Monday, December 07, 2009

Settings, SFR, and Spiffyness

I've been absolutely thrilled to see the responses to The Galaxy Express' SFR Holiday Blitz. I've also been absolutely slammed with computer troubles and flu/cold/bronchitis, which is why you've not seen me here in a good while (all this befalling me, yes, after a triple-deadline). Bronchitis I'm rather used it--it's something that's plagued me (pun intended) since I've been in my twenties. More than twenty years ago. Computers invaded my life at about the same time (hmmm, wonder if there's a correlation?) but those troubles have become worse with age, while the bronchitis has rolled merrily along without much change.

I sometimes wonder if the computer troubles I face aren't yet more fodder for my plots and characters. As one reviewer said about my Finders Keepers:

[T]he vast majority of this novel is classic space opera, the sort of story in which rough-hewn pilots of either gender chug along space lanes in rickety old ships held together with duct tape, and sinister galactic empires plot against all and sundry for power. Not for Linnea Sinclair the spiffy, cutting edge man-machine futures of Ken MacLeod, Greg Egan or Charles Stross.
Maybe one of the reasons I don't do spiffy is that I've yet to meet a chunk of technology that permits me to experience spiffy. I have no faith that any universe--future or otherwise--with be trouble-free when it comes to technology. Okay, I'll 'fess up. I do have things break down on board the ships in my books because it ramps up the conflict. But I also have them break down because I'm fairly confident that's an event to which most of my readers can relate. (If you've never had a computer melt-down, please tell me where you live so I can move next door to you. Which means one of two things will then happen: either my computers will work flawlessly from that point, or yours will crash with gleeful regularity.)

This latest crash (maybe the motherboard--we're still not sure) resulted in a computer that refused to function under Windows XP but is chugging along nicely (so far) under Windows 7. I can't believe it's solely because Mr. Gates needed my $300 last week.

But I digress. I wanted to touch on settings in SFR because of a blog Heather from The Galaxy Express noted a week or so back, in which several readers commented on why they did--or didn't--read SFR. One poster noted that in reading the opening chapter of my Shades of Dark, she found technology was far too evident and took up much descriptive space.

Which, of course, made me sit back with my usual WTF? I wanted to post and ask her--I didn't, for a variety of reasons, two being bronchitis and limping computer--if she would have been equally as disconcerted by the description of the castle in a medieval romance, or the scent of leather and the snuffle of horses in a western romance? If she reads chick-lit, would an opening scene listing the character's designer shoes overflowing her closet bother her? If she reads mystery, would she prefer the details of the murder scene to be left out?

In SFR, the description of a ship's bridge or command consoles are my character's closet full of Gucci and Prada products, they are the flickering torches set into the rusty metal sconces angling out from the moss-covered stone wall.

Here's the opening paragraph from the prologue in Mary Jo Putney's Silk and Secrets:

Autumn 1840

Night was falling rapidly, and a slim crescent moon hung low in the cloudless indigo sky. In the village the muezzin called the faithful to prayers, and the haunting notes twined with the tantalizing aroma of baking bread and the more acrid scent of smoke. It was a homey, peaceful scene such as the woman had observed countless times before, yet as she paused by the window, she experienced a curious moment of dislocation, an inability to accept the strange fate that had led her to this alien land.

Now, Putney is not only one lovely and classy lady, she's one helluva fabulous and well-known author. She writes--among other genres--historical romances. If she puts in the cloudless indigo sky, the tantalizing aroma of baking bread, and the acrid scent of smoke, it's because these details are not only important, they're expected.

Why, then, the problem with:

A stream of red data on a blue-tinged screen to my left snagged my attention. We were on the outer fringes of an Imperial GA-7's signal—a data relay drone normally not accessible to renegade ships like the Karn, and definitely not at this distance. But this was the Karn, Sully's ghost ship that routinely defied government regulations and just as routinely ignored ship's specs. So I slipped into the vacant seat at communications and executed the grab filter with an ease that even Sully would have been proud of.

