I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Authors' Mistakes #3 - Lost in Space

Lost in Space is a Science Fiction film made in 1998. The script was written by Akiva Goldsman, who a few years later received an Academy Award for his adaptation to the big screen of A Beautiful Mind.

Akiva wrote scripts of many successful films like The Client, I Robot, The Da Vinci Code, I Am Legend, and Angels & Demons, but in Lost in Space, which he also produced, he made a very bad mistake.

*** Warning: spoiler! ***
At the end of the film, Prof. John Robinson (William Hurt) saves their spaceship by ordering the pilot (Major Don West, played by Matt LeBlanc) to fly through a crumbling planet.

The problem with that solution is that the ship will gain speed flying towards the planet’s centre, but it will lose it all again to emerge on the other side. If the ship was not able to reach escape velocity before passing through the planet’s centre, it will still be unable to reach it going through the planet’s core.

Perhaps, the writer thought of the so-called “slingshot” effect, used by deep-space probes to exploit the gravitational pull of one planet to gain speed. But that only works because the probe is well off-centre, not plunging towards the middle of the planet, like in the film. If the probe approaches the planet from “behind” (with respect of the direction of orbital movement of the planet), the planet pulls the probe along. The probe had from the very start enough speed not to remain trapped in the gravitational well of the planet, but this “pulling”, beside changing the direction of its motion, gives it some additional speed.

There are two other mistakes in the same scene.

The first mistake was that to cross the planet our adventurers would have needed longer than half an hour, while in the film everything happened within a few minutes.

As the planet had a gravity comparable to Earth, we can assume that it had similar mass and volume, at least as a first approximation. Now, the potential energy of the ship on the surface of the planet is Given by GMms/r (forget the signs), where G is the gravitational constant, M is the mass of the planet, ms is the mass of the spaceship, and r is the radius of the planet (~6000 km, like Earth). The acceleration due to gravity on the surface of the planet is GM/r2. As we know that on the surface of Earth the gravitational acceleration is about 10 m/s2, we can calculate without much fuss that GM/r = 10 m/s2 * r = 60 km2/s2, without having to look up the values of G and M. This means that the potential energy of the ship on the surface of the planet is U = 60 km2/s2 * ms. Now, when the ship passes through the core, it will have converted all its potential energy to kinetic energy. As the kinetic energy is given by ½ ms * v2, where v is the ship’s speed, you can easily calculate that the ship, if it was at rest at the beginning, will have flown through the centre of the planet with a speed given by: v = sqrt(2 * 60) km/s = ~11 km/s (which, incidentally, is the escape velocity, which on Earth is 11.2 km/s, as I could have stated at once). To cross the whole planet, the ship would have needed 12000 km / (5.5 km/s) = 2182 s = ~ 36 minutes.

But there is still another mistake.

After emerging from the planet, West says: “The planet’s gravity field is collapsing,” which is total nonsense, as gravitational forces don’t collapse. Even in a supernova it is the matter forming the star that implodes, not its gravitational field.

Maureen, John’s wife, then observes: “We’ll be sucked in.” This is also moronic for two reasons: firstly, the planet had been “sucking them in” all the time; secondly, the gravity pull of a planet remains the same, whether it is in one piece or in a million pieces.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Category Romance Novels

Category (or Series) Romance novels are those small and inexpensive paperbacks with sweet and happy couples portrayed on the front cover. You find them in stores like K-Mart and Target but seldom in bookshops.

Famous historical novels like “Gone with the Wind” are not Category Romance novels. The love story between Rhett and Scarlett is central to “Gone with the Wind”, but is not its only theme. Category novels are much more narrowly focussed on the relationship between their protagonists.

Romance novels are about love relationships. The tradition started by Jane Austen with her romantic novels set in the Regency Era (1811-1820) endures, but the modern romance novels have developed far beyond the intrigues and the rich dresses of British aristocracy of the early 1800s. To convince yourself how true such a statement is, you only need to look at the web site of Mills & Boon/Harlequin, the best known publishers of Category Romance. Harlequin is a Canadian publisher that acquired M&B (a UK publisher) some decades ago.

