Friday, August 15, 2008

What's With Urban Fantasy? Jim Butcher, Laurell K. Hamilton Feel Free To Respond

So I took one hundred and fifty pages of manuscript and butchered it to change the book into a contemporary urban fantasy. Prior to this the novel had more of a mystery novel feel, with characters developing casually, plot unfolding, tension building. However, a few friends convinced me to go the Urban Fantasy route. Bang. So I started the rewrite. However, after three chapters, I'm thinking: I need to go even more radical don't I? I need to shoot steroids into this work.

So let's talk about Urban Fantasy. Help me get a handle on the genre. Right now I am under the understanding that urban fantasy isn't just fantasy in an urban setting (I recently argued with my wife that Dracula could have been urban fantasy at one time). No, the genre seems to have certain conventions that I need to begin adopting instead of resisting.

1) The novel needs to be series of action sequences strung together by occasional bursts of plot [unfair?]
2) Like any good fantasy, the rules of reality and fantasy need to be consistent and logical.
3) The protagonist [at least most of the current popular ones] are flawed characters, often suffering from issues with self esteem. They also are often outsiders and deal with horrible relationship skills. Their choices of partners suck or are doomed to fail. Another thing about the heroes, they are often (in keeping with the best of Campbell) reluctant.

Butcher, Hamilton, any one else out there who writes Urban Fantasy, or who feel they know the genre well, what am I missing? Let's get a discussion going here. I need to get my head around this and right now, I think I know what I am doing but the voices keep telling me I don't. What about you, Mark Rainey? William Jones? Sidney Williams? Charles Gramlich? Calling all writers. Let's debate and discuss.


Zoe Winters said...

The most important thing:

Is urban fantasy what YOU want to write?

I write paranormal romance, and while I don't JUST write vampires, I do write SOME vampires. I've been told "vampires are on the way out and just won't sell." I could give two craps about that. I will write what I am passionate about.

After Anne Rice no one thought more vamps would sell and they've exploded. It's so much more I think about writing what makes your blood sing, then it is about writing what's "selling."

These trends start by one writer catching a lot of people's imagination and then those people are trying to recapture that experience.

It's not really about the fad/trend. So don't lose sight of the big picture.

having said that...if you are into urban fantasy...have at it! :)

Stewart Sternberg said...

Zoe, if I look at my reading list, a hefty portion of what I read tend to be thrillers. I guess I would like to write thrillers at some point. However, I have always been partial to horror and elements of fantasy.

So what do I want to write? What's selling?

Zoe Winters said...

OMG Stewart, I'm going to have to come over there and beat you. Forget what's selling. The book publishing trade moves too slow for you to follow trends. Write what you are passionate about. If thrillers aren't "big" right now, it doesn't really matter. Because if you are completely in love with them and you write what you love and you write it well, people will take notice.

Because the fact is, there IS a market for thrillers. And if you write a fabulous one, you'll be the trend others follow. Be the trend setter, not the trend follower. :)

And now I'll stop soap boxing on your blog before you hunt me down.

Mark Rainey said...

I'm sure it's to my detriment, but I rarely think about labels for my writing. In the big overview, I write mostly scary stuff. Sometimes it's urban, sometimes rural, sometimes historical, sometimes futuristic. I expect most of it would fall into the "fantasy" realm because it usually involves themes beyond the mundane -- the supernatural or preternatural; rarely is it totally based in the reality of today, in the warped mind of the sod next door. Even "thriller" is a broad enough term to encompass most of it. Surely, "creepy ass shit" is probably the best label.

Hard for me to think about labels. Given the way marketing works, I suppose I should.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Zoe, I'm usually not the one who gets spanked. Ahem. Anyway, I think it's important to know the market. And you're right, it changes rapidly and nothing is a substitute for good writing. In each of my short story, there is a thematic element which gives it merit apart from the plot elements.

Mark, people call me a curmudgeon, but you would give me a run for the title of Curmudgeon King. Still, I think I am going to champion a move toward creating a new genre called "Creepy Ass Shit". I would love to see that in an aisle at Barnes and Noble.

Robyn said...

I think I am going to champion a move toward creating a new genre called "Creepy Ass Shit".


Most of the UF I've read has a common theme: it's dark. Screwed up protagonists, arching storylines with evil, end-of-the-world scenarios, and heroes just barely get out of the fight with their souls intact.

But please, please, please don't go down the path of the Magical Healing Hoo-hoo. Just say no.

Lana Gramlich said...

As a painter who doesn't read urban fantasy, I'll merely wish you the best of luck. ;)

Zoe Winters said...

hahahahaha Stewart, I'm not usually the one who does the spanking.

I agree that it's important to know the market, I just wouldn't personally let it dictate what I write. But then I'm on a totally different road here. And it's important for me to remember that different people have different mileage and goals they are trying to meet.

