Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Urban Fantasy Job Hunting

The May 2009 issue of LOCUS, the newspaper of science fiction and fantasy, now (since it was sold to a professional publisher,) billed as "The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field," is devoted to Urban Fantasy.

http://www.locusmag.com/ is their online site.

I've written here before about the shift in popularity away from SF and toward Fantasy, which is allowing the development of the Paranormal Romance and SF Romance field. So, in the context of the release of the new Star Trek movie, let's talk a little about what Romance readers can expect and what writers can provide for them.

This is an exercise in worldbuilding by using a "connect the dots" technique on what we often term "the real world."

So here are some dots.

I've started to get the copies of Business Week that I was forced to spend airline miles on. The first issue is the May 11, 2009 issue. Putting Locus together with Business Week (and later with a NEWSWEEK article on Star Trek we'll get to later) started my mind percolating.

So let's think about choosing your background for your story in such a way that it excites readers, gets their minds percolating in a pleasurable way. That's what SF does -- makes you think, shows you how to think but not what to think.

You want to create a background that makes your reader anticipate a good read, an experience "just like" the latest book they loved, but different, unique and especially yours. You want your readers to memorize your byline and search the world for MORE of your stuff.

To do that, you have to pull thousands of little details together, details lurking in the background, or just off the edge of your potential reader's peripheral vision.

How do you do that? You read eclectically, often in a way that appears to your family, randomly! You collect a mental store of trivia others have never heard of.

If wide reading on many subjects repells you, you probably aren't going to be a fiction writer (maybe non-fiction in one field?) If trivia doesn't grip you, then you probably should look for another line of work. But assuming you think you have a few novels in you, think about two nearly mutually exclusive sources such as Business Week and Locus in one breath, then think BACKGROUND, and even "backstory."

Or if you're into film writing, think SET PIECE. And SETTING.

How does a writer cradle a ho-hum-yawn-not-again plotted Romance in a background that makes that old story new again?

You must do that because there really aren't that many stories, or or plots, or that many Romances either.

What hooks readers is how these particular, very individualistic characters adjust themselves to the harsh world they must live in, and still manage to nurture deep, rich and intimate Relationships.

Writers seem to be born with characters yelling in their heads, "TELL MY STORY NEXT!" I've seen 4 year olds do it with blunt crayons! Characters are often innate traits of writers. (there are exceptions; Hal Clement was one such. The hero of his novels was always the World and the Science. The characters just investigated and learned how the science works.)

But backgrounds, now there is where writers can get wildly creative if they have a big enough store of trivia.

Note how the 4 year old with blunt crayons always chooses a background they know.

As an adult, you need to tell your story against a background you know, too, but it does not (and perhaps even should not) have to be some place you have been, or are familiar with, such as the Trek Universe worked over so well by fan writers (like me and my Kraith Universe ( http://www.simegen.com/fandom/startrek/kraith/ )).

Or it can be someplace you just make up or imagine as the creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, imagined his Galaxy.

Or that place you imagine can be right here on earth, a place a lot of people (even your potential readers) have been or seen on TV ( 90210 for example).

In my August 2009 review column (which will likely be posted to the web for free reading in September 2009) I reviewed an international intrigue thriller that's likely to be a movie soon titled THE INCREMENT.

http://www.simegen.com/reviews/rereadablebooks/2009/ (scroll down to August and you'll see the book cover -- that's where the review links will be).


Or see my review here:

The author of THE INCREMENT, David Ignatius, says in his comments that though the book is partly set in Iran, and though he's actually been there, THIS IRAN is totally imaginary. He didn't say it was an alternate-reality fantasy world, likely because the marketing department would scream "LIMITING THE AUDIENCE" -- but that's actually what this book is and does.

Yet the new Star Trek movie is billed as "alternate universe" to the one we originally saw on TV and its successors, just as Kraith is an "alternate universe" to ST:TOS.

