Military SciFi Vs. Fantasy Romance: Not So Different as You'd Think. (No, Really)
How hard is it to write in two genres as widely different as military science fiction and fantasy romance? I’d say it’s both difficult and easy. And no, that’s not a cop-out answer. It’s a complex answer. It’s a question I get asked a lot, going from the bestselling Sons of Destiny series, which is all about the romance in a big fantasy world setting, to the equally bestselling Theirs Not to Reason Why, which is all about the military mindset and the saving of the galaxy in a far distant version of the future.
One of the biggest easy parts comes from the fact that a good story is a good story, whether it involves starships and rising battle tension, or relationships and rising sexual tension. You have a conflict, you have people who are in a situation to do something about it, but they don’t always get it right, things get worse before they get better—trot out all the clichés and tropes you want that come with plots, whether it’s hard-hitting battle scenes or soft-kissing lovemaking scenes. At the heart, we’re still writing stories about human beings, human nature, and the desire to find happiness and a better life for ourselves. Or at least, for our characters.
Some would argue the difficulty arises from the two completely different settings. For me, it’s no different than being on a beach versus being in a forest. I live in the Puget Sound area, where there are plenty of both. I can even go up into the mountains if I want. If you know your genres, if you read in those genres, then you’re going to be familiar with their tropes, their tricks, and the unique tools of that particular trade.
Laser guns almost never show up in romance novels…unless they’re placed in a science fiction setting. The hero fretting over buying a gift for the heroine almost never shows up in a science fiction novel, unless the writer has decided to toss a bit of romance—a perfectly normal part of human nature—into the story. Knowing the tricks of the trade means knowing what belongings in each type of story. Authors can put laser guns into their romances and gift-buying into their sci-fi, but it’ll usually be an addendum to the expected material, not the main focus of the story.
The difficult part comes when you’re going straight from one type into the other…or if you’re writing both types at the same time. This can sometimes happen because of deadline pressures. I’ve had times where I was assigned to work on a full-length romance novel, and the opportunity to write a short piece of science fiction came across my desk.
Other times, deadlines can overlap due to unforeseen circumstances. (I am not my character Ia, from the series Theirs Not to Reason Why. If I were, I’d have won the lottery by now, I’m sure.) Or perhaps the author’s muse, his or her fickle little plot-bunnies, or however you picture it, hop into the brain with a simply brilliant story idea that has to be started right now and there’s nothing to do but open up a fresh file and start typing.
The first step is to know which story you’re going to work on for that day. Draft out what the plot will be, even if it’s just a few sentences, or a couple paragraphs, or a collection of sticky-notes stuck to a sheet of paper. Whatever the method of writing is, affix the bare bones of the plots in place at the very least. The skeleton of a bunny rabbit looks very different from the skeleton for a bird, or the skeleton of a snake. Once you have that in place, you can figure out what the first scene is, or the next scene, or whatever part you’re working on today.
If you’re getting back to it after a good night’s sleep, or coming back from a hiatus, review your work. This could mean studying that skeleton, or the bones of a previous similar novel so you’ll know what the general look and feel of this new one should be, or it could simply mean rereading the last few paragraphs, or scenes, or chapters. Write up character descriptions if you need to, or jot down a little note that they need to get from scene B to scene D, and try to think of what scene C will have to entail.
Mood is another huge factor. I play a lot of music when I’m writing. Some of it is songs, some of it is soundtracks. I have playlists on my computer, and playlists over at YouTube, each with songs and soundtracks grouped into different kinds of feelings. Military science fiction will usually get the action movie soundtracks—think I, Robot or the Bourne movies, or soundtracks from the Babylon 5 television series—or heavy metal type songs. Fantasy romance will get sweeping adventure movie soundtracks—Prince of Persia, The Mummy Returns—and of course love-songs, whether they’re focused on the romance or on the passion.
Sometimes you have to read a book in the same genre to get into the mood, or watch a show or a movie. Sometimes you just read a book with the same mood, even if it’s not in the same genre. Usually romances are light-hearted plots, so I might watch a comedy show. My military science fiction is darker, grittier, so I might read a murder mystery or a horror novel.
I also try to set my mind the night before on what I know I need to work on the next day. So I’ll go to bed thinking, “I need to work on my fantasy romance tomorrow. I need to get my characters from scene G through H, I, J, and hopefully to K.” Even if I don’t know what scenes H and I actually are, I’ll remind myself that I need to come up with those steps. And then I’ll pick something suitable to read or watch as I’m relaxing before bed.
And when I swap genres in the middle of the day for some reason, I always reread what I wrote previously in the new story, at least a few paragraphs’ worth, so that I can remember what “voice” I was writing in: the mood, the language used, whether the scene was something sensual or something grim. If I didn’t do that, and I went from a blood-splattered scene of violence and gore in my military sci-fi and tried to write a tender moment between my fantasy-world hero and heroine…it wouldn’t sound the same. The cadence and word-choices just wouldn’t be right.
Because I’ve read a lot of books in science fiction, fantasy, and romance, watched a lot of shows and movies, and practiced writing in all three genres, I am very familiar with the tools of each. For someone who isn’t as familiar, they may have trouble swapping between each, and feel like it’s more difficult for them. It’s just a matter of treating it like you would a wood-working project: of knowing when to use a large auger and when to use a little drill, or a chisel versus an adze, or sandpaper versus a rasp.
The only cure for that, of course, is practice, practice, and more practice. Sure, you’ll throw away lots of scrap wood while you’re practicing, and break a few projects mid-attempt, requiring clever repairs or, ugh, having to start over, but you will get better if you keep trying. I’ve been trying for decades to get things right, and I still think there’s room for practice and improvement.
Lining up the tools you will need when switching genres, getting your mind centered on the new work ahead of you, those will help as well. Practice, preparation, and focus will make the difficult task of swapping between stories easier. Or at least it does for me.
Is it difficult? It can be. Is it easy? Easier than you’d think. But then, I love what I do, and that always makes a tough-seeming task more worthwhile. I promise you, I’ll keep writing stories, and I’ll keep trying to make them as good as I can, in the hopes that you’ll enjoy them, too.