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bear by san

December 2021



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reading protocols, or, how science fiction is like a murder mystery.

There's been some talk around the blogosphere and other places recently about reading protocols, and genre, and whether there are genre-specific reading protocols, and specifically about incluing, and what it is, and how it works.

And I just realized something today. Just now. Or rather, I've known it for years, but it just clicked into a handy catchphrase in my head. Inconsistencies are incluing. In mystery, they're a subtle way of introducing the clues that the reader (or the detective) will need to solve the whodunnit. (Crude example: John's wearing a blue sweater on page three, and a red one on page fifteen. What happened to the blue sweater? Well, it could be an auctorial error... or maybe he got blood on that blue sweater and had to change in a hurry.) In science fiction or fantasy, they're a subtle way of pointing out that a society or technology operates under different rules than our own. (Crude example: out of a pair of mercenaries, Bob uses a ray gun, but his partner, Celia, carries nothing but a dagger. Celia seems a bit under-armed at first glance, so maybe the writer is an idiot, or maybe he's Up To Something.)

I tend to treat my own fiction as a pattern of dots rather than a linear progression: here's a point, and here's a point, and here's a point, and when you stand back just a bit they make the picture. Linear thought, I am not so good at; I'm better at patterns and puzzles. (Possibly this ties into my almost total lack of a visual learning capacity; I am kinesthetic/practical, all the way. Hi! I have an inductive brain! Please stand back--this could get messy.)

And this is probably why incluing just doesn't work for some readers, because they notice the inconsistency, and rather than going--huh, I wonder about that?--they go, hah, an inconsistency! And it breaks the fictional dream for them, and they never can quite get back into reading the story and thinking, somewhere in their backbrain, about the question raised by that inconsistency (that clue, or inclue.) So it becomes an error, rather than a worldbuilding or mystery-solving point.

The problem is that sometimes these inconsistencies are intentional. And this is where both "authority"-- the ability to evoke the fictional dream and get the reader to suspend disbelief--and "author points"--the amount of rope the reader is willing to give the writer, with which to either macrame a story, or hang himself--comes in. In a published book, I suspect most readers tend to offer them the benefit of the doubt--a published book, especially by a known author, comes with a certain amount of author points implicit.

But there will always be the ones for whom the incluing doesn't work. And as sartorias said, I'm not entirely sure what the heck you do about that.

And I'm not sure if the ability to read for either of these kinds of inconsistencies can be trained for (ie, if it's a "genre reading protocol") or if it's an innate thing--intuitive vs. deductive brain.

I suspect reading a lot of Encyclopedia Brown mysteries as a kid may train for it, though.


"...the amount of rope the reader is willing to give the writer, with which to either macrame a story, or hang himself..."

I think I'm going to file that away for future amusement.

And tell Celia to never bring a knife to a gunfight. It makes the bad guys suspicious.
I suspect I usually hang myself. Thank God this isn't a performance art.
Maybe if one can't be trained for that, it explains why some people just don't "get" scifi?
Or maybe they just haven't been/don't care to be trained. Or they just don't like it.

I mean, most genre romance tends to annoy the heck out of me, but that's because I disagree with its basic preconception--that having a happy relationship is a victory condition, in other words.

I'd hesitate to elevate science fiction to the level of "you would like it if you jus thad the right kind of intelligence."
What a good, chewy post.

I've come slowly to the tentative conclusion, by and large, more or less, kinda sorta (are there enough expressions de caveat here?)that for some readers, factoids whether personal or of setting or of any other sort are going to register through emotional reaction. In other words, Tom wearing that red sweater on page five is going to pass by some readers--not the visual ones, or the puzzle ones, who note what you take the time to note--but the readers whose intuition, whose emotional clues, help them remember. Therefore, if Tom smacks the cat with the red sweater before putting it on, there's a good chance they'll remember it because of that quick emotional reaction.

Like anything else, we have to pick our battles, or it all becomes noise; but at the same time, trying to find ways to get the data down for all kinds of readerly minds does help spread the spectrum of appeal.