So that means THE INCREMENT is an URBAN FANTASY marketed as a contemporary international intrigue thriller and it even has some intricate relationships, though I wouldn't call it a Romance. A little re-writing and it could easily have been a Romance!

But it's being marketed at the top of the marketing pyramid with lots of publicity money behind it -- likely because it's not being marketed as what it really is, an Urban Fantasy!

OK, so how would a Paranormal Romance Writer follow in David Ignatius's illustrious footsteps? Of course if I really knew for sure, I'd have done that by now! But let's think about how it might be done.


1. Note via Locus that "Urban Fantasy" has begun to surface in a big way. I've been talking about BUFFY and other TV shows like REAPER and SUPERNATURAL (see my blog post here http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2009/04/puzzle-of-romance.html ) and the DRESDEN FILES (which I reviewed another novel from in the forthcoming October Issue -- you can see all my 2009 picks at http://www.simegen.com/reviews/rereadablebooks/2009/ ) and Locus is surveying a whole lot more. It's a trend.

2. NOTE via Business Week that the general media is now admitting but dancing around something SF writers have talked about since at least the 1950's -- probably much earlier but I haven't time to research it. I'll tell you about it below.

THEN REMEMBER my column here last week

where I talked about an emerging trend of using Tech to solve problems created by Tech.

Now, #2 above -- the BUSINESS WEEK headline on the cover, lower left corner, said THE U.S. HAS 3 MILLION JOB OPENINGS; "Why that may NOT be good news for the economy."



"...with 13 million people unemployed, there are approximately 3 million jobs that employers are actively recruiting for but so far have been unable to fill. ... People thrown out of shrinking sectors such as construction, finance, and retail lack the skills and training for openings in growing fields including education, accounting, health care, and government."
"The U. S. economy has changed dramatically over the past couple of years-- faster, it seems than the workforce can adapt. The evidence is clear in an underappreciated report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics known as JOLTS, for Job Openings & Labor Turnover Survey, which has been issued monthly since December 2000."


Now doesn't that depict a "harsh" world for characters to find meaningful relationships in?

All right, so let's hunt up some more dots to connect into this picture.

I often hear Bernanke's testimony before congress as I'm cooking because I have a TV I can see from the kitchen. I've heard him and Greenspan talking about retraining people for the new jobs of the 21st century -- and that all America has to do is pour money into community colleges to retrain our workforce.

I think it's a good thing that Obama's "stimulus" allocates money for community college retraining of adults project. Obama made a speech on retraining the workforce on Friday May 8, 2009. That WILL work for a lot of people and save families and lives and children's futures, not to mention the whole USA economy. It's a good thing, and something we need to do at any cost.


And it's a great big but.

Read the article titled HELP WANTED in the May 11, 2009 issue of Business Week http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/09_19/b4130040117561.htm

Now think real hard. What is actually going on in this turbulent and bewildering shift in employment. Remember how I talked about the wireless connection for digital picture frames last week

Another trend, solving tech problems by ladling on more tech. But the picture frames solve the problem of the anti-tech grandma you want to show your children to.

The "smart" gadget, smart machine trend tells you something. Replacing computers, you have a smart-phone with a camera and web access. They put chips in cars now -- you almost hardly have to drive them anymore! Corner too fast, it levels out. Get too close to a bumper, the chip stops the car (OK, I can't afford such a high end car, but my first response is I don't want that! I want to be in control of my vehicle! So maybe I'm becoming anti-tech.)

But it's a trend. Smart machines, not monstrous computers you have to be a genius to keep running!

What is going on here?

Our society has hit some kind of limit that Congress and the Fed and others "in charge" either don't recognize or can't admit exists for political reasons.

Dig back into your pile of trivia stored in your mind. Do you remember why 100 is the AVERAGE IQ?

OK, IQ tests are rigged to reward people of a certain cultural background, but all that aside, the IQ test is supposed to measure not what you know but how fast you can learn. They've been tweaking the test to eliminate racial bias and so on; it's probably still not very good, but it's good for statistics.