I just hate to think of someone writing what's marketable while ignoring what they're passionate about.

SQT said...

I've had many conversations with reviewers of urban fantasy and one thing always comes up-- the sarcastic protagonist. I don't know why, but paranormal fantasy always has the characters with the one-liners. The audience eats it up.

Also, main characters that are half-anything seem to sell big. Half-werewolf, some sort of quasi-vampire that can walk in the light (like Blade), mom was a witch... I don't know. Any kind of semi-magical background that the main character is trying to get a handle on. They almost always try to walk away from their heritage and are drawn back to it too.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've written vampires before, but not in urban settings. Urban settings in general don't interest me. I've only done a few such tales over the years and those were horror pieces where the villain needed access to a lot of people. I don't think I've ever written anything like the contemporary Urban fantasies. I don't read them much and wouldn't feel comfortable writing them. If I were going to I'd probably try a short story first to get a feel for things.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Robin, I think the protagonist as you've painted him or her is not necessarily a component of UF. However, such characters are extremely popular and have been---in just about all genres. Taking a hero who is expected to do the superhuman and then imbuing that hero with the frailties that characterize our own lives brings that hero closer to us.
Oh...and also..."MAGICAL HEALING HOO HOO???"

lara, sometimes I would love for you to talk more about the dialogue that goes on between an artist and the person who views his work and compare that to the writer and reader's relationship.

Zoe, I understand. Passion about writing is what makes writing fun. Writing without passion is something that can usually be felt by the reader and lowers the overall response to the work.

SQT, I got the sarcastic thing down pat.

Charles, if I am not mistaken you moved into deep country. At least I remember you mentioning on your blog living near or in a wooded area. I think writers of urban fiction probably have a greater affinity for an urban setting. I live in a rural community, kind of...but I try and claw my way back to a city environment whenever I have the chance, and if not city, then I go suburban.

Travis said...

I'm not a fan of urban fantasy, but I enjoy Jim Butcher because of the character he has created. He writes great action, and spins such wild predicaments for Dresden that I'm never sure how he's going to get out of it, or if he will.

If Butcher wrote Dresden in a different setting, I'd probably still be interested because of the type of character Dresden is.

I guess my point is that I'm not always interested in what kind of fantasy I'm reading...just that it's good writing with a compelling character.

So I would suggest writing what you want to read, rather than struggling with what the market is reading. Sometimes the market is reading crap, and publishers continue to feed crap to the market because it makes them money.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Trav. You bring up an excellent point about all's about people. Characters drive a story. I agree. However, I think following there is a compromise between writing what one wants and following the market. In writing urban fantasy, I don't write down to people, or write things against which I have any moral objection. I just think that perhaps it goes against my style to some degree.

Then again, Urban Fantasy..isn't it really just a form of pulp? The primary element of UF is that it is plot driven. The action is continuous. perhaps the trick is figuring a way to work the theme and the character into the action as it is occurring. It's another litarary riff and challenge.

William Jones said...

You pose a complex question, Stewart. :) At the risk of sounding odd, I'd say it is the form and not the formula that is causing trouble. As you know, writing a formulaic story produces something predictable, and unexciting to the reader of the genre. But taking the form (basic concepts of the genre) and working with that can result is something original.

I'll also cast a vote for Mark's new genre label. The name alone would attract attention. :)

Besides stating the obvious in the above paragraph, I'm trying to say that urban fantasy has many facets, and some are still unknown. This is true with any genre. There certainly is a little bit detective novel in urban fantasy, and a little bit of horror/supernatural. This blend goes a long way back. Poe wrote mystery and supernatural, and mixed them. Doyle (with Holmes) pushed the edges of "natural," but often enticed readers with the promise of ghosts, vampires, and other creatures. And most of the above stories took place in cities/urban settings.

What a few people have mention here is the narrative style taken from mystery - the witty lines, and secret or dark past. Modern mystery fiction often has haunted detectives (psychologically). And many other elements from that genre have added to urban fantasy. Certainly television shows such as the X-Files, Supernatural, New Amsterdam, Primeval, Heroes, Moonlight, Night Stalker, and myriad others place a "detective" type figure in a "weird" situation, and it needs resolution. Sometimes it is through action, sometimes through other means (most often very clever means).

So if you were wondering if your urban fantasy story novel needs action, I suppose that depends upon you and the characters. It is possible to create action characters who get stick in a non-action plot, or brooding character who'd rather puzzle out the mystery without leaving the house, but who are in a shoot-'em up.

I'd suggest that you think about your characters - as you've already suggestion, and others. And then from there figure out where they work best in an urban fantasy setting.

Stewart Sternberg said...

William, I like the statement that urban fantasy is a form, which is more a hybrid of other genres. Detective/horror/thriller. With character development being forefront, the trick then is to find the right mixture depending on the character and plot.

Sidney said...