Captain Chasidah Bergren. One-time pride of the Sixth Fleet and staunch defender of the Empire, illegally hacking into a GA-7 beacon.
Okay, maybe you've never seen a GA-7 beacon. But I've never seen a muezzin. So therein resides my rationale behind my usual WTF when I read comments that "SFR terms are too confusing."

As I've also often noted, I still haven't a clue in a bucket how to pronounce reticule. But it doesn't stop me from reading historicals and I don't ask the author to replace it with the word pocketbook.

Someone enlighten me as to why muzzein is acceptable and GA-7 beacon isn't. Please.


Linnea Sinclair
// Interstellar Adventure Infused with Romance//
Available Now from Bantam: Hope's Folly, Book 3 in the Dock Five Universe
Coming March 2010: Rebels and Lovers (Book 4)


  1. I think it's an individule reader's taste.

    As a reader, I prefer just enough description for my own imagination to take over, which is how I tend to write as well.

    I speed-read over almost all descriptions unless the characters, first, grab me, and then I slow down and enjoy the ride, even if it means going back and starting over.

    Maybe with SFR spaceships require more description for the uninitiated than a castle would, because most everyone is familiar with castles. Since I love both castles and spaceships and tend to read both the same way, I'd say the characters still must grab me first in order to slow down.

    I don't remember the opening of SHADES OF DARK or any of your other novels, even my favorite GAMES OF COMMAND, but the opening to DOWN HOME ZOMBIE BLUES remains fixed and vivid and my imagination.

    Don't know why.

  2. Personally, being primarily an SF fan (because there WAS no really kick-ass heroine romance when I was 9 years old), I actually prefer stories that open with a good amount of detail of the surrounding technology. That's taste.

    CRAFT however, is another matter.

    The complainer was voicing a reaction not an evaluation, and it's "reaction" that we play for when casting the opening.

    I don't know this person, but I've read many similar reader-reaction comments on Amazon.

    Here's my take on it.

    It isn't the description of the bridge, or the surrounding technology, or the tools that puts the reader off.

    It isn't the AMOUNT or depth of detail of the technology mentioned.

    It is the placement, the positioning, of this exposition (and that's what it is, no matter how you disguise it as characterization and closets full of Prada).

    It's what comes first.

    What comes FIRST (what you lead with) telegraphs the tone and genre, the point of the book, and the emotional payload to be delivered at the end.

    If you start with a CONFLICT, that telegraphs that the ending will resolve that conflict.

    If you start with the decorative and useful technology, you are saying the book is about how and why the technology works, and what will be resolved in the end is the mystery of how it works and why. (I love that kind of book!)

    If, however, there's NO TECHNOLOGY, no flashing lights and beautiful readouts, no computer voice, and no forward viewscreen in the first chapter, but there are people (of whatever description) with "affairs of wizards" in which others are being caught up, if there are Relationship issues AND NOTHING ELSE in the first chapter, you are telegraphing that the payload delivered by the ending will be a Relationship payload.

    So people judge books by their covers, and then by their opening words, maybe as I put on twitter yesterday, the first 5 pages.

    Then I was thinking about that 5 pages rule, and decided the number of pages you get to hook a reader these days is conditioned by the advent of Sesame Street, so that now we have a generation of 30 and 40 year olds who have been conditioned to revere the short-attention-span.

    So maybe today you really only get 2 pages to inform the reader what the payload at the end will consist of.

    It's very possible that the reader who was put off by description of a ship's bridge (space or ocean liner wouldn't matter, they look the same these days) actually would not enjoy that book.

    So the question for writers of SFR becomes, "How do we change the reader's taste?"

    TWILIGHT and a few other Vampire TV shows and books have actually changed the taste of a wide swatch of the American public.

    We need an SFR novel that has Real SF wedded to Real R that will change the taste of those susceptible folks such as the reader put off by tech description.

    BTW I admire the WAY Linnea Sinclair does tech description. There's a flowing grace and beauty to the way she introduces visuals, and that skill will be rewarded.