(This subject of spreading the spectrum of appeal is something I'm pondering hard; as usual, my footling excuse for a brain is offering me images instead of conclusions, but they do eventuall coalesce into a sort of whole...)
Not exactly inconsistency: Near the beginning of one novel, I was becoming annoyed because the writer hadn't yet indicated whether the protagonist was male or female. Then: Wait a minute. ___ is too careful a writer to make that kind of mistake. I read on, learned that the answer to "Is this character male or female" was "No."

A while later, someone on rec.arts.sf.written was discussing whether the heroine of that novel was based on the author. It turned out that he had simply decided the protagonist was female. Clues to the contrary (such as direct statements in the novel) were then ignored.

I think the best way to deal with such readers (if they're definitely the minority) is to remember the Pareto Rule. One version of that rule:
Eighty percent of the profits come from twenty percent of the customers.
Eighty percent of the problems come from a different twenty percent of the customers.
(if they're definitely the minority)

Bingo. And that's the tricky bit. Or--I dunno, even in the majority, as long as the ones who are in the minority are vocal in their support. I mean, I love John Crowley; I think he's brilliant and funny and poignant and a wonderful writer. I'm not fond of Charles de Lint's work, though.

More people like Charles de Lint than like John Crowley, though. That doesn't mean Crowley's not as good a writer.

It means he's a different sort of writer, though. *g*

There is a way in which other writers (especially ones who are just getting their fingers shaken out) are the worst critics ever. (and other ways in which they're very good.)

They may be on other hammers and other nails entirely.
Having gotten about the same book the comment that the fantastic element was obviously and annoyingly telegraphed and the comment that it was so much buried that you might as well read the book as mainstream, I have simply given up on the matter and I write what the story seems to require.

I'll be pondering that emotional tweaking of the salient detail, though. I tend to do stuff the other way, so a few judicious incidents of that sort might be handy.

There will still be people who don't notice, though; and some of them will be deeply indignant and put-upon and others will be blithe about it.

This is why I have a handful of wise readers who I really trust, and whose reactions I understand--and a kick-ass agent, who is a very smart editor.

Because, yeah, I just do what the story seems to need. I think it might be easier to get away with that if I weren't a habitual underwriter (I like a lot of white space in my reading, and it turns up in my writing too) but I need to know where I've lost people in the bushes, so I can try to balance that fine line between giving people what they want, and annoying other people who want less. (bracketing--bracketing)

I *know* I tend to undersell. I'm a Yankee and a Swede. *g* There's only so much emotion I'm capable of showing.

The salient detail thing is a great tip, though: Sherwood = smart. (no shocker there)
If it had been a genre story, she'd have had to find the bottle in the first sentence.

*nod* So true. I think this is a bit of a weakness of genre--that need to get the spec element right up front. On the other hand, I also think it means we may get more practice with hooks than a lot of writers. Which is handy.

On the other hand, as a genre reader, I know I tend to categorize a story almost instantly if I'm not careful--"Oh, this is hgh fantasy." And then when the time travelling Yankee shows up on page 50... I have to reassess. Bad habit.
I just finished reading Kenneth Oppel's Airborn, and it made me think about how settings are revealed. Because it was one of the best young adult action/adventure books I've read in ages (and I heartily recommend it), but it felt like a complete flop as an alternate history. And I don't think what bothered me would even be noticed by someone who wasn't a science fiction fan.

My complaint is that I finished the book, and I have no idea how the book's universe is supposed to be put together. I mean, you've got circa 1925 technology, except with sophisticated airships instead of planes. (Though one reviewer pegged it as "Victorian".) The geography is solidly Earth's, but the ocean is "Pacificus". There's London and Paris and the Eiffel Tower. On the other hand, I never noticed "England" or the "United States" ever mentioned by those names, though some "Anglo-" something or other did crop up in a fashion which made me think it might have been the universe's version of the British Empire.

So I think (in the terms you are using) my problem was that I was waiting for to be inclued to the world's setup, and I never was. (I'm not clear if there was something there to be clued in to or not!) Which meant every time a difference showed up, it annoyed me because it wasn't building a consistent picture in my head. Come to think of it, things that weren't differences started annoying me as well, because I couldn't find a pattern to what was different and what was the same.