I kind of like the Weather Warden series, which I'd put in that Urban Fantasy camp more or less. I tend to have slipped into, for some reason, reading one of those books toward the end of each year. Guess it's a personal tradition.

I've read the first Dresden book and liked that, and I like the Simon R. Green Nightside books, all of which I'd say are urban fantasy.

Vwriter said...

Yeah, Zoe, go beat him! No wait, he'd like that.

And Stewart, have you considered the "camp" element?

Maybe you could write a urban/fantasy/thriller/horror combo and trademark it.

When you figure it all out, be sure to email me the answer!

JR's Thumbprints said...

I thought Urban Fantasy was Donald Goines writing while on crack. Boy was I wrong.

L.A. Mitchell said...

I really can't speak with any authority on this, especially since editors were coming back to my former agent and calling what I write urban fantasy. Who knew?

I am enjoying the interpretations here.

I agree with Zoe, to an extent. A writer who pays no attention to market, however, remains a happy, unpaid writer.

Bernita said...

It is a hybrid - no doubt about that.
The thing that bugs me the most is the seemingly inevitable interpretation of urban fantasy as involving weres and vampires - exclusively.
I think I write urban fantasy and I don't have any.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Jr...I am sorry to say I have no idea who Goines is. Who knew?

Sidney, I sometimes wonder if there needs to be a distinction between horror and urban fantasy. There are certainly horrific elements in some urban fantasy, but does that make it horror? Ah, labels labels.

Vwriter, you will have to elaborate on what you mean by the camp element. I am not sure that urban fantasy has to have a camp element although it certainly is present in some work. Still, I'll bet you fans of Hamilton and Dresden would object to the term camp.

l.a....truer words were never spoken. I believe in paying close attention to the market. I write to be read, and the way to be read is to sell.

donetta...APPLAUSE. Yes, too much has been focused on werewolves and vampires and not enough on the fantastic element outside those formulaic constructs. Good call.I want to think more about what you pointed out before going on.

Kate S said...

Well, I don't think I can speak to formula, but "Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman seemed like Urban Fantasy to me.

I also recently read Lilith Saintcrow's "Dante Valentine" series and would consider that Urban Fantasy. It was interesting to me that she took some of the stories of the Nephilim and twisted them to suit herself.

Though there was some magical healing hoo hoo going on...

La Bee-yotch said...

i read a lot of what might be termed "urban fantasy," and i think it's a fascinating subgenre as well as a hybrid genre. i spend a lot of time pondering where the borders get blurry, asking questions to myself like: when does urban fantasy with romance elements become a paranormal romance?

i've decided it depends on what's driving the story. if it's romance, you've got a paranormal romance and it belongs in the romance section of the genre quadrant of the fiction territory in a bookstore. but if it's mixing, say, elements of detection fiction and fantasy, it's going to go into the fantasy section.

or maybe it goes in the section that you can justify putting it in that sells the best.

there's stuff that blurs the lines. you'll find charlie huston's vampire novels (which are interesting gangland stories with vamps set in the greater nyc area) in the regular fiction section of a bookstore rather than the sci-fi or mystery or horror or romance section. why? i don't know. i used to only find maryjanice davidson's betsy taylor series in the romance section, but who knows where you'll find it now and i wouldn't really call it a paranormal romance anyway. most of the urban fantasy stuff--hamilton, butcher, harris, harrison, briggs, richardson--you'll find in the sci-fi/fantasy section.

i'm wandering a bit, but i'll say something about the definition of the genre. most sources i've consulted seem to say that uf is fantasy in a contemporary, urban setting. there are exceptions to that--the sookie stackhouse stories were originally set in a small town in the south, but in the last few books she's been spending more time in urban settings.

the genre (which i consider to be an emerging genre rather than an established one) currently seems to me to be dominated by women, but there are a few good men writers who are well known favorites (butcher, green). many of these women writers are writing out of another fairly recently-emerging fiction subgenre called "chicklit," which usually features a tough, witty, female protagonist, and the story is told in the first person--both major features of a lot of the kind of books we'd call "urban fantasy" these days. it must have seemed such a small step to take your tough, witty female protagonist into a world of wizards, fairies, vamps, and shapeshifters.

in urban fantasy, you have many of the different archetypal stories being told in "straight up" fantasy, except i haven't really seen any urban fantasy i could term "epic" in the way that certain kinds of multi-volume fantasy series are (perhaps the temporal range of most epics is beyond the strongly contemporary bent of urban fantasy. that seems to me to be worth thinking about a bit more).

there's always more to say, but i thought i'd throw a few quarters into the ring. i'd say, though, stewart, that based on your tone and characterizations of urban fantasy, you're not an admirer of the genre and perhaps are looking down at it just a touch. based on that, i'd urge you to find some other genre or subgenre to write in, unless you want to write a brilliant send-up of urban fantasy. that field's wide open as far as i can tell. ;-)

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