    On bronchitis and computer breakdowns -- I was getting worried by this recent silence and I'm really happy to hear the problems are essentially trivial.

    Please keep us posted on how you get along with Win7.

    And yes, Heather's promo concept is fabulous.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg


    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  4. I agree, Linnea! I write historical romances set in the nineteenth century and use terms that readers may not be familiar with. And I also read straight science fiction, as well as science fiction romance and, although I may not grasp all the terms, if the characters engage me, I'll go along for the ride.

    Loved Game of Command, btw, and look forward to reading your other books.

  5. SFR Holiday Blitz!!!

    Glad to be a reader! Thanks so much for all you do and your generosity!

  6. SFR Holiday Blitz!

    Admittedly, that's why I'm here. But I found your post quite interesting and decided to subscribe. There's so little of actual interest going on, perhaps this will be nice breath of fresh air. Thank you!

  7. Anonymous8:29 PM EST

    Yep, things breaking down all the time in real life add to the daily details, and the Russians learned so much from how things broke and had to be fixed that now they're solid partners for the ISS (well, except for funding). Your opener is fine, leads into personal background. I'm glad I found links to you, I'll have to check out your books.

    Good luck with Win7, far more stable for me, just needs more driver support from other companies to play well with all my old software. It's mostly good.

    Get well, stay well!

  8. Anonymous8:41 PM EST

    SFR Holiday Blitz

    Sorry, forgot that in earlier post.
    And thanks for participating!

  9. "In SFR, the description of a ship's bridge or command consoles are my character's closet full of Gucci and Prada products, they are the flickering torches set into the rusty metal sconces angling out from the moss-covered stone wall."

    This. I seriously couldn't have said it better myself, as someone who loves to read both SFR and Historical Romance.

  10. {thoughtful look}

    As I remember, that comment was from one of the two or three gals over at Galaxy Express who make me wonder how we could ever claim to enjoy the same subgenre. As far as I can tell, we can't agree on a sigle feature of the subgenre that we both like. {lop-sided smile}

    Don't worry about pleasing all the SFR readers all the time. You won't. {lop-sided Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  11. Kimber An, surely yes, people are familiar with castles but surely they're--today--more familiar with their iPhones and microwaves. Which is why this perplexes me. I've actually never BEEN to a castle... ~Linnea

  12. JL, mega-apologies for not telling you I was ill (I remember seeing your missive just before my computer went pffffffffttttt!). With me, assume Winter, assume Bronchitis.

    I fully agree with starting with conflict, or rather, starting at the point of no return. But I'm a Swain-ite (Dwight V Swain) as you know, and I also subscribe to his policy of Vividness Outranks Brevity. I wouldn't read historicals if the word choices didn't immerse me in the times. I read and inhale Anne Perry's Victorian mysteries for the same reason I've read and continue to read Conan-Doyle: it's a time travel machine in print.

    I've read several SFRs who've simply said "the commander stepped onto the bridge and the ship departed..." and felt cheated.

    Let's face it, a character who drives a Bentley coupe is not the same kind of character who drives a MiniCooper. These THINGS are ways by which we augment characterization and plot and yes, the entire experience of being The Other.

    So I am perplexed when it's OK to have moat but not beacon. ~Linnea

  13. Susan M, the pundits have found that there are huge correlations between historicals and SF/SFR. It's all in the desire to Be Elsewhere! ~Linnea

  14. Anne E B--I hear you, doll, but I also do listen to outside info as this is still a new subgenre (according to Madison Ave) and I'm trying for all angles and avenues. Yes, I still write for what I know to be true. But I can't be unaware--as this is my sole job--of the problems in perceptions. It won't likely change what or how I write. But it will fund a few blogs. ;-) Big smoochies, ~Linnea

  15. {Chuckle} It is nice to find a good blog topic. {SMILE}

    It's just that that particular gal seems to like futuristics as long as the future doesn't look too different than the present. If you hadn't lost her at the console, I wonder if she would've made it thru the first jumpgate. {Smile}

    I haven't heard her opinion of historicals, so I can't guarantee she likes wall sconces much better than blinking lights. {wink, Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  16. The "tech-stuff" is WHY I read SF, and I read the R part of SFR for the people interactions amongst all that tech!

