Category Archives: Romance & Erotica

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.

A Man Plus A Woman Equals – Comrades?

pacific rimI’ve heard the advice that, when possible, it’s a great idea to add a romance subplot to your story. I’m not talking about romance as a genre–a genre that I’ve published in–in which the developing relationship between two characters is the focus of the plot. I’m talking about stories in which the heroes are in pursuit of another goal and just happen to fall in love with one another along the way.

Well…

Sometimes it’s a great idea, and sometimes it’s not.

Quick, think of your favourite onscreen romance. Your “canon ship,” if you will. (For those not in fandom = “Ship” means “relationship,” and “canon” means it actually appeared in the source material….because creators of transformative works will happily develop relationships between characters who never even meet in the source material…)

Who have you got?

Han Solo and Princess Leia?

Robin Hood and Maid Marian?

Korra and Asami?

korrasamiThese are examples of romance being a great addition to the story. Plenty of readers who would never pick up a “romance” story enjoy the interpersonal dynamics and the fantasy of falling in love taking place alongside the epic adventure. Romance adds another level of appeal, and the more appeal, the better when you’re trying to sell a story.

But we can all list examples of romance being done poorly.

Stories where “romance” is replaced by a sex scene – the kind that doesn’t contribute to the story. I’m sure many of us have waited through “this is the part where they have sex, because of course they do. Hurry up and get back to the real story.”

Stories where “romance” takes place between two characters that have no chemistry, no reason to be interested in one another, save for the fact that the “romance” box on the writer’s checklist needs ticking.

Stories where one character–often but not always the female character–exists solely to be a love interest for another character, and has little personality beyond “X’s girlfriend/wife/etc.”

Stories where an interesting female character suddenly becomes “weakened”and falls in love with the “Mr Average” leading man, who saves the day (does anyone have examples of a male character falling victim to this? Female examples include the Lego Movie, the Matrix, All You Need is Kill/Edge of Tomorrow…)

And worst of all, stories where romance runs counter to the themes and ideas in the story.

Mad Max: Fury Road was a breath of fresh air to me and many other people in that its lead characters, Max and Furiosa, are a man and a woman who…don’t fall in love! Their relationship develops from adversarial (Furiosa has gone rogue to rescue five women who’ve been held in sexual servitude, and she fears Max is an obstacle to her success; Max just wants to live and will go through whoever he has to) to mutual respect, friendship, and, yes, affection…but nowhere is there any hint of romance. Indeed, Furiosa’s position as a woman in a leadership role in a patriarchal community has interesting implications as to what her views of sexuality, gender, and relationships must be, given the society in which she lives (and in contrast to the society she was born into, which has flaws of its own). To try to shoehorn in a romance with Max (who is suffering from mental illness and also struggling to define his role in society) would not have fit this story whatsoever.
fury roadThis is not to say that romance has “cooties”. There’s an obvious relationship between Warboy Nux and ex-breeder Capable, but whether this is “romance” or a more innocent sort of childlike affection between two emotionally stunted people is open to interpretation. Mad Max doesn’t shy away from deep emotion and vulnerability. It does show that romance and sex are not the only ways to show emotion and vulnerability in relationships between men and women.

Pacific Rim is another excellent example of a movie where a male and female soldier work together to accomplish a dangerous mission. There’s no doubt that Raleigh and Mako are very close, emotionally–they wouldn’t be able to fight together in their robot without a deep connection. But there’s no sex and not even so much as a kiss between them in the movie itself. Are they in romantic love, or are they comrades-in-arms? The movie doesn’t answer this question, and doesn’t need to. In this case, open-ended ambiguity lets viewers imagine a romance, or not, as they choose–whichever is more meaningful to the viewer. Some viewers will want the romance fantasy; others will want affirmation of closeness without romance. Unlike Mad Max: Fury Road, where it’s important that Furiosa and Max not be romantically involved, Pacific Rim benefits from an ambiguous relationship that can be what the viewer wants it to be.

In real life, plenty of us interact with people of the opposite gender who we aren’t 1.) related to, 2.) sexually involved with, or 3.) romantically attracted to. Yet so many stories focus on romance to the exclusion of other types of relationships. The result is stories that don’t reflect the full human experience, and a skewed depiction of romance as the be-all and end-all of relationships.

Romance has a wide appeal, but there are some stories that don’t benefit from romance. These include: stories with asexual and aromantic lead characters (people who do not experience sexual or romantic attraction)…characters who are equally worthy of being heroes with their own stories. Stories with lead characters who are at points in their lives where they are not ready for romantic relationships (Furiosa, Max). Stories in which a man and a woman work closely together, risk their lives together, would do anything for one another…but whose “love” need not be romantic love.

