Friday, December 29, 2006

Part 2: Other problems I face when writing science fiction

Problem 2. It's hard to incorporate science-fictional ideas into a story without slowing the action down.

Introducing science-fictional ideas that are -- at least I hope -- somewhat new, is a double-edged sword. Of course, all SF writers strive for originality. (I'm trying to silence the cynic in me who says a lot of writers have no aspirations to originality and simply write what readers are known to like. "Extruded science fiction product", to paraphrase Lawrence.) New ideas help to achieve originality. New ideas also mean you can't rely on cliches, or on popular science fiction tropes. New ideas mean there is much more you have to explain to the reader before he or she can make sense of your story. This was one of the thoughts expressed in the World Fantasy Convention panel on cliches, and it's funny that it took me perhaps several weeks to realize how relevant that panel was to what was going on in my writing life.

For example, you can use tropes such as faster-than-light without explaining them to your readers, since everybody understands the concept. But if your story is based on an idea less overused than this -- for example, on quantum entanglement, which I haven't seen satisfactorily explored in most SF I've read (Greg Egan notwithstanding) -- you have to explain it. This is always hard, as such an explanation needs to be woven into the action, instead of presented as an infodump. Not only it is not easy to generate a chunk of plot that would clarify a particular concept by letting the reader see its workings, but it also makes the story longer. And (this is just my rule of thumb, though) the longer the story is, the more interesting it should be in order to keep a reader's attention.

Problem 1 and Problem 2 feed upon one another, magnifying one another. On one hand you have bare-bones characters (or should I say, bare-particles characters? :-)) without literally much meat on them :-) . They resist vivid characterization, making it harder for readers to identify with them, hence, making the story less interesting. On the other hand, complex or novel ideas, or at least their explanation, slow down the movement of the story. To recap, giving up the familiar for the sake of innovative makes the writer's job much harder.

Problem 3. To write about the familiar is hard in its own way.

The above did not imply that familiar stuff is easy to write about. Definitely not, at least not for me. Portraying the conventional reality is a tall enough order in itself, because my readers, too, are familiar with it (often better than me), and they can call me to task if I haven't portrayed it convincingly. I am always in awe of writers who can accurately convey speech patterns of various ethnic and socio-economical groups in such an evocative way that a few sentences uttered by a character vividly paints him or her as belonging to a certain group, leaving the reader's imagination to fill in the details. For me, this skill seems just as unattainable as a figure skater's triple axels. All my characters sound the same. I don't know if I'll ever make progress in this respect. So I try to find a way around it by avoiding writing about anything that has recognizable traits of our everyday reality. It's a cop-out. But at this point I feel I have to do it if I want to write at all. If I wracked my brain trying to think of a speech mannerisms and turns of phrase that would best characterize my protagonist, I would not make any progress at all. I would stare all day at the blank screen and feel incredibly demoralized.

So, writing imaginary stuff interestingly is hard, and writing familiar stuff is hard in its own way. But writing imaginary stuff is easier to me overall, so I'll stick with it. For now. I just need to think of ways to conquer problems (1) and (2).

How am I going to address these problems? How should I balance familiar against the unfamiliar? What is the perfect ratio of familiar and the unfamiliar, so that the story would feel innovative, but not so alien that the reader would lose interest? I thought of a couple of approaches, which I shall explore in the next installment.

No comments: