Monday, October 11, 2010

Just a conventional thing.

"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


MataPam said...

Point of View - generally the first Character you name in a scene as it opens is assumed to be the POV for the scene. Cues the reader in quickly as to whose head they are in.

Conclusions - every scene needs some sort of closure so the reader is ready to go on to the next. Even a cliff hanger needs to leave the reader saying "Okay, what's going on elsewhere, somebody had better be on their way to help/escapeing during this diversion/doing something critical. Hurry will you, we need to get back to the fight."

Chris L said...

From memory, Robert Rankin's "Armageddon the Musical" has a talking cabbage.

I think most writers and readers of spec-fic comprehend genre-specific jargon. It's when you get to series-specific jargon that things get a little funky.

Dave Freer said...

good point on the conclusions, matapam

Dave Freer said...

Chris L -- I have a feeling that Rankin tended toward brussel sprouts ;-) (which are prefectly possible villians as far as I am concerned) Still, it's a stereotype that this woman is desperately perpetuating. Some stereotypes have a grain of truth in them... this one has a two kilo lump of ignorance.

Most spec fic readers do indeed comprehend the jargon. That - unfortunately - can make the genre exculsive (I want all nice boys and girls to read. I want all nasty ones to read too.) After all fuberite means something to geologists (both about the rock and the geological history of the area) but if you want others to follow you have to explain.

Chris L said...

Now I come to think of it, I think you're right - on both counts.

Synova said...

Speaking of Waldos... Steve Miller had a character use his "third hand" early on in _Balance of Trade_ and I swear I read that book three times before I asked my husband if I was right in assuming that the person in question did not, in fact, have three hands.

Conventions for SF and not rules but clues so that the reader knows what interpretive paradigm to employ? I think I'd include things like including something magical, technological, alien or otherwise clue-worthy on the first page, the sooner the better. (I read a romance that ended up having mermaids/men in it, and nothing unnatural happened for the first 2/3rds of the book. At that point, I actually got sort of mad.)

There are the mechanical things such as breaking up the words on the page, not reusing the same word right away unless it's on purpose or "said", avoiding having too much uniformity of word, sentence, or paragraph length, avoiding alliteration unless it's on purpose. That sort of thing.

Dave Freer said...

Chris L - It's not that I don't use jargon. I think it is valuable, carries a lot to regular speculative fiction readers. But I do try to use the right jargon (that in common use - FTL rather that ESL - exceeds speed of light (or English second language:-)) or explain or use in a context which explains the first time they're used.

MataPam said...

Good point in clueing in the reader as to what sort of SciFi/Fantasy/Spec Fic they've got their hands on, very early in the book.

Early clues as to Good Guy/Bad Guy, and foreshadowing the story problem are probably useful as well.

For longer works, anyway. Flash fiction has its own rules.

Synova said...

It's not squid, but one of my earliest attempts at writing and world building had Giant Alien Slug Monsters!

No cabbages.


Although... now I'm wondering... If cabbages could talk, how would they talk and what would they say? Perhaps it would be cooperative between cabbage and cabbage worms... all that effort to chew out those glyphs and what do we do? We powder them.

Kate said...

Clues about the environment and social setting are generally preferred over the multiple-page info-dump. Whether that's because SF/F readers like to tease out the answers or because non-SF/F readers don't need to cue in the environment etc I don't know.

POV-hopping is thoroughly disliked. If you're going to change heads, do so after the scene break.

A biggie here - do not break the basic laws of the Universe. There might be a macguffin or some unobtainium (Ooh, look! Jargon!), but everything else had better work or readers feel very cheated.

Another big one - one macguffin per book/story. If there's faster than light travel, don't include anything else that can't be explained as a possible extrapolation from current knowledge. Of course, the further you get from now, the more extrapolatey your extrapolation gets until you're strapping it on... *ahem*.

Oh, yes. Alien species do not necessarily run around naked. Nor do they necessarily suffer from a complete absence of visible genitalia no matter how big their heads are.

I'm not aware of talking vegetables of any flavor (or lack thereof), unless you go visiting fantasy and run into an ent or two. As for space squids, they only time I've seen them is when the author is doing a deliberate "look! Space squids!" play on the ideas mundanes have (and the author who does this usually does think of everyone else as "mundanes")

Anonymous said...

Well, if I understand correctly, broccoli, like cauliflower (mmmm... breaded cauliflower with cheese sauce...) is a type of cabbage, so I guess that's technically correct if you want to split hairs.

As for squids in space... actually been tinkering with something along those lines.

Robert Heinlein came up with what I consider the quintessential SF convention -- "the door dilated" -- the use of a simple phrase that makes it absolutely, unequivocally clear that you reading a story set in the future.

A couple other conventions: the blaster and the death ray. Doesn't really go into the physics of them, but you know you don't want to be on the receiving end of one!

"He pulled out a .45 and pointed it at me..." Could be a western, a detective story, or even a modern military technothriller -- possibly even a science fiction story. But there's definitely some ambiguity there.

"He pulled out a blaster and pointed it at me..." Clearly a science fiction story.

Though, in my opinion, I think what truly sets the SF genre apart from all the others is the innate sense of wonder. You don't get any sense of wonder reading some historical adventure -- if you've studied the history, you have a general idea what's going to happen, you're just waiting to find out how it shakes out for the characters. You might get an entertaining plot out of the deal, but there's no sense of wonder about it. Now, in an out-an-out SF story, everything's on the table, the author's shuffling the deck, and there's going to be a lot of wild cards in the mix. It's anyone's game. And if you're really lucky, you just might get to see some exploding babes and scantily-clad spaceships in the bargain!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

RJ - Yes, it is the sense of wonder that sets SF apart.

