My YA contemporary novel, IF I LIE, debuted on August 28. Now, in just fourteen days, TOUCHED, the first novel in a YA paranormal romance trilogy, will be releasing on November 27. The question that I get asked most frequently during interviews and on panels has to do with which genre I prefer writing in most – paranormal or contemporary. Here is my very long, drawn out answer.
Paranormal romance novels have a certain kind of structure to them. Readers have an expectation going into them. There’s a hero, a heroine, (sometimes a love triangle), and lots of romance with an expectation of a happy-ever-after at some point in the novel or series. Readers also expect some otherworldly element to the story, whether it includes magical, fantastical, or other phenomena that is beyond our every day understanding or scientific explanation. Did I understand all of these rules when I set out to write TOUCHED? Not in an “I studied them” kind of way, but more in an “I’ve been reading paranormal romance since I was thirteen” kind of way.
Having those rules as a jumping point both frees me up and binds me. First, it’s exciting to try to come up with an original take on an otherworldly element. In a way, it can be terrifying to have to plot out a whole novel. The “rules” (reader expectations?) for a paranormal romance offer you a narrative spine to your story. I can come up with a crazy world with magical powers, but the story is still going to have some aspect of boy meets girl and they fall in love despite hella obstacles. There is comfort in that as a writer and a reader. I can have a crappy day, sit on my couch with a paranormal romance, and know that I’m going to see two people fall in love.
Which brings me back to my comment that those rules can also be binding. As a writer, I want to come up with a wholly original story, but if I stray too far from the structure (say I have an unhappy ending), readers may be ticked off. On the other hand, you also have readers who read a lot of paranormal romance and tire of the familiarity that they note between stories. How often have you heard paranormal romances compared to Twilight? If you asked a gathering of YA authors (of all genres mind you) if they’ve seen their work compared to Twilight, almost all of us would raise our hand – mainly because that novel was the entrée into paranormal romance for a lot of readers. (Please watch this video.) For me, my entrée into paranormal romance came with novels by Maggie Shayne, Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz, and (oh, man, I still love A Knight in Shining Armor) Jude Deveraux. Whatever your entry point into the genre, there are similarities between these types of books, mainly having to do with the romantic aspects of the story. What can I say? I understand the complaints, but I don’t have an issue with them. When I open up a paranormal romance, I want the romantic leads to get together. I want them to flirt, have setbacks, and eventually lavish love on each other. I’ll even go so far as to say I EXPECT it and am disappointed if an author veers from this. (As a side note, to some degree, I believe paranormal novels follow Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” which is a post unto itself.)
The other aspect of paranormal romance that I’ve discovered is that it is often plot-driven. Yes, you want vivid characters and settings. But at the end of the day, the “paranormal” aspects of the story and that romantic structure create a forward movement to the story that doesn’t happen in the same way with contemporary novels. The pacing is faster in paranormal novels. There is more action and movement. More getting from point A to point B. To be honest, I love this kind of writing. I get a kick out of writing action scenes. I like imagining bodies in a space and trying to relay what’s in my head onto the page. The pacing means that the writing flows faster. My paranormal romance novels are in the 96,000-101,000 word count range, but they take about 3 – 3 ½ months to write. My contemporary novel falls into the 65,000 word count zone, but it took all of six months of serious sweating to write. Why the difference?
Contemporary novels have no structure to follow. There is no backbone, except for basic storytelling principles and even those can be fudged. And, in my case, my contemporary has more literary language. I spent more time crafting the sentences, sometimes applying poetic techniques like repetition or anaphora, and listened to the way the language sounded so that I could create a rhythm to the piece. The focus of my contemporary work has been on characters, rather than plot. There is less action, and more time spent in the character’s head. I think this type of storytelling has a way of putting the spotlight on the language. A paranormal romance sweeps you into the action and romance. A contemporary, or more specifically, a literary contemporary, is often quieter, tripping along at a slower pace. You sink into the characters. The change becomes more internal change – something other characters may not even see – as opposed to external change (ie. new powers, abilities, becoming a vampire, etc.) That’s not to say that a paranormal novel can’t have some aspects of a literary contemp or vice versa, and no way are these universal rules. But they are things that live in the back of my head when I write.
For me, writing a contemp can feel like ripping my guts out and hanging them out in the wind. The writing can be like pulling teeth, and it can frustrate me with how slowly it unwinds out of me. But then I write a line that feels so perfect I want to celebrate, and the angst fades away. More of me slips into those quiet moments in the book, and it can be both painful and beautiful. Plotting the story takes longer, too. Without that narrative spine that paranormal romance offers, I feel unsteady, trying to weave together moments to make sense. Perhaps I even craft with more care.
Then I turn to a paranormal romance work, and I type away with satisfying speed. The action plays like a movie in my head, and I’m transcribing it to the page. Right up until I hit a disastrous world building speed bump that I didn’t know I’d placed in the road. I spend hours charting how the rules of my world work and confuse the hell out of myself. But then I get to write that kickass action scene followed by that delicious love scene that I’ve been waiting for as much as my readers might. Those days feel really great.
So which do I prefer? Ask me any day and my answer will change. I’m just lucky that I get to write in both spaces.