Always remember statistics can tell you very accurately how large populations behave, but DO NOT WORK IN REVERSE. They can't tell you a thing about any given individual in that population! The math isn't designed to work in reverse!

But IQ tests when aggregated can tell you about the characteristics of millions of people, and predict the behavior of that population with high accuracy.

100 is the average because about half the people in the world score below 100 while half score above.

Scroll back and read what I said above about WRITERS. We're eclectic readers and collectors of vast piles of trivia. Why? Not because we're a whole lot smarter (IQ wise) than others, but because we get a pleasure hit out of "dabbling" in anything and everything. We're attracted to what we don't know.

It's more an attitude or character trait than a measure of learning ability, but as a group we tend to maximize whatever natural learning ability we might have. We perform at possibly over 90% of our personal potential for learning, while MOST people are lucky to use half what they were born with.

Marion Zimmer Bradley often said anyone who can write a literate sentence can learn to write fiction. So I'm not saying writers, per se, are extra-high intelligence (thought some, like Isaac Asimov, are/were). But writers are good at finding patterns in trivia! (I can't now recall if I talked about pattern recognition in this aliendjinnromance blog or in my review column, but some of you will remember that discussion.)

So here's a pattern from the dots.

Long ago, SF writers started depicting a future civilization when half or more of the people lived on the public dole (welfare).


In some novels it was because it really didn't take so many people to run the world, produce food, clothing, shelter, entertainment and luxuries for everyone. Machines (maybe robots) did most of the work, and the rest of us loafed. ( PBS NIGHTLY BUSINESS REPORT has done a week's worth of segments on household robots being developed in Japan that do laundry, dishes, & cleaning! By 2020 they'll be on the market.)

In other novels, the world was depicted pretty close to what I'm seeing in this Business Week article -- and possibly also in the Locus issue.

Business Week is saying essentially that though we have massive excess "workers" employers simply CAN'T fill jobs.

Greenspan and Bernanke (and now Obama) are always talking about solving that problem by simply retraining the work force. But employers have found that's getting to be less and less possible.

According to Business Week, retraining older workers has worked pretty well in Germany where the government provides a part of a new worker's salary for the first year so the employer can "retrain" them to what they need. But employers in Germany are quoted as pointing out that they need that government assistance because "you never know what'll happen" when you hire "someone."

That might be a way of saying without saying the extremely politically incorrect observation I'm making. (controversial or "edgy" premises sell large numbers of books!)

As tech progresses, it takes a higher and higher IQ to be able to learn the jobs needed to produce the dumbed-down tech like wireless picture frames.

The jobs that are being produced that really pay well are jobs that require an IQ above 100 to learn even if not to do on a day to day basis. Maybe in 10 years, that'll be 110 to learn and 105 to do daily.

Our workforce lacks the intelligence to be able to do the jobs we need done.

That's not a property of our culture or civilization or society. It's a property of the human brain -- but as I've pointed out in a previous blog post here, the human brain is mutable. As long as you keep requiring it to adapt, it will keep adapting. In older people, that adaptability wanes, but pushed hard you can get some adaptation. But not enough to make an IQ 98 person at age 12 into an IQ 105 person at age 55.

The jobs we need done require higher IQ than average to learn, and by definition you can't have more than half the people above average! (In SF though, you might be able to raise that average, which was done so many times in SF novels in the 1950's it became an unpublishable cliche.)

SF has been predicting, graphically, for decades, that our jobs outstrip out IQ, and our civilization could crash because of it.

But note, Grandma who needs a wireless digital picture frame isn't dumb, stupid, or low-I.Q.

She may have been a Bank VP or a factory manager, or even a science reporter (though these days that's not likely as women of that generation were barred from such professional success). But she may have been VERY smart. Only now she just can't learn to maintain a PC and plug a picture frame into its USB port and download her own photos.

Grandma may flinch visibly when someone says USB PORT. Thirty years ago she'd have had no trouble learning it.