Dave, I was doing a manuscript appraisal for someone who didn't read much SF. (Sigh) It was near future and he had his character explain to a cabbie what string theory was.

I told him your average SF reader would be insulted. I suggested he read a couple of current SF authors to show how sophisticated the audience is and what is assumed knowledge. And I suggested if he liked explaining things, he write for 10 -12 year olds, write the kind of books that introduce science concepts. There's a place for these.

Anonymous said...

And that's extremely important, especially with SF: you need to familiarize yourself with the genre. Heck, you need to immerse yourself in the genre and read as widely as possible. Having seen Independence Day 75 times and owning the complete Matrix trilogy just doesn't cut it. In fact, that's the worst thing you can do because the movies are at least a decade behind the books. Not only that, but the audience expects a lot more out of written SF than they do from film or TV SF; we've been so used and abused by film and TV offerings (especially TV) that most of us are so bloody grateful for what little crumbs Hollywood and the networks deign to throw us that we're willing to overlook and outright forgive a whole lot.

Not so for written SF. There's over a century's worth of written SF to draw upon, with some seriously heavy hitters in the mix. So if you can't tell Frank Herbert from Robert Heinlein, or are wondering who that "Isaac Asi-something guy" is, you need to bone up :-D

Dave Freer said...

Good point, Synova (even though I broke the rule myself - The Forlorn starts apparently as fantasy but is actually sf, but the cover did 'say' sf) readers have expectations, and when these are wrong or not fulfilled you'd better have a great story trapping them or they'll hate you for it.

Dave Freer said...

chuckle - I like the giant slug monsters. I have the mental image of the brussel-sprout calibre handgun...

Dave Freer said...

But Bob, what about a 'slug gun' for shooting Synova's slugs? Surely that is sf enough?

yes sf does have the sense of wonder

Dave Freer said...

Oh Rowena, shudder. Exactly.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, a 'slug gun', eh? It does have a certain appeal to me in a shoot-the-bad-guy-and-gross-out-your-kid-sister sort of way. And it does present some interesting limitations, like the slime trail leading right back to the shooter in a variation on the "tracers work both ways" theme. Mind you, it also provide some interesting literary possibilities: what if it's the hero's only weapon and he has to chase the villain into a salt mine?

It definitely has potential! (Perhaps I've been reading too much "Schlock Mercenary" lately...)

Dave Freer said...

Kate The - maguffin thing... and then people think 'more is better'

Brendan said...

In the story The Women of Nell Gwynne's Kage Baker broke the rule by spending the first few sections introducing one character and then turning the story into an ensemble piece. No matter how good the story, I couldn't help feeling gypped. I felt I was promised a heroine but wound up following a person who wasn't that important.

Chris McMahon said...

Great post, Dave. I loved the uplift books, and remeber the talking broccoli with great fondness:)

Just talking about PoV, I have recently read a series that breaks that rule occaisonally and get away with it. Its John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice books. Very well done - he hit the characters perfectly in book one IMO.

One think I noticed was that he would drift out of PoV for the odd paragraph, strangely it worked fine & actually had the benefit of economy. Now the reason its there to begin with? It could actually by Flanagan's lack of experience - it is a common newbit thing. Even so, the books are excellent YA.

Synova said...

I don't think that it matters to start a science fiction story out in a fantasy type of setting if that's actually the setting it's in. The magic in the Liaden Universe doesn't bother me at all, for example, because it flows at least somewhat logically from the world that's been created.

But, IIRC, there is usually some element of otherness introduced early on, a suggested mystery, or clue to expect something later, so when it happens it's not a case of being jerked in an unexpected direction.

Like the mermaid romance... after the fact it seemed possible that the rainy weather was supposed to be a clue that her moods made the weather change. But without, say, the opening paragraphs being a conversation with a co-worker jokingly accusing her of causing the weather with her blue moods rather than the other way around, the reader wasn't given notice to notice what the weather was doing.

Brendan said...


Your comment about needing to immerse yourself in the genre reminded me of the Aurialis SF Hall of Fame entrant Otto Greenbach.

Dave Freer said...

Chris Mc - at least two authors I can think of do break that one - but both are actually quite dated. Both good writers. (murder mystery)
It's possible, just harder to do well.

Dave Freer said...

Synova it's possible to do it well so your reader doesn't hate you. But it is making life hard for yourself. Which when you're new or less than great (ergo, moi) is not always too clever ;-).

I think you've prompted me to do the next post on fore-shadowing. Thanks

Dave Freer said...

Brendan, heh, Thank you. The road to success is at last clear. A moose head... hmm do thing a wallaby head will do? ;-)

Amanda Green said...

Dave, thanks for a great post -- even if you did give me nightmares of talking cabbages and broccoli. What's next? Sentient brussle sprouts? [shudder]

Actually, you reinforced one of the first things I tell new writers and that's that they have to read. They have to read their genre and, imo, they need to read outside their genre as well since those genre lines are blurring now. I've had to explain, on more than one occasion, that there are few, if any, "original" ideas now. The originality comes in how you deal with the plot device. And don't get me started on POV.

Any way, now that I've been haunted by intelligent veggies, I'll go find coffee and get back to editing.