Friday, February 3, 2012

By any other name....

Sometime over the last couple of years Clinere cleaned up its act; or at least its packaging. Restoring or refinishing old furniture is a hobby of mine, something I do to relax. I'm not very good at it, but it's me I'm working on; the hutches and chairs and bookcases are more or less innocent bystanders. Sanding layers of finish and paint down to the wood generates a lot of flying dust, and while I have a mask for my nose and mouth, my ears sometimes need clearing out – which is how I discovered Clineres. These are little plastic do-jobbies with a scoop on one end
and a brush of sorts on the other marketed as ear cleaners. The original box proclaimed boldly Clineres were a safe and effective way to clean your ears; inside the box was a warning that you should never put anything in your ear. The box has recently been updated to say Clineres are for cleaning the exterior of the ear only – something any washcloth can do. I wonder how this has affected their sales.

Though all writers focus on the craft of writing, those who make a living from their writing also put a lot of thought and planning into selling what they've written. Packaging, marketing - how we present ourselves and our works - are essential considerations.

Romance novels make up fifty percent of all fiction sold in the world. This one genre, with its several sub-genres, sells as many volumes as mainstream and all other genres combined. Everything else being equal, a romance novel involving a mystery will outsell a mystery novel. There's a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a writer who sent her agent a science fiction manuscript about a woman who fell back through time to the medieval court of her noble ancestors and not only brought about humane reforms but married royalty. Her agent told her she could market the ms as science fiction and earn four figures or pump up the relationship, market it as a historical romance, and earn six figures. She did and she did.

Recently I opined in print that Suzanne Brockmann's "Troubleshooters" series of romantic suspense novels could hold their own as suspense novels without the romance. Take Into the Storm (selected because it's within reach of where I'm sitting). Thumbing through to refresh my memory, I'd say maybe thirty percent of Storm is romance; the rest of the book is a serial killer thriller of Criminal Minds intensity. True, a good part of Storm's non-romance seventy percent deals with the dynamics of the cast of recurring characters within the "Troubleshooters" universe, but relationships – what makes the characters both good and bad human – are part of any thriller. Part of any story involving conflict, in fact. Relationships establish why the antagonist does what she does and what the protagonist stands to lose if she fails. I can't help but wonder if Brockmann had a "you can write suspense and earn $x, or you can write romantic suspense and earn ten times $x" conversation with herself. Or her agent.

My first love as a reader was science fiction, though now my tastes are more varied (mystery, romance, historical, and western novels now crowd my sf collection). Looking at some of my early science fiction favorites with my now broader sense of the world of fiction, I've begun to notice patterns.

Anne McCaffrey, whom we lost a few months ago, was a master of novels that blurred the line between science fiction and fantasy; novels in her Dragonriders of Pern series have won awards in both categories. (McCaffrey herself was firm about being a science fiction writer; all of her famous dragons were genetically engineered.) But almost every analysis of her work mentions the "romantic intensity" of her novels. McCaffrey has said that when she began writing sf in the sixties, the genre was dominated by male writers and readers – to the point most female writers used male pseudonyms or concealed their gender – and she set out to write strong female characters to whom female readers could relate. However, her first novel – written years before the Pern cycle – was clearly a romance in a science fiction setting. Restoree is dinged by sf critics for plot elements that don't seem to fit the genre. Those elements are romance tropes: A young woman with no self-confidence finds herself a prisoner in a strange world. Motivated by her feelings for a fellow prisoner and tapping into inner strength she didn't know she had, she overcomes her own insecurities as she battles prejudice and injustice to rescue herself and the other prisoner – who turns out to be the planet's rightful ruler, whom she subsequently marries.

Lois McMaster Bujold has said her Vorkosigan Saga – which focuses on the life of Miles Vorkosigan, scion of Barrayar nobility, as he takes on the status quo and matures from unconventional, rebellious youth to unconventional, inspiring leader through tales of intrigue, combat, and mystery – is modeled on C.S. Forrester's Hornblower Saga.
However the series has its roots in her first novel, Shards of Honor, that is itself a romance in a science fiction setting. (Captain Cordelia Naismith is captured by the notorious enemy Lord Aral Vorkosigan, the "Butcher of Komarr," but when the two are forced to survive alone together on a hostile world, she learns the man is nothing like his reputation. He falls in love with her and proposes marriage. She gets rescued and finds herself conflicted about her feelings and loyalties and not trusted by her own people. She flees to Alar's home world in time to see him appointed regent by the dying emperor and help him avert an attempted coup within and to sue for peace without, ending the war. After which she marries him. Cordelia and Alar are Miles Vorkosigan's parents.

My theory is Anne McCaffrey and Lois McMaster Bujold, either never had the "romance sells" conversation – internally or externally – or if they did, chose to go in a different direction.

How about you? Do you as a reader know of some titles that are famous in – or marketed as – one genre that you suspect may be more at home in another? Or do you as a writer make decisions on what elements or your stories you develop more fully based on the genre you are pursuing?


Charles Gramlich said...

My wife, Lana, is a big Anne McCaffrey fan and just started one of the last Pern novels last night. I have read some of her work and enjoyed it but haven't read a lot.

Liane Spicer said...

Kindred by Octavia Butler has become one of my favourite novels, but I can't figure out why it's marketed as sci-fi. It's actually hard to label - historical, paranormal, fantasy, literary... these all fit (to me). SF? Nah.

As for developing elements related to the genre I'm pursuing... Problematic. My first novel was a romance. I set out to write a romance and at some point decided to add some elements of mystery. Worked out fine. The second also started off as a romance but the sub-plots became just as (or more) important to me as the relationship. Which is probably why my agent, although she liked it, decided not to submit it to romance markets. I've all but decided to market it as mainstream: it has romance, it has mystery elements, but doesn't fit neatly into either of those categories.

So, seems I write the story and try to figure out the label after.

Lynn Emery said...

I agree about Kindred! Far Pavillions to me was historical romance, at least that's how I remember. So was The Thorn Birds.Gabaldon's Outlander, time travel romance. But I know that the "romance" label is avoided because some authors don't think much of romance novels as a genre.

KeVin K. said...

Charles, my favorite Pern stories are the original trilogy and the Harper Hall trilogy. I am less fond of the later volumes that explain everything. My daughter would trade them all for the Ship Who Sang series.

Love Octavia Butler, Liane, and her stories do tend to blend genre. She is a bit fond of killing off the human race, though.

I was given a copy of Kindred in 1981 by a friend who thought it a funny parallel that the African American protagonist was married to a white guy named Kevin. This was my introduction to Ms Butler's work; I've always been grateful.

KeVin K. said...

As a matter of fact, Lynn, Octavia Butler regarded Kindred as a fantasy. I think she called it a grim fable, which may have been a play on words. It's usually shelved in literature, not sf or fantasy.
And funny you should mention

Liane Spicer said...

Labels are tricky, and in the final analysis, irrelevant except to marketing departments. Kevin, the two B&N stores I visited in S. FL shelved Kindred in "African American". The editorial reviews on Amazon overwhelmingly reference it as SF:

"It is everything the literature of science fiction can be." Walter Mosley

"...the perfect introduction to Butler's work and perspectives for those not usually enamored of science fiction..." Seattle Post-Intelligencer

"Kindred is as much a novel of psychological horror as it is a novel of science fiction..." The Austin Chronicle

"Butler's African-American feminist perspective is unique, and uniquely suited to reshape the boundaries of the sci-fi genre." L. A. Style

"No other work of fantasy or science fiction writings brings the intimate environment of the antebellum South to life better than Octavia E. Butler's Kindred." San Francisco Chronicle