Before I talk about Romance Writing, let me give you some figures, which I got from Wikipedia. In 2008, M&B sold 200 million novels per year, and is currently publishing about 100 books and 100 e-books per month. Harlequin is currently releasing 120 new titles each month in 29 different languages in 107 international markets. In the UK alone, M&B has over 3 million regular readers. If you thought that Romance novels were a niche market, think again!

I will reproduce here how M&B defines the characteristics of some of their series (i.e., imprints), extracted from the Australian submission guidelines. They publish several books in each imprint every month.

Sexy: These stories are all about passion and escape, glamorous international settings, captivating women and the seductive, tempting men who want them. Length: 50,000 words. Spine colour: red.

Sweet Romance: Sweet Romance stories are all about real, relatable women and strong, deeply desirable men experiencing the intensity, anticipation and sheer rush of falling in love. Length: 50,000 words. Spine colour: light blue.

Medical: Intense and uplifting romances set in the medical world. Experience the breath-taking rollercoaster of emotions, ambitions and desires of today's medical professionals. Length: 50,000 words. Spine colour: teal.

Historical: Richly textured, emotionally intense novels set across a wide range of historical periods - ancient civilisations up to and including Second World War. Length: 65,000 words. Spine colour: blue.

Blaze: Blaze is Mills & Boon's sexiest romance series, yet there's more to these books than simply sex. We ask our authors to deliver complex plots and subplots, realistic engaging characters and a consuming love story you won't be able to forget. Blaze stories are fun, flirty and always steamy! Length: 60,000 words. Spine colour: orange.

Blush: Are big romance novels filled with intense relationships, real life drama and the kinds of unexpected events that change women's lives forever! Length: 85,000 words.
Featuring relatable characters who strike a chord with the reader regardless of the book's setting or plot points. Length: 55,000-60,000 words.
Spine colour: purple.

Intrigue: Crime stories tailored to the series romance market packed with a variety of thrilling suspense and whodunit mystery. Length: 55,000-60,000 words. Spine colour: dark blue.

Desire: Contemporary, sensual, conflict-driven romances that feature strong-but-vulnerable alpha heroes and dynamic heroines who want love - and more! Reads that are always powerful, passionate and provocative. Length: 50,000-55,000 words. Spine colour: pink.

Romantic Suspense: These novels are romance-focused stories with a suspense element. Powerful romances are at the heart of each story, and the additional elements of excitement, adventure and suspense play out between complex characters. Length: 70,000-75,000 words. Spine colour: dark purple.

Nocturne: Dark, sexy, atmospheric paranormal romances that feature larger-than-life characters struggling with life-and-death issues. Length: 80,000-85,000 words. Spine colour: black.

As you can see, you can find all sorts of Romance novels. Ultimately, they are all meant to transport a lady reader to a world of fantasy in which Good always prevails over Evil. Harlequin has similar guidelines. But Harlequin also has a series of e-books, “Historical Undone”, with a length of between 10,000 and 15,000 words. This could be a good entry point to test the waters before writing and submitting a full-length novel.

The series that I find more congenial is “Sweet Romance”. This is because the novels are short (50,000 words) and don’t include explicit sex. It’s not that I am so puritanical, but I don’t like to read about “sliding members” and “penetrating male sexes”.

Neither my wife and I have read Category Romance novels before discovering that they have such a huge market, but we are warming up to the idea of writing together Romance stories.

Here is our recipe for writing a successful “Sweet Romance” novel, taken from the writings of Valerie Parv and Emma Darcy, two very successful Romance authors.