  17. SFR Holiday Blitz

    I wanted to touch on settings in SFR because of a blog Heather from The Galaxy [Photo]Express noted a week or so back, in which several readers commented on why they did--or didn't--read SFR.

    Don't read SFR in general or some books/authors specifically? If in general I think it has to do with willing suspension of disbelief, which, let's face it, can be especially tricky in SF/SFR. If the reader doesn't have a lot of experience with SF/SFR in general, she probably doesn't have a lot of exposure to the tropes, settings and technologies peculiar to it. So she encounters a lot of stuff in the first paragraph she has to work hard to understand, or trust will be explained later, and that she finds difficult to believe because they're outside either her direct or fictional (reading, viewing, etc.) experience.

    "Imperial GA-7? Data relay drone? Ships specs? What are these and why should I care?" the unadventurous, novice SF/SFR reader might ask. "If the first paragraph is this much work, how hard is the rest of it going to be? Too much effort for me, and completely unbelievable. I think I'll move on to something I understand better." This would be her reaction to many SF books, not yours in particular.

    I've never heard a muzzein (although I have knit a beaded reticule), but I know what it is, and it's evocative of a setting and the exotic. If a reader were unfamiliar with enough of the elements in Putney's first paragraph and really only wanted to read books that reflected the reader's direct experience because they were easier for her to suspend her disbelief for, she'd probably put down Putney's book too.

    Frankly, I think if a reader's going to be put off by the first paragraph of any book and not give the author a chance to explain herself, describe her world, draw the reader in, etc., the reader has very definite and possibly narrow expectations and there's nothing you can do about that. It's not a quality issue, it's a content issue, and you write what you write.

    Now I like your books because you have the requisite world-building skills to go with the romance, and the first paragraph didn't put me off at all. It in fact gave necessary detail and setting. But I'm a SF reader from way back so it works for me.

  18. "So she encounters a lot of stuff in the first paragraph she has to work hard to understand, or trust will be explained later, and that she finds difficult to believe because they're outside either her direct or fictional (reading, viewing, etc.) experience."

    Melissa hit the key point here.

    When I teach my children to read, I don't just hand them a copy of WAR AND PEACE on their 5th birthdays.

    There's a progression from fun and simple to fun and complicated, following the child's interests, but the 'fun' begins when I read out loud to them as babies and always stays.

    So, what's the key vital element of Science Fiction Romance? The romance of the characters. I'd lead with that and progress into everything else.

  19. If you really want to move I have never had a computer melt-down. (knock on wood) There is a lovely house fro sale on the lake across the street from me. We can test your theory.

    I like all the technical stuff in SFR. The story would not be the same without the setting and the setting includes descriptions of the tech.

  20. A note from Rowena...

    Commenters who wish to be entered in the SFR Holiday Blitz must comment on the SFR Holiday Blitz post from Sunday.

    I cannot possibly filter and transfer comments from other posts into the hat.

    Please repost your SFR Holiday Blitz comments to Sunday's post.

    Good Luck!

    Rowena Cherry

  21. Blue-tinged screen, GA-7 beacon, data relay drone... woo-hoo! When I read your books I want to be a spaceship captain too :) Love the visuals, sounds, smells of the worlds you create. Cannot wait for Rebels and Lovers to be released...

  22. I totally understand your wtf moment. LOL.

    The descriptions of tech and worldbuilding are some of my favorite parts.

    Course, I don't normally read contemps or historicals for exactly the questions you asked of her. Some of the long descriptions in those aren't my cup of espresso.

    I say, don't let it bother you, because there are people who love your blend of fiction, there are those growing to love it, and there are those who never will. Please, keep writing the SFR since your SFRs are all on my auto-buy list.