The difference between paranormal romance and urban fantasy

Urban fantasy and paranormal romance are genre names. They help bookstores and websites know where to shelve titles. They give readers a broad shopping label.

But under the hood, they tend to cross over a lot. Like, ALOT.

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The ALOT, courtesy of Hyperbole and a Half

So first, here’s a broad-brush definition of each one:

Urban fantasy: A person in a city has a crappy day job, crappy life, etc. They find out they have magic powers, or had them already. They go off to fight black leather-wearing vampires, totally built elves, zombies of various kinds, demons, other wizards, witches, and a few gods of various mythologies. Cthulhu is usually in there somewhere, too. Nobody knows the monsters exist, because the Populace Must Not Know. The fate of the world is at stake if the hero doesn’t stop the monsters.

The hero usually gets to visit the seedier areas of the city in question, taking the reader on a tour of the exotic locales buried in our very own backyard.

In a podcast I watched, a couple of UF authors talked about how the genre is basically updated fairytales. In the old days, the forest was where the monsters lived. If you went in there, the wolves would get you. But today, the city has taken the place of the forest. We all know that there’s places where you just don’t go after dark.

There’s two kinds of UF:

  • Spunky Girl
  • Unlucky Guy

The Spunky Girl also crosses over into Paranormal Romance. She’s the monster hunter, the savvy witch, the werecat, you name it. She kicks butt and takes names. She has family problems and doesn’t need a hawt monster guy, even though she meets one in the first chapter. They get it on. Sometimes frequently.

The Unlucky Guy is also a monster hunter, a wizard, a detective, or so on. Unlike the Spunky Girl, the guy just can’t catch a break. He wakes up in dumpsters. He gets kicked around by monsters. He often runs for his life, chased by magical gangsters. Often he gets a girlfriend, only to find out she’s a monster out to kill him/use him in her political plans. This is my favorite kind of UF.

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Next there’s Paranormal Romance.

This usually centers around a female protagonist. She’s either a moody teenager or a jaded adult woman. Either way, she somehow meets a Monster Guy who is Hawt but Dangerous. He usually brings along the Secret Magic/Monster World. The rest of the story is basically Beauty and the Beast, just with lots of different trappings. If it’s a teen girl, there will be a magic high school. If she’s an adult, there will be sex.

There’s a lot of crossover with UF here in the worldbuilding. Usually there will be a city, but small towns feature, too. If it’s a were-creature romance, there will usually be woods somewhere. Sometimes mountains. Rarely deserts. NEVER are there cornfields. Although a werewolf pack battling through a cornfield would be all kinds of awesome.

Twilight is the PNR book that everybody knows, but Anne Rice was writing vampire books long before Meyer was (although it’s arguable that Rice’s books are closer to UF).

Vampires and werewolves are the primary attractions of PNR, although there’s plenty of sub-factions of monsters. Werebears are particularly popular, for some reason. Under vampires, I personally tried out writing liches, which has worked pretty well. (I’m considering releasing the next book at the end of September, if I can get it edited in time.)

Hopefully that clears up the differences between the two genres. I’ve had to read quite a bit before I started teasing out the differences, and I’m not completely accurate. 🙂

 

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What makes a likeable hero

I was recently introduced to the Writing Excuses podcast. (“Fifteen minutes, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart!”) Always in the market for more tricks about building likeable protagonists, I picked out that particular episode.

This is my current recipe for a likeable protagonist:

  • Something interesting about the person themselves, whether it be a hobby, a personality flaw, color-changing eyes, etc.
  • A goal that the character wants very, very much
  • A need that the character has that they may not know about

This has served me well in my own books. It even works for unlikeable protagonists–people will follow a jerk as long as they have a strong goal. It’s why The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is so fascinating–watching Bogart try to steal ALL THE GOLD is riveting, even though we despise him for it. (Also, “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”)

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In the podcast, they pointed out a few more important ingredients that I’d never thought of:

  • Accountability
  • Responsibility
  • Stakes

They mentioned that you may have a character who is an assassin. They go out and kill people as part of their job. Yet they’re never held accountable for it–never brought to trial in whatever fantasy world they move in.