In some stories romantic love will make sense for the characters, the plot and the setting. In some stories, it won’t. While there will always be a market for a good old-fashioned love story, I believe that audiences also want to see other kinds of relationships on the big screen, the small screen, and in the stories they read.

Using What Scares You

I went to a publishing conference in New York some years ago, and an agent said that a great author is a great storyteller. You can have all the craft and technique in the world, but if you aren’t a good storyteller, you won’t become a true success. Alternately, you can have the worst craft and know nothing of technique and be the next huge star of the publishing world. Yet, she could not define what made a good storyteller, like it’s some nebulous thing that cannot be truly understood. She was in the “you can’t learn it, you just have to be born with it” camp, a believer in which I am not.

But what is good storytelling if it’s not the expert use of craft and technique? I’ve been puzzling over it for years and I think I finally figured out a rather large component—a good storyteller is one who can tap into emotion with every word.

We humans, above all else, are creatures of emotion. We like to think we are creatures of intellect and reason and morality, but these things are constructs we’ve created to put limitations and controls over the nasty, hind-brain, instinctual animal side that is human emotion. Emotion motivates us in pretty much everything we do. Our desire to feel happiness, love, safety, pleasure all shape our choices. Our desire to not feel pain, sorrow, grief, all push us to move in a particular direction, even if it’s subconsciouly. Every choice we make is rooted in our emotional health, or lack thereof. Our need to feel one emotion over another.

The crazy thing is, everyone human being past, present, or future feels the same emotions. Emotion is the one, true universal language. It is the one thing we all as a species, share, and no emotion is more familiar to us all than fear. Writing our fear, more than any other emotion, can truly raise a writer’s prose to new heights.

There’s two ways of writing what frightens us, and both are equally beneficial. The first is the obvious definition—if we want our audience to fear something, start with what we, ourselves, are the most afraid of. J.K. Rowling once said that she decided to put giant spiders in the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets because she herself was afraid of spiders. Similarly, Peter Jackson’s rendering of Shelob in the Return of the King was built off his personal arachnophobia. Think of it as a mind hack. It’s easier to write what we know, how we personally feel about a particular thing or situation when we write about something that makes us feel the emotion we want to invoke. It’s easy to make spiders terrifying if the author is terrified of the creepy bastards, but harder to make a horse frightening if they make the author all warm and fuzzy on the inside.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a monster. It can be a fear of rejection, a fear of success, a fear of fear itself. It’s making the fear personal that’s the key, no matter what genre or sub-genre we are writing. Every genre deals with some sort of fear, and the more we make that fear our own, the easier it is to make the reader feel it with us.

The second way of looking at writing what one fears isn’t so obvious, and it’s something we all face at one point or another. It’s taking on those scenes that make us cringe. You know those scenes, the ones that make us uncomfortable or leave us at a loss. Wether its fight scenes or sex scenes or scenes of moral uncertainty, we all have a scene somewhere that tempts us to just skip it and have it happen off screen. After all, the worst fear of any writer is that an important, necessary scene will suck and bring the whole piece down.

But nine times out of ten, that seemingly impossible scene will become one of the more powerful moments in a story. Dan Wells once said that a scene in I Am Not a Serial Killer, where the protagonist draws a knife on his mother, was an especially difficult scene to write, but the final product is one of the most emotionally impactful moments in the book. Alternately, I have a friend who kept skipping over scenes where people were fighting (verbally or physically) because he wasn’t comfortable with violence, but it left his work lacking conflict and the story suffered because of it.

Part of why this is so effective, I think, is that the struggle to get the scene written and fear that it won’t work makes us slow down and take a long, hard look at what we’re doing, much more so than a scene that just plops itself down on the page. Difficult scenes force us to pull out all the stops, to dig deep and give it our all, thereby forcing us to put our best work on the page because anything less would just prolong the torture. Also, fear is conflict, and whether it’s felt by the character or just subconsciously by the author, it puts an edge, an undercurrent in the scene that can lift it above simple prose. It’s always the scenes I didn’t want to write, the ones that kick my ass, that I always end up the most satisfied with, and I think it’s because of the fear. If I wasn’t afraid of what I was writing, the writing would not be as good. Period.

Use the fear, share it. It won’t be easy, but more likely than not, your readers will feel it, and what they feel is what will stay with the reader long after they finish the story.