There's your big problem. As you age, your original IQ trends downward. The older you are, the harder it becomes to learn, especially if you haven't been learning steadily in between. Routine jobs erode the ability to learn new things.

These wireless frames are hot sellers because they're EASY and both the younger people who are busy and older people who prefer to avoid learning -- and those who really can't learn -- love the whole concept. Hence they are best sellers, must have household tech.

Tech is making the world easier to live in but harder to create.

And so the threshold IQ level for being able to hold a job that's worth a living wage is going up and up. Soon, anyone with an IQ below 115 won't be worth anything in the labor market. Robots will do yard work, repave roads, build skyscrapers, all run from nice cool offices by Suits wearing diamond watches -- or diamond studded Bluetooth ear piece.

Now look at Urban Fantasy. Contrast that with old fashioned SF.

Actually, my September to December review columns are basically about just this subject -- SF and Urban Fantasy.

The way you tell if a story is Science Fiction or not is: "If you can leave out the Science and still have a story, it's not SF to begin with."

SF is waning in sales volumes of titles, really falling off the charts while Fantasy is booming.

What's the difference? They both tell the same STORY. Like I said above, same old ho-hum romance, different setting, goshwow story!

The difference between urban fantasy and sf is the science.

Today's science is much HARDER (required IQ to decipher concepts) than the science of the 1930's and 1940's. It didn't take as high an IQ to comprehend a scientific explanation then as it does now.

Science itself has become unpopular. What's "popular"? More than half the population likes it and wants it.

Now our science -- the exciting, cutting edge, speculative, goshwow science -- is comprehensible only to people with an IQ well above 100, which means to less than half the population.

We may have passed that halfway point sometime in the 1990's as the tech bubble inflated -- some day someone will make a graph and we'll see an inflection point.

Urban Fantasy heroes have to be brave, perhaps have integrity or grit or a streak of pure evil -- but they don't have to be smart. Even the geeks who run computer searches don't have to be smart. Hacking is not a trade for the high I.Q. people either -- you buy or steal your "hacking tools" which are programs someone with a high IQ makes and sells to hackers.

Urban Fantasy is about the potential achievements of ORDINARY PEOPLE -- people with an IQ of about 100 -- the average reader, maybe 105. These stories show how average-joe can achieve GREAT THINGS, (power, popularity, save the world, defend mankind from evil -- easy things to understand).

Science Fiction -- to have any modern science in it at all -- has to be about really REALLY smart people. The kind of people the average reader can't identify with. It's no fun to be out-classed, or to be shown a destiny you want but can't have because you're not smart enough even to understand the dumbed-down exposition in an SF novel.

In the old days, SF didn't have to be about such geniuses.

Here's another dot for our pattern. NEWSWEEK May 4, 2009, published a Star Trek article titled WE'RE ALL TREKKIES NOW. I commented on it online, and posted a link to my comment and got a whole bunch of new twitter followers! Here's the NEWSWEEK LINKS:

http://www.newsweek.com/id/195082 -- We're All Trekkies Now

My comment is labeled as posted
Posted By: JacquelineLichtenberg @ 05/08/2009 2:08:06 PM

http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/popvox/archive/2009/05/07/round-up-of-newsweek-s-trek-coverage.aspx -- list of Star Trek coverage in NEWSWEEK, lots of stories.

The thesis of this Newsweek article (ignore the politics; that's just NEWSWEEK) is one that I totally agree with, and that's an important dot to this pattern. STAR TREK depicted humanity as capable of taking on the universe and prevailing. STAR TREK showed humanity as having outgrown war and embracing new contact with the unknown -- going where no one has gone before.

In the decades since ST:TOS, SF has been eclipsed by fantasy universes (on TV, in film, and in books) where humanity is depicted as threatened (in serious danger of being destroyed) by the Unknown -- and possibly unknowable. What I've called in this blog a picture of reality as a thin film over a seething cauldron of evil.