Responsibility is another big one. A character needs to have responsibilities, even if it’s something as small as feeding their cat. The character needs human connections, responsibilities, things to care about. This is a great way to make the reader to care about them, too. “They have to look after their disabled little brother? Awww!”

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Last, we have the stakes. The character has to stand to lose something if they fail to accomplish their goal. James Scott Bell says that it always has to be death–either emotional death (the romantic couple break up!), professional death (if the young lawyer loses this case, he’ll be disbarred!) or physical death (he’ll be sleeping with the fishes).

In the podcast, they mentioned that in a lot of new authors’ manuscripts, the hero is the least interesting character. To my chagrin, here they dissected Harry Potter. They pointed out that Hermione has a very strong, clear goal (good grades). What’s Harry’s goal? Darned if I know. Same with Bella from Twilight (hey, if we knock one, we gotta knock the other).

So that’s my food for thought about likeable heroes. Heck, it works for an unlikeable character like Katniss. She’s not exactly somebody you’d want to friend on Facebook, but she’s got what it takes to break the Hunger Games, and that’s why we follow her adventures.

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I’ve started dabbling in the world of video book reviews. Here’s my review of the Dragon and the Scholar Saga by H.L. Burke (dragon romance!)

Why we need more frontiers in Christian spec-fic

I was listening to this interview with author Chris Fox. I’ve posted his advice on this blog before–I’m a bit of a fangirl. Anyway, when asked about why his first book did so well, he talked about frontiers.

Interviewer Hank: So tell me where the idea came from for No Such Thing As Werewolves, what’s the story about and how did this idea hatch for you?

Chris Fox: So the basic premise is that legends of mythical creatures have a grain of truth–they come from the distant past. And I tied that in with a science fiction approach, where I wanted there to be a reason why something like a werewolf could exist–a reason why moonlight would cause it to change, the reason why they’d be vulnerable to silver. So I started researching all that stuff, and in the process, really got into genetics and anthropology.

So I invented a culture that is currently something that mankind doesn’t know about. My version of Atlantis, I guess you might say. It used to exist, but has since disappeared. All of a sudden, traces of this culture are returning. It’s heralding a big change in the world–there’s an apocalypse coming. These werewolves are back, and people aren’t sure why. So our main character is an anthropologist trying to tie all these things together.

Hank: What is it about the idea of a distant past, and the idea of these creatures and civilizations that are so enchanting? What do you think it is that appeals to us?

CF: I think it has to do with frontiers. If you look back to when dime novels were popular, people loved reading about the wild west, because it was still an unknown frontier. They could learn about something. The idea that we don’t know everything there is to know about mankind, and that there is this great looming mystery, is very exciting to us. It sort of bores a lot of us to think that we know all there is to know about where we come from as a species and what exists in the world.

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Frontier Skies by JoeyJazz

I’ve been musing about this for a few days now. The books I’ve really enjoyed have all had some kind of frontier in them–whether it was really interesting world-building, or a cool magic system, or characters with deep, world-shattering secrets. I seriously enjoyed the Expanse books because of all the mysteries lurking out in space. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much my favorite thing about space opera–the mysteries. The frontiers.

So, while thinking about this, I had a thought about why Christian spec-fic doesn’t do so well. I mean, why haven’t the Christian arena produced a Brandon Sanderson, the way the Mormon arena has?

Christians think we have all the answers. Therefore we have no frontiers.

The trouble is, the Bible is FULL of frontiers. Tons of unanswered questions and unknowable mysteries. Just read Ezekiel 1 and struggle as the poor prophet tried very hard to describe a 10-dimensional lifeform. Why do the cherubim carry their life inside fiery wheels? We can’t understand it.

But because Christians have some knowledge–for instance, about Jesus and the Gospel–we think we know it all.

It’s like my son asking for a carpentry kit. I expressed doubts about his skill with hammers, saws, etc. (he’s nine). I pointed out that we live in an apartment, and he really needs a garage to work in. But he confidently assured me that he knows exactly how to hammer everything together. He just needs some wood, and he’ll make a playhouse.

He doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know.

Well, us Christians are like that. We have a tiny bit of knowledge about a couple of mysteries. So we make ALL the frontiers be about those few mysteries that we have solved. No questions are allowed to go unanswered. Everything is spelled out, hammered home, and wrapped up in a nice tidy package.

