distant destroyed world.

Then there’s bizarre stories of Gods on chariots, blankets, and winged creatures. The transport of Gods and their minions, awing the iron-age populace below. There are tales of war and weapons so devastating, they can alone destroy the entire planet. And let us not forget the gods’ insatiable appetites for human flesh, culinarily or erotically.

But be careful. As freewheeling as the ancient storytellers were, don’t take a character out of their personality. There things that Athena simply wouldn’t do, that Hera would, or Zeus took as a common practice. And speaking of ‘common’, unless you got a good twist, skip the usual suspects. They get a bit… boring. Dig deeper and pull out the gods few people know about. You get a lot more flexibility with their personalities and motives, without crossing the line.

However, this isn’t all about insulting someone’s religion. We want to be creative, but lend an accuracy to not offend the experts in this field. Last thing I want is some big-deal professor somewhere coming out against my book. I want a good review from them. Even if it’s ‘Didn’t like the story, but she got her facts straight. Thumbs up.’.

So how am I doing with paying the proper homage? Last year I released Star People Legacy. A story where Native American Mythology and Science Fiction collides down on the Yuma Bombing Ranges.

The ‘where’ was easy. I’m USAF and did my time down on the Gila Bend side of the ranges. The inspiration came from a story told by a couple NCOs who had an odd run-in on our bombing ranges. I carried the story around for (cough-cough) years, then on our way driving from Phoenix to San Diego Comic-Con, I told my friends the story. As clear as the Arizona skies 350 days of the year, Star People Legacy came to me as a concept.

Right there, in the back seat of Gini Koch’s car, I started writing out the concept. Then came the research. I could have stuck with myths (hate that word) isolated to the southwest, but I wanted it more universal. I looked for stories that spanned as many of the Nations as possible.

That is how I focused in on the Star People and their stories. I found an admiration for the stories and the Native Peoples brought together by them. I tried to incorporate that into the future world created for them, where social advances renew their cultures and internal politics help merge them into one Nation.

All the while a little part of me was afraid I might fail at respecting the Nations these stories originated from. Until Phoenix Comicon 2016. Sitting behind my books, a Native American family passed by. The mother saw Star People Legacy and looked up at me. Though her husband was rushing her to keep going, she grinned, pointing at the book. Before he pulled her away, she told me she’d read it, and loved it.

I so wanted to chase after her. To ask her straight up whether I’d given their story the respect it deserved, but someone heard her and stopped to look at the book. I’m happy with that few seconds of affirmation.

Now to get back to work on the next installment of aliens and gods.

Guest Writer Bio:
TL SmithT.L. Smith was born in Louisiana, but calls Phoenix, Arizona home between bouts of wanderlust. Even a stint in the U.S. Air Force as a radar specialist, training pilots in enemy detection, brought her back to the desert. Her time in the service taught her to appreciate the military culture and ever-changing technologies. Experience gives life to the Science Fictions she loves so much and helps her write about the strong women, holding their own as humanity reaches out into the universe. Come check out her current releases and where you can meet her next: www.tlsmithbooks.com

The Thin Line between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance

sinsofthesonWhen I’m looking for urban fantasy in the bookstores or online, I also check under paranormal romance. Some of my favourite urban fantasy authors—including Linda Poitevin (The Grigori Legacy) and Carrie Vaughn (The Kitty Norville series)—often end up filed there.

What is paranormal romance? It’s a romance—a story that focuses on a romantic relationship developing between two characters—which also features paranormal elements, such as shapeshifters, magic-users, ghosts, vampires, psychic powers, cryptid monsters and the like.

What is urban fantasy? It’s a fantasy story—a story containing magical, mythical and/or supernatural elements—set in a modern, contemporary world. While these stories usually take place in a city, the opposite of “urban fantasy” isn’t a story with a modern rural setting; the opposite is the entirely fictitious worlds of most high fantasies. In short, urban fantasy is a fantasy story set in a world that is very much like our “real world.”

From these definitions, it’s easy to see where a crossover can occur. If your paranormal romance also takes place in a modern setting, rather than in a wholly imaginary landscape or a historical setting, then your paranormal romance is also an urban fantasy. And if your urban fantasy has a strong romantic subplot that rivals the main plot, or if the romance elements are critical to the main plot, then it may be very close to becoming a paranormal romance.

So what’s the difference? The romance genre has a number of conventions and expectations. The fantasy genre has entirely different conventions (such as “we want to see things we don’t see in “the real world,” often “we want there to be magic,” that sort of thing.) Its conventions with regard to character relationships are much looser.

Romance readers usually expect a happy ending. (And those romances that don’t guarantee a happy ending, like Dreamspinner Press’s “Bittersweet Dreams,” are often branded so readers know what they’re in for before they start to read). Readers want the hero and heroine to get together. They want sexual tension to blossom into an actual relationship, and they want that relationship to work out, at least until the end of the story (“Happy For Now”) if not forever (“Happily Ever After.”) They want the romance to be foregrounded. While plenty of paranormal romances incorporate action, horror, mystery, and suspense elements, the developing relationship is always at the heart of the plot.

Urban fantasy, meanwhile, isn’t obligated to include romance in any way. Some writers do: romantic relationships developing between characters can make compelling subplots. Unlike in romance-the-genre, the romance is usually not the main plot. But sometimes these relationships don’t result in happy endings. The sexual tension isn’t acted upon. Or the characters break up. Or one of them dies—or is revealed to be a villain. These are perfectly legitimate plot points for fantasies, but they are likely to disappoint romance readers who expected a certain kind of story when they picked the book up.

Needless to say, things can get complicated when your publisher wants to play up the romance elements of your urban fantasy book, particularly if you don’t consider yourself a romance writer. Or when bookstores keep filing your urban fantasy book under “paranormal romance” when you haven’t written a romance-centered plot with a happy ending.

Why don’t I find Harlequin Nocturnes in the fantasy section very often? Possibly because of the branding. Harlequin is a well-known romance name, so it’s natural that people would file Harlequin’s paranormal romance line with other romance novels.

Branding may be the best way to identify your urban fantasy as primarily fantasy rather than primarily romance. If you’re traditionally publishing, the final choice will be your publisher’s, but if you’re self-publishing or your publisher allows your input, consider your cover carefully. A shirtless man and a young woman staring into one another’s eyes screams “romance.” Make your cover look like an urban fantasy cover, not like a romance cover. Choose excerpts that emphasize the magic, the action, the horror or the mystery elements of your story rather than the romantic ones.

Some confusion isn’t all bad. Romance sells very well. Many people find romantic elements very appealing in their fiction. If your urban fantasy has a strong romantic subplot, you may benefit from emphasizing it. But if you’ve written an urban fantasy with a lead who isn’t interested in romance, or a villain that makes the hero fall for her before revealing her true nature and breaking his heart, maybe you want to do what you can to help romance-loving readers know what they’re getting into.