Monday, June 14, 2010

Walking the Line in SFR

World Building Versus Info Dumping

First off, let me just remind everyone of one thing -- as Abraham Lincoln said, you can’t please all the people all the time. So, it’s unlikely anyone is ever going to be able to create the “perfect book”, one where they world build with the exact right amount of data and detail without any form of info dumping…at least according to the entire reading population.

You can write the most popular book in the world, but there will always be those who don’t care for it, some of them virulently. It’s the nature of art because everyone truly IS a critic: No matter what you do creatively, someone will always find fault with it.

Gini’s Definitions
World Building -- creating the sense of place and time so the reader/viewer is included into the story with a sense of acceptance or wonder and is able to suspend disbelief.

Info Dumping -- too much information, over-abundance of information, detracting from the reader’s/viewer’s enjoyment.

Info Lack -- The lack of enough information, which can leave the reader/viewer confused, annoyed, and ultimately dissatisfied because there isn’t enough explanation to allow disbelief to remain suspended.

Genre Needs Are Different

World building is important in every genre, but possibly most important in science fiction and fantasy. In these genres, authors are taking readers to a place that either exists only in the author’s imagination, or sharing events that can only or have only happened in the author’s imagination. This makes world building vital to a reader’s understanding of what’s going on, their ability to “see” the world and situations the author’s taken them too.

Romantic sparks are vital to a romance. But romance isn’t a requirement in science fiction OR fantasy. There’s plenty of romance in both, but not enough to be accepted as a natural part of the SF/F genre overall. If there’s romance, most times it’s not front and center, and many times it’s not integral to the plot.

But all that’s different with Science Fiction Romance. In this cross-genre/sub-genre, the romance is as important as the science fiction, or at least it’s darned close. (There are debates raging about Romantic Science Fiction vs. Science Fiction Romance, but I’m not getting into that here -- that’s for others to discuss and decide. For this purpose, SFR or RSF are the same: there’s a lot of romance in that science fiction story.)

Herein lies the crux of the problem. Science fiction readers expect world building. They expect to have the science explained. You can’t say, “he moved at supersonic speed” without, somewhere along the line, explaining how that’s possible. Traveling to a new world? You’d better have some explanation for how the space flight will work. Depending on your SF -- hard or soft -- you’ll have to explain a lot or a little, but explain you will. Because science fiction readers expect it, and if you don’t do it, they can’t buy your situations.

Romance readers, on the other hand, are willing to take a lot of the world building as a given, as long as they find the characters’ romantic situation compelling enough. They’re willing to accept what the author says at face value, because what they care about most is how believable, fun, romantic, spicy, etc., the romance actually is. Their focus is on the relationships between the characters more than the characters’ relationships to the world.

I’m not saying that romance readers aren’t discerning. They are. But what they’re looking for is at odds with what most science fiction readers are looking for. They want a central relationship they can sink their teeth into and become emotionally invested in, far more than they want to understand the inner workings of black hole technology.

I’m not saying that science fiction readers don’t care about characters and relationships. They do. But what they want is a believable world, a situation that they can buy into, and proof that it could actually happen, far more than they want a romantic happily ever after.

Cater…a Little
I personally think it’s a lot easier to get the romance side to come over to SF, than the SF side to go to romance. Books shelving in the SF/F section will have a better chance of garnering both SF and romance readers -- the SF ones because the book is on “their” shelves, the romance ones most likely from buzz, be it word of mouth, reviews, or social networking.

Yes, I’m suggesting you cater more to the SF side and put in a little more of the world building and scientific explanations than you might in a straight romance. The key phrase is “a little”. Too much and you run the risk of losing the romance side. Too little, though, and you’ll lose the SF side. And as much as it pains me to write this, it’s easier and less frustrating for a reader to skim (ack!) over some explanation they’re not interested in than to wonder why and how some character can achieve some feat that appears impossible.

Walk the Line
I follow a rule here -- please your publisher. If you’re pubbing with an imprint that does no romance (like I do, since I’m with DAW Books), the SF side is always going to take precedence. If you’re with a romance imprint, the romance side will take the lead, most likely per your editor’s requirements.

Find a romance reader(s) if you’re heavy on SF. Find an SF reader(s) if you’re heavy on romance. Have them read your MS and tell you where they stumbled. Change what you can/agree with.

