A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 6

by syaffolee

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

I was a bit disappointed that Patricia Briggs could not make it to MisCon because I’m sure she would have had some interesting things to say about “Elements of Romance in Speculative Fiction.” The panelists who were able to make it were Vicki Mitchell and J.A. Pitts. (AQ is an audience question.)

JAP: I grew up in a house full of women. My grandmother in Kentucky taught me to read science fiction. I was raised as a feminist. But I also witnessed men treating women badly.

VM: I put in romance for whatever the story calls for. Often it’s something that drives the characters.

JAP: I’m a character writer. I want the characters to be well rounded. For others, like Jay Lake, setting works for them. But I think human interaction is critical.

VM: It often depends on the setup. If you have the correct setup, then your characters will naturally draw sparks off each other. However, if you’re aiming for a buddy-buddy relationship, you have to be careful not to draw sparks.

JAP: In the television show Moonlighting, there was a lot of romantic and sexual tension between the two main characters. But once they hooked up, the show tanked. It’s the perspective. You need a reason for the romance. The character wants to protect or impress someone. Without romance, a lot of literature is boring.

VM: What if your character is trapped between two romantic interests? What do you do? It may not necessarily be a happy ending.

JAP: In Alyx Dellamonica’s Indigo Springs, there’s a romance but it’s not entirely happy. Sometimes the person you love doesn’t love you back.

VM: That can drive the story.

JAP: It can be a major or minor part of the story. In Lois McMaster Bujold’s books, there would be less meaning if there was no romance.

VM: The characters drive her whole series. Romance tells us what make people tick. If a story is character driven, at one point romance will be used.

AQ: I read that in character building, tension tells who the characters are. But some people go too far with erotica.

JAP: I keep being told that Twilight is a romance but I don’t see it. However, some people think romance is having the guy take care of you. Everyone’s notion of romance is different. So you can’t please everyone. Romance is integral if it drives the story.

AQ: How about subverting obnoxious romance cliches?

JAP: The cliches say something about the character–that they don’t think enough of themselves. It’s also taste and degree. You don’t need romance in your story, like The Dresden Files. Romance is a tool you can use.

AQ: Do you have any tips on how romance can be integrated into the story?

JAP: If you first reader starts gagging, the romance is not well integrated. Read the scenes aloud and if you can’t get through it, it’s too much. Make the decision if the romance pulls the plot along or is critical to it.

VM: What is the story you’re telling? Whether it’s primarily science fiction or fantasy, if romance is driving the story, both characters A and B need to solve the problem.

JAP: One example is Casablanca–romance has a strong impact on character motivation.

AQ: How do you put romance into the story without being unrealistic?

JAP: It takes a lot of practice and reading a lot. Writing is really work. Cultivate good first readers. Determine your style and strengths.

AQ: The current trajectory is that young adult fiction is meeting with science fiction and fantasy. Regarding romantic relationships with kids and teens, do you approach it differently if the character is older or younger?

JAP: It depends. If the relationship is sexual, yes. But romantic, not really. It depends on what story you’re trying to tell. How would you feel about it?

AQ: Emotions in younger people are bigger and more raw because it’s the first time for them and there are no filters.

JAP: Take for example George R. R. Martin’s work. He has characters who are fourteen. Romance is as real and viceral as you can make it, whatever you can make it.

AQ: I have a hard time believing in younger romances.

JAP: It’s relative to culture and the time you’re in. But in science fiction and fantasy, you’re making everything up. But take in consideration the taboos. When Harold and Maud first came out, people were shocked.

AQ: What if you’re writing in another world but you look at the attitudes in the past. Do you just “file off the serial numbers”?

VM: You can replace it with your own serial numbers. It’s called world building.

AQ: How is speculative fiction different than science fiction and fantasy?

JAP: You can probably get a lot of different definitions for “speculative fiction” but I think it’s anything with a fantastical element that’s outside normal.

VM: It’s a catch-all that covers anything discussed in science fiction and fantasy.

JAP: I don’t know of any genre that does not have romance. Romance is integral to being human.

AQ: In speculative fiction, you’re not bound to rules like genre romance.

JAP: Harlequin and places like it have rules. But Nora Roberts doesn’t follow the rules. There are exceptions. Epic fantasy has rules. It has tropes like dragons and quests.

AQ: Is the marketplace open to pushing the boundaries like polygamy, etc.? Or does it become a distraction?

JAP: Speculative fiction tends to be more open. But the key question is: is it integral to the story? In my book, I have a lesbian character and people talk about it because it’s something new. In Planet of the Apes, the kiss with the ape caused controversy. The market is open to it as long as it’s a good story.

VM: I agree.

JAP: It’s not the best way to build a career with sensational publications.

AQ: Is explicit sex necessary?

JAP: It’s unnecessary if no one buys the stories.

VM: Some people say they skip past those scenes.

JAP: Mostly readers want to know the build up and the afterglow. What’s important to the story? What’s your audience. Has anyone heard of Fifty Shades of Grey? What do you want to be known for? Do you want to get libraries to buy your book?

AQ: When Heinlein wrote young adult books, he just wrote a regular book and took out the sex scenes before sending it to the publishers.

AQ: Fantasy sells better within romance.

VM: Other authors and I used to get together and get drunk enough to write the sex scenes.

JAP: I once went to a workshop for writing sex scenes. For one person, that scene was just a kiss. For another person, it was Penthouse.

VM: If you don’t want your mom to read it, don’t write it.

JAP: I actually disagree with that.

AQ: What if you’re worried about being pigeon-holed?

JAP: You can write short stories about it. Robert Silverberg wrote a lot of porn under a pseudonym. Ask yourself what you’re comfortable putting in your story.

AQ: Since you [JAP] were an English major, do you have any advice for becoming a writer?

JAP: If I had to do it over again, I would be a history major. I have a masters in library science so I know how to research. But as an English major, you need to unlearn stuff.

VM: English teachers will not do the work to understand science fiction and fantasy.

JAP: In English, they teach their point of view. You need to get the critic out of your head.

AQ: Then why do they teach that in the first place?

JAP: They teach to the Pulitzer rather than the Hugo.

AQ: Do you have a way to shut up the inner critic and write?

VM: Learn to tell it that you’re writing. Schedule rewrite time and tell the critic to come back then.

AQ: And does it work?

VM: Sometimes.

JAP: The first draft is the vomit draft. I use music. I make playlists for my books. I shut up the critic with The Dark Side of the Moon. Hemingway drank a lot. Many people go into the zone when they write. For some, like me, it’s a happy place. For others, it’s a place of terror, so they drink.

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Stay tuned for Part 7 which is all about grammar.