As Chris says up there, it bores us to know all the answers. It also makes for boring storytelling. I mean, it’s fine if you’re writing a murder mystery and you’re revealing how the killer dunnit. But for a fantasy story, or a science fiction, which by their very nature deal in big sweeping questions that might not have answers–that’s trickier. We don’t like leaving questions unanswered. Heaven forbid that we leave any doubts in the reader’s mind, right?

Yet, doubts and questions are what fuel the imagination. What’s Pluto like? we wonder. What might live at the bottom of the ocean? What’s down there that’s big enough to swallow a ten foot shark whole? Is there a tenth planet that orbits perpendicular to the solar system’s elliptical?

Finding out the answers to these things would be totally rad. They’d also lead to more questions.

I wish Christian writers would get more comfortable with asking questions, but not necessarily answering them.

Three sentences deeper (learning to write like a pro)

In trying to up my writing game, I’ve been studying the authors I admire the most. One of these is Mary Stewart.

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She was a romantic suspense author whose first book was published in 1955. All of her books have lush, wonderful prose, and suspense that builds and builds to an electrifying climax. Some of her books are kind of odd and experimental (like the telepathic heroine in The Ivy Tree). But all of them involve a lonely girl, a hot guy, a mystery, and ruthless bad guys. They’re such fun.

Anyway, I was reading one of my favorites again, Madam, Will You Talk, to study her writing. They had a lot higher standards back then. Mostly, I’m noticing that where I would stop talking about a subject, Stewart goes three or four sentences deeper. Here’s an example, describing a kid named David:

His face, which in the slight courtesies of small talk betrayed humor and a quick intelligence at work, seemed almost to become older. Some implacable burden almost visibly dropped on his shoulders. One was conscious, in spite of the sensitive youth of his mouth, and the childish thin wrists and hands, of something here that could meet and challenge a quite adult destiny on its own grounds, strength for strength. The burden, whatever it was, was quite obviously recognized and accepted. There had been some hardening process at work, and recently. Not a pleasant process, I thought, looking at the withdrawn profile bent over the absurd dog, and feeling suddenly angry.

If I was writing this, it would go something like this:

His face, which in the slight courtesies of small talk betrayed humor and a quick intelligence at work, seemed almost to become older. Some implacable burden almost visibly dropped on his shoulders. There had been some hardening process at work, and recently. Not a pleasant process, I thought, looking at the withdrawn profile bent over the absurd dog, and feeling suddenly angry.

It would be quite readable, as both plot and character description, but we lose this part:

One was conscious, in spite of the sensitive youth of his mouth, and the childish thin wrists and hands, of something here that could meet and challenge a quite adult destiny on its own grounds, strength for strength. The burden, whatever it was, was quite obviously recognized and accepted.

It takes us deeper into David’s character. Beyond his looks and his secrets, we have a sense that this is one tough kid.

That’s one thing I love about old books. They take us beyond the superficial description of a person, into observations about their character and problems. As a writer, this is one height that I aspire to.

In an interview with Mary Stewart, she says this about the book, which I found funny:

RT: Yes. They’re very involving books, which is a measure of the effectiveness with which you have created that world.

MS: Well, actually this is, if I may say so, the storyteller’s skill that one is either born with or one isn’t. I remember someone writing to me about my very first book, the thriller Madam, Will You Talk?. She told me that she’d taken it up to read in bed. Then at three in the morning, she wrote me a complaint. I’d come to a point in the book where I’d actually brought my exhausted heroine and her hero together, and they’d had an absolutely smashing meal, which I described in detail. She said, I had to go down to the kitchen and make myself bacon and eggs. So, I thought, well, that’s a tribute, anyway.

When I used to write everything longhand, my hand wrote a lot slower than my brain worked. I’d still be forming letters, while my brain would be chewing on the next thing to say, and how to say it. For some reason, this led to long, rambling passages as I thought deeply about scenes and characters.

Now I write on the keyboard. I can type almost as quickly as I think. Rather than this leading to introspection, I flit from topic to topic. There’s no reason to linger on each thought. With longhand, I was stuck with my writing speed, and therefore took each thought a little deeper.