If there is a character-centred genre, this is Romance.
  • Romance novels essentially have two characters: the heroine and the hero. All other characters are only there for support and shouldn’t do much.
  • The protagonist must the heroine. She must be beautiful, intelligent, honest, and successful. This doesn’t mean that she must be perfect, but almost. In essence, she must be somebody with whom any woman might like to identify.
  • The hero must appeal to the vast majority of Romance readers. Therefore, he must be handsome, sexy, A-male. But he should also be not much younger and not much older than the heroine and (obviously) honest, courageous, and generous. In essence, every reader should be able to vicariously fall in love with him. Incidentally, surveys have proven that the readers prefer dark-haired heroes.
  • The protagonists never engage in casual sex, never steal, and never use violence. It used to be that the protagonist needed to be a virgin, but this is no longer strictly necessary, although it is not appropriate to dwell on previous sexual relationships of the protagonists.
  • If the hero does something “naughty” like telling a lie or getting drunk, you have to explain in detail why and show that he is in fact a good man and at once feeling guilty for committing such a bad act. You should also make clear that it is a one off and that it will never happen again. Best, don’t make him do anything you then have to waste pages and pages of contrition in order to recover from.
  • No swearwords, ever!
  • No physical features that would make it impossible for the reader to identify with the heroine. That is, the heroine must not be too tall or too short, with a weight problem or anorexic, etc.
  • The plot should be linear. Forget flashbacks and memories. They only distract from what is happening now.
  • At least in the “standard” 50,000-word novel, no subplots. There is not enough space for them and, in any case, they distract from the main plot.
  • The protagonist and the hero should already meet in the first chapter. Possibly, in the very first paragraph.
  • There must be at least one major conflict between the protagonist and the hero, and this must become clear as soon as possible. Ideally when they meet. This conflict (supported perhaps by a couple of additional minor issues) is what keeps the protagonists apart, even if they feel attracted to each other immediately.
  • The main plot is the evolution of the relationship between the protagonist and the hero and the ultimate resolution of the conflict between them. The relationship should go through two or three crises, of increasing seriousness, alternating with peaks of happiness/optimism, to reach a satisfyingly happy ending.
  • The protagonists marry in the last chapter, with a very short resolution, if any. This implies that you must resolve all minor issues and tie up all loose ends before you resolve the main conflict and bring the protagonists fully together. Note that love, at least in Romance novels, is forever.
  • Nowadays, they can have full intercourse before marrying, but it shouldn’t happen too early in the novel. This is because intimacy is something to achieve, and only when it is clear that the protagonists are in love. Make them do it too soon, and you will struggle to hold them apart until they finally unite at the end.
General Points
  • As the readership consists almost exclusively of women, you must not write what a woman is likely to find distasteful, especially if it refers to the protagonist.
  • The point of view must be that of the protagonist. You can briefly switch to the point of view of the hero, but only if strictly necessary to support the plot and only briefly and clearly. In other words, omniscient and multiple viewpoints are out.
  • You have to maintain pace throughout the novel. This is done through dialogues and by surprising or shocking the reader. Suspense and short chapters help. Try to end each chapter with something that might encourage the reader to start the next one. These are short books, and many readers go through one of them every day.
  • Try to set the novel in a stimulating environment. Incidentally, novels set in the Australian Outback seem to be quite successful with American readers.
  • Do not waste many words on the scenery. Ultimately, the readers are interested in the characters, and in particular the heroine, more than on anything else.
  • Narrative should be kept to a minimum. Some readers page through books and buy those that contain more dialogue.
  • Like with any other form of writing, remorselessly cut down anything that doesn’t advance the plot or help developing the characters. With only 50,000 available, you cannot afford long-winded descriptions or speeches.
  • Limit each chapter to about 20 pages, so that the whole book consists of 10 to 12 chapters.
  • Use short sentences in small paragraphs. A lot of ink without breaks is usually discouraging.
  • If you are a man, use a female pen name and invent a persona to go with it, because almost no reader will think that a male author can create a good female fantasy.
To write successful novels, you always have to conform to what the readers want, and the readers of Category Romance have very strict requirements. And this straightjacket is what makes it interesting for me. I like the challenge.