Tying in with my own post last week and with Rowena’s this week – how complex is complex? When do you know you’ve left your intended audience miles behind?
My older son is starting college this year. The college has what can only be described as a "filler class" called "freshman seminar" destined to teach the kids study habits and to help them make friends. They push it pretty hard and it looked like I’d hold it against him if he didn’t take it, so he’s taking it – the modality on game design. (There are others on things like the Odyssey but he thought if he was going to pay for an extra class he wanted to do something he had some interest in and hadn't studied on his own -- as he did with the Odyssey.)
The class is all group work – the making friends thing – and his group was assigned to write a computer game involving Cthulhu, a light bulb and no shooting. Now, being the most low-brow in this family, I immediately suggested a game in which the player tries to shove a lightbulb up Cthulhu’s cloaca (really, do you know what supernatural encephalopods have? Neither do I.) When the player succeeds, Cthulhu goes "whooooo hoo hooo" and lights up, tentacles and all.
Robert looked at me like I was crazy. I realized he’d taken quite a different path – dragging his poor group mates with him – when I found him translating words into Cthulhu’s language on line and freaking out because he couldn’t find the word for electrician.
Last night he came home and described their game and his annoyance with his group. The game, in its final form... Well, to begin with, the player is Cthulhu. Cthulhu’s realm is being invaded by electricians installing lightbulbs. Cthulhu responds by throwing necronomicons on them. When he hits them it means they read it and become cultists, whom he can then direct to remove the lightbulbs. Robert’s group thought this project was "too ambitious." Robert said "But it wasn’t. It was compiling by the end of class." So I had to translate. "They mean it’s too complicated, Robert." "They mean they have no idea of the fictional underpinnings behind Cthulhu" (in fact only the teaching assistants who assigned it and Robert knew what Cthulhu was) "and that it makes no sense to them." Since the game is voted on by the class, this is a consideration.
I realized then Robert was a victim of the two things Rowena and I discussed. He was making it too complex for the audience, and he was a writer raised in a family of writers.
I confess that my poor, much tried agent’s favorite comment to the stuff of mine she thinks I need to change or shelve is "Too much." And ninety nine percent of the time, she’s right. I have a bad tendency to overthink it, throw in everything but the kitchen sink. You see, I’ve read this stuff since I was eight or so, and to me it seems natural. But unless the reader has the exact same background I have – and the exact same hangups – it won’t be to them.
Does anyone else struggle with this? Do you think the field, as a whole, suffers from it? (I confess I often see this in short stories.) How does one manage to have Cthulhu, his light bulb and the necronomicon – metaphorically speaking – without losing the intended audience?
Maybe there’s a reason the necronomicon is supposed to send cultists mad...