"Squids in Space" or "talking cabbages".
Yes that's sf, according to the public pronouncements of one of the darlings of the literary world -- who often writes what one could - to avoid argument - call speculative fiction set in an imaginary future. Absolutely not 'Science Fiction', which could never fit those parameters. Not exactly plausible or containing much that could be called great science, but definitely without a hint of extraterrestrial cephlopod (which of course obligatorily occurs in all 'Science Fiction', except for those books that have talking cabbages. Or both). (I can actually only think of two 'squid in space' books - one which I will avoid naming 'cause I didn't like it much, and the other, Mother of Demons, certainly better constructed, better science and with a very sociological slant - better than anything I've read out of modern literature for some time. And yes, I do read some. I learn. I try to harvest from other genres. There is something of value in all of them.) On deep thought, there is something of a pervasive note of used brassica about the non-cephalopod stuff - I am not sure if those noises were 'speech', per se... ah well. Anyway: What brought this to mind was a lady participating in a writer's group I belong to. Now she's intelligent, she has an attractive natural voice to her writing, a chatty, personal style. She has a good story to tell.
Short sections of the book she's trying to work on read very well.
But go beyond the 1-2 paragraph limit and you become hopelessly confused and eye-glaze.
The reason for this came out in about the first thirty seconds of conversation. "I don't actually read much."
On following this up it turned out that she'd read occassional magazines since leaving school, which was probably the last time she'd actually read an entire book. And those were not things she'd found entertaining. Now I'm an appalling teacher, as I am still learning myself. But I absorb a little by imitation of good examples, which is why I try to read something of everything, and work out just what the author is doing. This dear lady had her experience of magazines (ergo some good paragraphs) and high-school English essay-writing to go on.
She has, in other words, no idea of the conventions which have evolved from generations of the art of writing a story so that audiences 1)follow it. 2)enjoy it.
Now, all these are not 'rules' - they get broken and books still sell, still are loved. On rare occassions not knowing them may result in something fresh and new. But generally these conventions (and they vary from genre to genre) exist for one simple reason - to make the reading experience better and faster for readers.
For a simple example: if you are writing third person there are conventions governing the point of veiw. You can only write from one point of veiw (know what is going on in one character's head) at a time, without a clear and distinct 'hand over'. So my wannabe, not knowing this, had 4 points of veiw, within the protagonist's own head - which were not divided in any obvious way, and several other walk in characters, all talking, and all telling us (the reader) what they thought when they said that. The dialogue was good... the result... I had no idea just what went on there. So to make up an example:
"Jane you're being a fool," she reasoned.
"I have to be." There was no give that attitude.
"She could be right," I tried to mediate with them.
Fred put his head around the door to speak to me. "Time to go," he said. He thought Jane was flipping out...
Henry was sitting in the truck in a really bad mood, thinking about his wife in Pennsylvania. He grunted at Fred and Jane.
This is a simplified version of what I am talking about, which sounded like five people, but was actually three. And as more and more characters arrived and each spoke as the point of veiw character, I became hopelessly utterly lost. If I'd bought the book, I'd have been mad and TBAR -ed it. What? Oh TBAR. 'Throw book across room.' It's something 'everyone' knows... a convention on the meaning.
The author needed to have the POV (Point of Veiw) convention explained to her. The purpose of those three *** or blank line had just not registered back at school. Once it was shown to her (in one of those things she'd not read much of, called a 'novel' which was intended to be read for pleasure) the section improved vastly.
She's a quick learner, and will get there, but it makes thing very hard for her.
The trouble is, that's only the start. I don't actually think anyone has codified the conventions ('cause they are not rules) that help to make reading easier and more pleasant and effortless. They change and evolve, but readers learn to read comfortably within them. For this reason you have to learn them the hard way, by reading and absorbing. By learning that no, instrospection mid-action will not work.
The same thing, of course, occurs at a genre level. It helps to make books flow, and it helps to make the subtext far, far deeper, because you work on the basis of common knowledge and don't have to repeat that. 'Everyone' - well, everyone who reads sf, knows what FTL travel is, and what implies. Everyone knows the 'laws of robotics'. Everyone knows what a Waldo is. What a tractor is. And that is barely the start of our list of shared terms and background that form the conventions of sf.
If you've ever bothered to read HG Wells or Jules Verne... even aside from the dated language, you'll soon realise just how clunky sf without the conventions is. Of course for the non-sf reader without the shared background, it might make more sense. If you want modern versions of the same but without quite the skill or story-telling, try cephlopod free stuff. The cabbage stench is your imagination. And that is what you get for not reading in the genre you're trying to write in. Perhaps as an outsider, you'd learn just what needs to be explained so that newcomers can enjoy the books, and the established audience don't think you're an incompetant idiot.
So that was my bag for tonight. If you're writing for an audience used to reading, you need to write in ways which they accept and understand - or at least not stretch them too far too fast.
What are the conventions of writing novels (so they are easily followed, and entertaining) that you have picked up on? I've offered a couple of mine.
And what is it about sf that sets it apart: what are the things we assume are common knowledge? FTL, Waldos, the three laws of robotics, tractors... what others? And am I right in assuming that 'everyone' knows what they are, and probably where they came from.
Oh and can anyone think of a talking cabbage book? The best I could think of were the Kanten in Brin's Uplift books, which are more like talking broccolli