Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Defining Urban Fantasy

Now the book is really done and proof-read and ready to go to my agent. This time I think it's in great shape and should require only minor tweaking, but I also thought that the last two times, and it's improved at least 100 percent since then. I read the whole thing out loud yesterday, start to finish, and it's amazing the things I noticed. that's a great way to trim little bits because I'd catch myself reading it one way when it was written another way, and the reading way sounded better, so I could cut a few words here and there. Overall, I cut more than a thousand words on that pass.

Now I just need to e-mail it away, then take care of a few business things, and then I'm taking the day off. It's a perfect reading day since it's pouring rain (and, fortunately, the cold front got to us before the storm front did, so it's just rain and not hail and tornadoes). The rain means I don't have that power saw right outside my windows. That thing sounds like someone recorded metal fingernails on a chalkboard, sped it up to make it even more high-pitched, then ran it through an amplifier. It's a sound guaranteed to make you tense every muscle in your body, and it was nearly miraculous how quickly the last remnants of headache went away when they stopped with the saw yesterday.

In other news, Don't Hex With Texas seems to be staying pretty consistently on the Amazon top 100 urban fantasies list, and at times all four books are on the list. At times, the books are ranked about as high as they ever have been, except maybe for during release weeks when they tend to spike. That makes me think the new classification has something to do with it, or else somehow the new book being on the list made them all more visible, so people started discovering the series that way.

When I see these books on that list, I halfway expect Sesame Street characters to pop up and sing "One of these things is not like the other." Most of the books classified as "urban fantasy" look very dark. Black is a prominent color on the covers, sometimes layered with dark blue or blood red. The figures on the covers are either partially naked or wearing something leather-like, and they've either got their backs to the viewer or they're crouching in a position that looks both uncomfortable and impractical. The words "blood" and "death/dead" come up a lot. And then there are the white covers with cartoon frogs on them.

I guess what I thought of as "urban fantasy" isn't quite what the publishing world thinks. It seems to be the new name for what used to be called "soft horror" or "dark fantasy," and the difference between that and plain-old horror was that in horror, the monsters/vampires/werewolves were the bad guys the heroes were fighting, while in "dark fantasy" and now "urban fantasy," they're more likely to be the heroes (and sometimes the villains, too). When I first heard the term used, when I'd had the idea for the book that became Enchanted, Inc. but while I was still toying with it in my head, and almost more looking for something like that to read rather than thinking of it as something I should write, it was very different. I was thinking more in terms of a classic fantasy novel in a modern setting, with magic alongside computers and cars, and the kinds of characters you might find in a fantasy novel as they might have adapted to modern life. I also was looking for that juxtaposition between the "real" world and the "magical" world, and addressing the ways the magical world might fit in with or oppose the non-magical world.

At the time, I'd read the first three Harry Potter books, where I think that culture clash played more of a role than it did in later books. Harry was still seeing the magical world through Muggle eyes, as he was still mentally straddling the two worlds, and we seemed to see a lot more about how the magical world intersected with the non-magical world. Then there was the use of relatively modern institutions, like a school, in a magical sense. I wanted something kind of like that, but in the adult world, and there wasn't much.

Some things that I found that I considered "urban" (meaning taking place in the city rather than in the more traditional mountain/forest fantasy setting) or maybe "contemporary" fantasy included Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, Emma Bull's The War for the Oaks and most of Charles de Lint's books. I discovered them later, but Rachel Caine's Weather Warden series and Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series also fit.

Maybe we need a separate term to distinguish fantasy in a modern setting from the more horror or paranormal romance-oriented "urban fantasy." I guess the "urban" implies gritty, which then implies dark, and while my books are urban in the sense that they take place in a city (well, up to book 4), they certainly aren't gritty urban, and it seems it's in part the lack of darkness and grittiness that keeps the publisher from considering them to be urban fantasy. And yet readers seem to see them as fantasy rather than as chick lit, which is how the publisher sees them. It's a muddle.

So, how do you as readers define "urban fantasy?"

1 comment:

Carradee said...

I've always thought of it as fantasy elements tossed into a modern city, but I see that Amazon has a "contemporary fantasy" category, too.

=/ Hm…