Mary Kole on Urban Fantasy

Mary Kole, an agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, has given us some great insights into the popular genre of urban fantasy. Mary  has also worked in the children’s editorial department at Chronicle Books and is currently earning her MFA in creative writing at the University of San Francisco. Her own blog,, offers book reviews as well as advice for writers (and she’s running a writing contest through Jan 31st!). Here’s what she had to say about urban fantasy:

On what characterizes urban fantasy other than an inner-city setting…

The “urban” in the name isn’t just a setting clue, it’s a state of mind. I think the name evokes the dark and gritty nature of the genre, as well as a modern or near-future time setting. The biggest factors in urban fantasy, for me, are a paranormal bent and a romance in the plotline.

On how “voice” affects urban fantasy’s dark, gritty style…

Believe it or not, some of the most successful urban fantasy stories are also some of the funniest, and that has everything to do with voice. Without humor, personality and wit, “dark” and “gritty” will soon become “bleak” and “grating.” Snarky, funny, quirky… all kinds of voice can give the darker and edgier moments in an urban fantasy story the humor and balance necessary to keep a reader from getting too far off-kilter.

On the reason for the rising popularity of urban fantasy…

I honestly think that urban fantasy, with its host of paranormal bad guys, gives characters the opportunity to kick butt. Also, paranormal guys are usually hotties. And who doesn’t want to go around kicking butt with a hottie on their arm? (Or on each arm?) Good urban fantasy is empowering, adventurous and racy.

On whether the market has become glutted…

Agents are seeing a lot of urban fantasy submissions, as are editors. The only bummer is that the Twilight craze hasn’t helped our slush piles, and writers are getting stuck on the same paranormal plotlines. But I know a lot of editors and agents will make an exception for urban fantasy that is truly unique, that doesn’t follow the same rules. This usually comes from voice or a very unique twist on the usual paranormal story, executed very well. We all know you’re gonna meet a paranormal hottie, who is mysteriously new in town, by page 10, but it’s your voice and what you do with that hottie that can really set you apart.

On foreign rights and flim rights sales…

Generally, [foreign rights sales] are very good. Paranormal is doing well overseas, according to our jetsetting foreign co-agents, as is romance. A combination of the two is finding eager audiences in country after country. Film is hard to say. A lot of books have been optioned but the movies don’t actually get made, which is where the real money is. So I assume the rights are selling, especially with the success of the Twilight movie franchise, but we’re not seeing a lot of those movies actually coming out yet. That could all very well change in the next few years.

On whether romance is required for YA urban fantasy…

Romance is definitely the way people are taking urban fantasy stories. I don’t know if it’s necessary or not. If you don’t want to do romance, do something that has similar qualities… make the heart of your story a tumultuous relationship that’ll provide a lot of conflict. I don’t know if a really intense friendship or sibling relationship will be enough of a hook but it’s worth a try and could actually differentiate you from the pack.

On how middle-grade differs…

I think middle-grade is skewing heavily toward magical realism or traditional fantasy right now. I really think urban fantasy, because of the grittier and sexier nature of it, is finding an older audience. That’s not to say that you can’t have a good paranormal story set in an urban setting for a younger audience, but I don’t think the same label would apply.

Parker Peevyhouse

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18 responses to “Mary Kole on Urban Fantasy

  1. Loved this post! Especially since my new book (after Sea) is paranormal romance.

  2. Awesome post, Mary and Parker!
    I am looking forward to new and different twists on urban fantasy.

  3. This is a great post, and extremely timely for me, since the book I’m writing is an urban fantasy with a smidge of romance thrown in. No vampires, though. Hah!

  4. Never! And the last two vampire books I read? Salem’s Lot and Dracula. :-)

  5. Natalie Aguirre

    Thanks for the great interview Mary & Parker. I found your definition of urban YA helpful in distinguishing it from magical realism. I feel clearer of the distinction than I had in the past. Thanks.

  6. Thanks for this post, and also for your comment about MG fantasy. It’s clear what is what when you think about Twilight versus something like the Nine Pound Hammer, but it’s harder when you get into works that are on the border.

  7. Erin Edwards

    This is great – the best label I had seen for what I was writing was urban fantasy, but somehow it never sounded right to me. Now I know, it’s magical realism.

  8. @ Jay Eckhart,

    “I” am what you should be writing about if you want to get published..
    You need to wise up and get with the program, son.

  9. I’ve just discovered this genre and I’m wondering if this is what I’m writing. Three blokes (they’re in England) discover a plot to turn a Northern decaying holiday resort into a seedy, tacky and depraved town buy building casinos. They have to save the universe by Sunday night because they need to be back at work on Monday morning. There is no romance to speak off, although one character has to steal a chastity worn by a gangster’s moll.

    What there is, is a lot of occult: tarot, ouija boards, candle lit rituals in hooded robes, divinations and the like. Most of this doesn’t result in obviously supernatural outcomes but absurd and unexpected coincidences that move them slowly toward (or away from) their objective. The whole weekend is against the backdrop of rapidly rising crime and decaying society.

    Do you think that counts as urban fantasy?

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      Sounds a bit rowdy for urban fantasy–too funny/absurd. I would just label it fantasy, or maybe paranormal. Not really sure! I suppose you could just call it fiction and then explain that there are some occult elements involved.

      • Thanks, that’s good feedback. I seem to be cursed by originality. I’ve been likened to an occult version of Douglas Adams and I’m currently asking readers of my blog to give me some clues as to which comparisons I should use. The most popular suggestion so far is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets Harry Potter for grown ups with a bit of Illuminatus trilogy thrown in. Trouble is if you can’t give it a category the industry won’t touch it with a barge pole.

      • Parker Peevyhouse

        I think if you give it a very broad category, agents and editors will narrow it down from there if they think that’s necessary. There’s nothing wrong with creating a “brand” for your readership, though.

  10. Great post. I’ve sometimes felt that Urban Fantasy is kind of a tough genre to pin down. I thought this was very helpful/articulate. Much appreciated.

  11. Mary,
    Have you changed your agency?

  12. Thor

    Nice post, but I think this is from before Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance became concrete subgenres. I think part of this only applies to PNR, but nice post anyway :)

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