Tuesday, May 27, 2014

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Is Sci-Fi Romance Really All That Difficult To Write?

At Love in the Margins, Ridley posted a recap of her visit to the 2014 RT Booklover's Convention. She attended a few panels, including one about science fiction:
SCI-FI: It’s Not Your Mama’s Science Fiction!
Linnea Sinclair
Catherine Asaro, Jenna Bennett, Ilsa J. Bick, Mary Robinette Kowal, Beth Revis, Sarah Zettel

The title for this panel was basically the worst (I mean, my mom’s a big Bradbury fan, are you saying there’s something wrong with Bradbury?) but I’m a romance reader who’s used to awful packaging and I didn’t let it deter me. I wish I had better hearing and a way to take notes for this one. My spot in the back was next to a door to a busy hall and a couple of the panelists were really soft-spoken so I missed a lot. What I did catch, I enjoyed, especially their answers about world-building, truly getting into the different mindset of a SFF character and why paranormal romance is just about impossible to do well and find the right balance of romance and world-building. I also liked Sarah Zettel’s comments about how she made a veiled Muslim woman a starship owner and engineer as the heroine of her book. It was a response to the xenophobia and racism she saw in the wake of the Gulf War and “I couldn’t do anything to stop racism, but I could send a Muslim woman into space.”
One line in particular caught my eye: "… why paranormal romance is just about impossible to do well and find the right balance of romance and world-building."

That statement reminded me of a similar sentiment regarding science fiction romance, one I've run across periodically over the years. Specifically, how challenging it is to combine SF and romance in just the right mix. I've blogged about the issue several times and there have been multiple conversations about it in the SFR online community. And when I encountered it yet again in Ridley's recap, a pattern jumped out at me.

Why *is* there such a strong belief that writing an SFR is a difficult achievement?

I began to question that notion. The first thing that occurred to me is the importance of acknowledging our privilege. Let's face it: writing an SFR isn't toiling on one's feet for ten hours in a factory. It's not picking produce in the hot sun all day for atrociously low wages, or any other type of backbreaking work. Relatively speaking, spinning a story isn't all that hard if one has certain skills and resources at one's disposal.

Expressing the idea that SFR is difficult to write implies an author lacks a certain amount of control over her work. Yet all the sci-fi romances I've read clearly indicate that authors have an enormous amount of control. There are authors who make deliberate choices to write romantic SF as well as those who make deliberate choices to write romances with an SF backdrop. Not to mention stories with assorted SF: romance ratios.

Authors choose the type of sciences to write about as well as the heat level. They have 100% control over which characters to explore as well as how to integrate the SF and romance genre elements. Basically, authors seem to be writing according to their interests and their interpretation of the genre despite the belief (myth?) that the "right" balance is difficult to achieve.

On top of that, reader taste is subjective. We sometimes even disagree with each other on what constitutes the "right" balance of SF and romance. So if both authors and readers have various interpretations of SFR, then the idea of SFR being "…impossible to do well and find the right balance of romance and world-building" is code for something else, methinks.

Regarding paranormal romance's immense popularity, readers seem to have responded positively to the stories overall. How could it have taken off in such numbers if the worldbuilding wasn't generally up to par?

I'm growing skeptical that it's impossible, much of the time, for authors with privilege to write an entertaining SFR. So what do folks really mean when they mention the challenging nature of this genre?

Here's what is (relatively) hard: marketing SFR effectively and connecting with enough readers to the point that SFR books routinely become bestsellers. That, I believe, is the unspoken thought: "It's hard to achieve the right balance of SF and romance in such a way as to automatically result in a vast number of sales." (And everything else that bestseller status implies).

SFR hasn't risen beyond its niche status, and sometimes we start to wonder why. As a reader, I'm on the hunt for factors that will raise its visibility because it means more books for me to read. For their part, authors may be searching for answers as to why their books don't sell as well as other romance and SF titles.

It must be because authors aren't writing the "correct" type of SFRs, right? If the genre had more of a certain type of story, it'd really take off, right? Not necessarily.

It can be a challenge to predict which types of fantasies and characters readers want at any given time (e.g., Alpha hero and virgin heroine in a captivity narrative, grimdark stories, or space opera action-adventure featuring a kick-butt heroine and Beta hero). Sometimes it's not about crafting the setting or plot in a certain way at all--the underlying trope may lack appeal to a critical mass of readers. Doesn't mean an author shouldn't write what excites her, but for sanity's sake it might help to recognize the truly niche nature of one's stories. And when one adds a lack of effective, large-scale marketing, the difficulty level increases that much more.

Not SFR as far as I know, but what a cool cover!
Another factor to consider is that most authors of SFR don't have the luxury of being paid huge advances to support them while they write. Think about what might be produced if, say, a hundred reliable authors were paid six or seven figure sums to write one or more novel-length books. How would that kind of resource influence the creative process? Doesn't mean SFR would take off like a rocket, but it might boost the genre with stories it otherwise might not have. Of course, such advances are pretty much a pipe dream these days.

Few authors of SFR seem to want to risk investing in lengthier, complex stories without an advance or other financial resources. It doesn't mean that short stories, novellas, and category length novels are automatically of inferior quality or that readers don't want them. But the general lack of a living wage and rise of the no-advance business model (and also jobs, children, and other responsibilities) might be impacting what authors decide to write.

Finally, it's also challenging to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. SFR deserves a wider readership (so sayeth this super fan, anyway!) and I can understand authors being frustrated when sales of their books stagnate. But I can't help but wonder if the pressure to write a "better" mix of SF and romance might be better applied to spreading the word farther about existing books (easier said than done, of course).

If most readers want a trope/story/fantasy that doesn't align with the interest of current SFR authors, that's one thing and it can't really be helped. But if SFR is being held back not by its content, but by its lack of visibility, that's quite another.

What do you think?

Joyfully yours,