I don’t know if other people are as flighty as I am. Usually I only have ten or twenty minutes at a time to write, so I’m trying to pound out as much of the story as possible. My efficiency goes up, but my depth goes down. Thank goodness for revisions–you’re forced to linger over various passages, playing with the language, thinking of how to make them go deeper.

To my amusement, Mary Stewart complained about the same thing in her interview:

RT: Do you write your books out in longhand, or do you use a typewriter?

MS: I’ve gone through different stages–I used an ordinary portable for my first books, and that wrecked my wrist. I had a very bad time with it. Then I wrote longhand, but that’s slow, and you go nearly mad because your brain is miles ahead of your hand.

When I got to about the fifth or sixth book–The Ivy Tree, I think it was–I got an electric typewriter. It frightened me to death at first, but I got used to it eventually. I used to do the whole thing myself, including five carbon copies, and it nearly killed me. Then I got a dictating machine, and I sent the tapes to a professional typist. I think that must alter your style a little because you can be longer winded. When you’re writing something, you skip bits. I dictate with all the punctuation, but it isn’t finished.

Once I’ve got the typed copy back, I then work on it. What I do is lay the typed sheets out. I have this beautiful paper, the sort that the chap wanted in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and couldn’t get anymore. It’s lovely to write on. I do the corrections in longhand, but I can also just mark places with a star. I then dictate it through, putting the bits in as I go, which saves a tremendous amount of work. Then I get it typed back again. I do about four drafts for a book, so it’s still a lot of laborious work.

The rest of her interview is available here.

So yeah, I hope that someday I write with one quarter of her skill.

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Why abstinence (from Facebook) is great

Every so often I do a goal assessment and figure out how I’m doing on stuff. That sounds totally organized, but it’s not.

School started Monday. If anything kicks my butt into gear regarding organization, it’s school. Not only am I homeschooling my oldest four, but I’m watching another child for the first three weeks of August. He’s also doing school with us. That means that if I want to get anything accomplished, I’ve got to watch my time management. I’m talking micro-managing-Rollercoaster-Tycoon levels of management.

As always, when I’m accessing how I spend my time, I keep track of everything I do over a couple of days. The self-help books say to write things down. I just stay aware of what I’m doing in the bits and pieces of extra time I have–nursing the baby, folding laundry, waiting for people to do their math, playtime after lunch when the kids are occupied, etc.

Guess what I do in those bits of time!

I read Facebook.

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Exclusively. If there’s a blog linked on Facebook, I’ll read it. If there’s news on Facebook, I’ll read it. If there’s a video on Facebook, I’ll watch it. Facebook Facebook Facebook. I’d check it when I woke up in the morning and the last thing at night.

More specifically, on Facebook, I scroll through the same statuses, videos and meme pics over and over and over. Every so often somebody would post something new, but not as often as I was looking for it. Oh, and you know this election circus that’s going on? Yeah, I’ve been all stressed out and upset about that.

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My hubby had a couple of weeks where he worked some really late evenings. To keep myself awake while waiting for him, I’d listen to Donna Otto’s podcast Homemakers By Choice. One of the things that Donna suggests is to read Facebook 10 minutes a day. Set a timer. She said that it works just fine for her.

Facebook in 10 minutes a day! I thought. Imagine how much time I’d have for writing!

So I made a deal with myself. Facebook was only for the evenings. If I had time to sit and mess with the internet, then I had the time to write. Period. So any time I picked up my ipod, I was obligated to write a couple of paragraphs.

That was two weeks ago. Today I finished the first draft of my fun little dragon cozy mystery. I immediately dove in to revising the second Malevolent book, Malcontent. And we’re not talking large slabs of time, here. This is ten minutes here and there throughout the day. It helps that I just love these stories.

Only reading Facebook once a day means that everybody’s statuses and jokes are a lot more fun to read. I have time to read everything that was posted over the course of the day, including all the horrendous political news. But you know, it’s a lot easier to take when it’s only a few minutes out of the day.

My stress levels dropped. My daily word count skyrocketed. (A whopping 800 words a day! But since I was previously doing something like 800 words a week, it’s improvement.)

So that’s been my experiment in dialing back my social media consumption. I’d rather produce something of value than fill my brain with dumb meme pics that I won’t remember tomorrow.

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