Talking with Jen, I contrasted my problem with it with my delight in The Golden Compass when early on there is a mention of a bottle of '98 Tokay being one of the last few dozen bottles. That instantly clued me into a bunch of things in that world, and it was a thrilling moment for me, because I'd been waiting for something like that to give me a footing.

Of course, Jen pointed out she had no idea Tokay was a kind of wine in the real world, so that moment didn't mean anything to her.
See, that's a fabulous example of incluing as it works for one reader and not another. You *knew* what it meant.

It went whizzing over my head, too.
Hmm.... Thinking about your previous comments about readers not picking up on clues/backstory and now your mention of mysteries.

Perhaps people reading the mystery genre (and it is a favourite of mine) are either (1) looking hard for clues and will pick up on the slightest mention or (2) enjoying the story itself and aware (but don't care) that they won't pick up on clues until the reveal at the end.

Some people reading SF will catch your subtle one-sentence mention of a detail to clue them in... but others are not expecting it, and may gloss over a single instance of an inconsistency. Perhaps you could try for two attempts at incluing? If they don't appear close together within the novel, it won't seem like you're bashing them over the head (if they picked it up the first time), but it gives others a chance to realize that something is off... and maybe it's on purpose.
Absolutely how it works. Ideally, incluing is invisible. You find you just *know* things, without ever having had them explained, and it works by the tiny, meticulous building of one detail--one inconsistency--on top of another, until a pattern emerges.

When it doesn't work--when the pattern doesn't emerge--what happens is what colomon descibed, above.
Well, and even when a reader groks incluing, it's not necessarily what they want to read.

In my case, I like to be inclued about worldbuilding details, but when it comes to character, I'd rather be shown the important moments than left to imagine them. The backstory incluing in Hammered didn't work for me, not because I couldn't parse it, but because it still left me in the dark about how a lot of crucial scenes had played out-- rather as if the book had shown me a trail of deep round footprints and some crushed peanut shells leading to a tent with its flaps tied shut. I could tell that there were elephants inside, but I would have liked to go in and see the circus.
I'm sorry, that comment sounds rather pissy on re-reading. I did like Hammered, and I liked parts of it very much.

But I think it's important to separate incluing about worldbuilding and incluing about character. The first is a generic convention, part of a set of protocols that SF readers expect SF authors to follow; and if they choose not to, it stands out. The second is just a storytelling choice, one that (IME) is equally valid in most genres. And I know that I read incluing very differently depending on whether I think a particular detail is more salient to the world or the character.

I can often figure out the twist, but I'm enough of a structure geek that I enjoy watching the author shuffle the cards around anyway.
I know, I'm coming in late, but I gotta say: yeah. Totally.

The one thing I'd add is that authority can be derived from various points. It's both the writer's ability to state definitively, and the reader's ability to trust the author. I remember doing one story and having such an apparent 'slip-up' in continuity. One reader's comment was that she noticed it, "but I trusted you to explain it eventually, so it didn't bother me." I don't know how you get that trust, but it seems to be a combination of exposure/familiarity ("you've not led me wrong in the past, so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt") and the firmness with which one writes... although I suppose that second part is a truly nebulous thing.

Ehhh, the second makes me think of when I wrote the business plan for the bookstore, years ago. What makes a business plan "definitive" for an investor can be such a hard thing to pin down; something that convinces him/her that I really know what I'm planning. Anyway, I showed the preliminary proposal to the investor, who said, "no, no, go back and redo this. I want pretty numbers." So naturally I went home, opened the file... and changed the font.

Well, for me, the reader's backlog of trust for the author is "author points." Authority is something you earn for yourself, starting afresh.

Author points are awarded by the reader, based on--among other things--past experience, authority, and who the reader is. *g*
Encyclopedia Brown made me mad. In MY world, the one where I live, Brown would point out his deeply clever explanation with purely circumstantial evidence. The crook would stare at him blankly, then punch him in the mouth (or, if someone was watching, just sneer) by way of explaining that he'll never make the charge stick with something that flimsy.

And he'd get beat up for lunch money every day after school.

Not that I dislike him... it's just that my world doesn't have as much justice as his.
I wish I didn't live in your world.