The self-perception (at least in America) has become one of being overwhelmed by a universe inimical to our existence.

So the problem employers are having filling jobs today reflects the general public's taste in entertainment. People are overwhelmed. By tech. By war. By government conspiracy or at least secrecy and incompetence. And now by the housing bubble bursting. Overwhelmed by evil is the same as overwhelmed by something that can kill you, destroy what you've accomplished in life (take away your pension).

Now do you see the technique? Deconstruct or reverse-engineer our everyday world into dots, then reconnect the dots into a DIFFERENT pattern. That will, if you use the genre structures we've discussed, give you that effect Hollywood is always looking for (and Manhattan lusts after), "The Same But Different."

To summarize, here are the dots for today's exercise:

1) URBAN FANTASY in Locus and Alternate Universe such as THE INCREMENT and STAR TREK

2) BUSINESS WEEK - 3 million jobs open with 13 million unemployed and Obama's solution is to "retrain" the workforce. (your characters are in retraining or teaching re-trainees).

3) NEWSWEEK - We're All Trekkies Now. Geeks have inherited the Earth and the White House. The Star Trek spirit of seeing an upbeat future awakens again -- or does it?

4) The popular theme of being overwhelmed (or almost overwhelmed) or needing protection from Evil that seethes beneath the surface of everyday life. Will that theme give way to Star Trek's HOPE theme, and if it does, what turbulence will disrupt romance?

5) Not mentioned here, but there's a trend of 30 and 40+ year old women FINALLY beginning to have children that might be relevant to building your SF Romance world.

So now re-connect the dots and do a little original worldbuilding.

Take your readers' awareness of the general IQ frustration (just think of the last time your computer made you feel helpless and you've got the emotion) as the background you're cradling your romance (or whatever genre; this process works for all genres) in, and tell a whopping good story about how IQ itself is a major stumbling block in intimacy in relationships.

You may generate more obstacles for your plot by creating characters to represent the various sides of the philosophical argument on the true nature of Humanity, and therein will lie your THEME.

Are humans like lemmings, carrying the seeds of their destruction within them (i.e. creating tech so "high" that we can't produce workers to maintain it but we become dependent on it for lack of basic grunt-work skills (spinning, weaving, farming, shepherding, metal working)? Or are humans infinitely adaptable, with brains that will re-circuit so that each generation's IQ 100 is actually HIGHER THAN the IQ 100 mark of the previous generation?

Is that what's happening already? It used to be parents had to get their kids to program the VCR. Now kids live online and text with their thumbs in coded words. Grown kids have to send pictures of their kids to their parents via dumbed-down-wireless-pictureframes. The parents won't twitter and the keener parents will just barely facebook but not myspace.

Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing are beyond today's 60 year olds.

The Web is the territory of the young (OK. I'm a misfit. So what else is new?)

How does the May/September Romance work out in a world with a generation gap like this? Will the Star Trek movie change anything?

You may, if you wish, post exercises on editingcircle.blogspot.com as comments for and get some input on how you do the exercise.

And remember, you don't have to AGREE with my analysis here - in fact it's better if you don't - in order to reconnect these dots into a new pattern and profit from the exercise. These dots could be a springboard into a hot Romance full of impossible things before breakfast.

Do you, as a writer, follow the trend -- or do you forge it?

And also remember, our objective in my last few posts here is to work the puzzle of how to get an SF Romance onto TV or into the movies to do for the genre what we have done (according to NEWSWEEK, anyway) for SF.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. So what did you think of the new Star Trek movie, Jacqueline?

  2. I loved the Star Trek movie, and I think it's a great success. I have to see it again to do a dissection though.

    Most of what I'd like to say about it would be considered "spoiler" by a lot of people, and though I don't think that matters, others do.

    So I'll give everyone time to see it before I slice and dice.

    Meanwhile, if I can get a few minutes to do it, I have a great post on CHOOSING SETTING that I want to write.

    Let's see if I can get that done by Tuesday the 19th of May.