Category Archives: Science Fiction

On Urban Fantasy

flying-carpetWhen people used to say Fantasy Fiction, the automatic response was, Tolkien, C.S. LewisDavid Eddings or someone along those lines. In the last few years this has changed. Though the greats of the past are still acknowledged, many people would say, Stephenie Meyer, Kim Harrison, or J.K. Rowling. The shift toward urban fantasy, as well as their blockbuster movie counterparts, is changing the sff (science-fiction/fantasy) arena.

First off, what is urban fantasy? The loose definition is any fantasy that takes place in an urban setting. Personally, I have trouble counting anything that isn’t somewhat contemporary, and earth-based. So my definition would be: a fantasy story with a strong magical or supernatural element that takes place in a current, realistic, setting.

Is urban fantasy new? Not entirely. I remember reading, “The Monk” in a college literature class, and to my way of thinking, it was eighteenth century urban fantasy. Set in the time period, it’s about a monk’s struggle between his fanatic adherence to religion and his lust for a young girl. There is sorcery, demons, and if I remember correctly (it’s been a few years), Lucifer himself has a nice little tete a tete with our villain, making it the ultimate paranormal urban fantasy of its time. I gave it five stars on Goodreads. But, of course, those types of books were rare until the 20th century and it wasn’t until around the 1980’s that urban fantasy became a recognized subgenre. Even then, I doubt it was recognized by the majority of young people. When I declared fantasy my favorite genre in the mid-80’s I was still getting looks of shock and surprise by my classmates who didn’t know the difference between their concept of fantasy–erotica–and the literature definition–magic and other-wordly adventures.

Why the sudden craze? In my opinion, Harry Potter and Hollywood. Sure, there were plenty of sci-fi movies that had done well, even phenomenal: Star Wars, Star Trek, Back to the Future. But how many fantasy movies had caught the public eye before HP: The Sorceror’s Stone arrived on the scene? Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins became classics, but they were the exceptions among a long line of flops. I don’t think even these movies, as great as they were, had people lined around the theaters, dressed up like characters from the movie, or purchasing merchandise as if planning to redecorate an entire house with it. Harry Potter came along and people made money, lots of it. And thus, in my opinion, started the bandwagon. And it’s a bandwagon I don’t mind. I love urban fantasy. One of my first adventures with it was Terry Brooks, Word and the Void series. And I love the number of YA series that are coming out, as well as their cheesy, amazing, blockbuster hits. I can’t wait to see Cassandra Clare’s, Mortal Instruments, put to film. As long as urban fantasy books continue to captivate readers and the movies continue to bring in hordes of dedicated fans, then we’ll continue to see the rise in their publication and acquired movie rights.

What’s next? Of course, nobody knows for sure, but I know what I’d like to see: more steampunk-type books on the screen and variations of it in literature, as well as alternate histories/futures with impossible but amazing scientific elements. Also, I’d like to see Sci-fi re-emerge on the middle grade and young adult level. I’d like to see romance-heavy sci-fi books like, Across the Universe (the sci-fi one by Beth Revis), made into movies. I’d like to see middle-grade and YA readers entranced with space again without feeling like they have to have pH.D’s in science in order to enjoy the journey; something like Gini Koch’s Alien series, but for a YA audience. Brandon Sanderson’s middle-grade Alcatraz series would fit into what I have in mind.

I hope that as you continue to look for the next urban fantasy book to fall in love with, that you’ll also open your mind to some of the other amazing bends that are building on the sff front. Please share a comment and let us know what books you’ve liked best in urban fantasy and let us know your predictions for the future.

The Balancing Act – Specificity in Action Scenes

Very recently, I took part in a workshop with twenty or so other aspiring novelists in the SF and Fantasy genres, and one of the most common problems I ran across was in writing action scenes. Often the scenes came out jumbled and confusing, or the writer simply skipped it. Writing action can be intimidating. It was for me. My first action scene, I confess, was first written by a friend of mine. He did the draft, and I had to fiddle with it until I figured out how it worked.

For me, action scenes have myriad issues that make it difficult to navigate. Here I’m going to focus on one of those issues – the difficult balancing act of how much detail to include. Too much description is much the same as too little; both will leave the reader confused.

The lack of description, I think, is at least partially based on the fact that we hear, again and again, how too much description slows the pacing down. In most cases this is correct, most description is unnecessary because the reader can assume certain things.

Example: He parked and went into the building.

I don’t put in the step by step detail about navigating the parking lot or getting out of the car- putting his foot on the break, turning off the ignition, unlatching his seat belt, opening the door, getting out, and closing the door behind him. Most people know how to get out of a car, so the detail is unnecessary.

Let’s look at the same idea put into an action scene. Take this example I saw recently: I lunged. He landed on the ground with a heavy thud, and I got back to my feet.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have no idea what just happened. What made the other guy fall? When did the narrator end up on the floor and why? The detail is now a true necessity for the reader to experience what they are reading.

That’s the irony. While, in another type of scene, description can be problematic, it’s necessary for action scenes. Quite simply, most people don’t know what it’s like to be in a gun or sword fight, a space battle, a horse charge, or a kung fu brawl. They don’t have the experience to fill in the gaps, and so the writer has to do the heavy lifting.

The problem comes when the writer moves too far in the other direction. As I said above, too much is just as bad as too little. Get too detailed, and the reader might lose the focus of the scene in all the minutia and become confused anyway.

The way out of this is to be specific rather than wordy. Slamming to the ground, for instance, implies something very different from hitting the ground or slipping to the ground. Also, words that mimic what’s going on can help cut down the word count while still keeping the pacing going. Hard consonants can help a reader hear a gun fight in their heads. Short, concise words echo the pace of a fast moving chase.

Another good thing to remember is the use of paragraphing – shorter paragraphs that describe only one character’s actions can keep what’s going on clear to the reader. Get too long, or put more than one character’s actions in a paragraph, and things start getting muddled again.

So, while finding the right balance can be difficult, it’s by no means impossible. There are plenty of ways to counteract the need for the additional description an action scene requires. The key is to keep the action simple and clear.