So, once that’s done, how to still ensure the other ‘half’ of your potential readership enjoys your book? What’s a science fiction romance author to do? What any other writer should do: Write the story you want, that your editor approves, that your publisher wants to put onto the bookshelves. And know you’ll never please everyone, so you’d better please yourself.


  1. Very interesting, Gini! Nice points too.

    I'm a big SF girl, but also romance is a love of mine as well. I am thrilled we have a genre where we can incorporate both aspects.

    I agree about walking the line and giving pubs what they are seeking, or seek out a pub that fits with your work. And still, be true to yourself and your story. Don't try to fit yourself into a sub-genre just because it may be the next big thing.

    World building as it relates to SFR is one of the subjects I touched lightly on and discussed on my recent blog tour to promo my book. I see it as important and necessary esp. for SFR.

    Info dumping and/or not enough info? Yeah, we need a balance. And to do this is a practice, as well as researching the science/tech part. We also need to balance the romance with that science/tech. How the balance plays out depends on the pub we target. As you said, some stories will lean more toward romance, and some more toward science, or SF. Knowing the publisher we are targeting is the key here.

    Thanks for all the great information!

  2. "'ll never please everyone so you'd better please yourself." What perfect advice!

  3. Wow. I'm reading Touched by an Alien right now, Gini - and am enjoying it. You might be pleased to know it was shelved in Scifi at a local B&N and was, in fact, a staff pick at that store - so it had a write up and shelf space for cover-out presentation. It hadn't occurred to me that Daw had no romance imprint - but now that you say it, I recall that it's true. How challenging were the edits based on that? Obviously your editor loved your stuff to take a chance on picking up a genre he/she wasn't entirely familiar with - but did that present any issues when edits came your way?

  4. @Kaye - thanks, I'm really glad you liked the article! And I totally agree with you -- trying to fit into what "looks hot" is useless. If you're with one of the Big 6, it'll be 2 years before your book has a hope of hitting the shelves. It's faster with independents and epubs, but tastes change, and that quickly. Better to write the book you love that you can stand behind at any time, IMHO.

    @Amber - I owe that line to Ricky Nelson (he was both gorgeous AND talented), but it's always been true. Do what you love, please yourself, and the rest will follow.

    @Marcella - I'm so glad you're enjoying it! And awesome news on Touched by an Alien being the staff pick! Which B&N? (I must know! LOL)

    Good questions about DAW. DAW only pubs Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. They DO feel they're out on a limb with TBAA, but it's not just the romance part, it's the other elements, too, the humor and the general attitude, the voice. But from an editing standpoint, my editor is a DREAM. I'm being completely spoiled, because she's just amazing. She had no issues with the romance (at all), but did have me bump up some Christopher and Kitty interactions to make the triangle more real.

    I'm not a believer in the idea that a SF/F editor can't properly edit SFR, because mine can, did, and does. My book is Science Fiction first (which is a DAW speciality), romance, humor and action second. So, from that aspect, my editor had no issues with the book -- she's been editing SF for a long time.

    I didn't write TBAA with any SFR intent (I didn't know SFR existed as specific sub-genre until the book was out and Heather and Agent Z at The Galaxy Express taught me the secret handshake and told me all about it, and why I fit there) -- I wrote the story I wanted to tell. DAW really believes in it, they purchased Books 3 & 4 last month, so I think that's both a good sign for me personally and for SFR in general. If one of the biggest publishers of SF/F is behind an SFR series, then that has to bode well for the sub-genre as a whole. At least, that's my hope.

  5. Gini,

    Great article! You're right about not pleasing everyone. I have Touched on my wishlist at the Sony store, but promised dh I'd read some of my print books before buying more ebooks. But it shouldn't be too long.

    You're right that there's a whole spectrum of degrees of romance to sf that readers like. I'm on the SF end, but I'm finding that every year I inch closer to the middle. LOL.

    Can't wait to read your book. Congrats on getting a multi-book deal.

  6. @Anna - thanks so much! I'm still bouncing over here about it. LOL

    I think I'm right on the line with Touched by an Alien, and some of that's because I don't write hard SF. I can read it and enjoy it, but I'm not going to write it any time soon. Would you call your books more hard SF than soft?

    Really, I think it's great that there IS that full spectrum. Because not everyone likes the same things, and some days you want beef, some days chicken, some days a salad, and so forth. I love (LOVE) chocolate cake with vanilla butter-cream frosting, but I couldn't eat it every meal. (Every day, now that's another story...) So why should what readers want to read be any different?

  7. I got a comment from a critique partner today that SF seems much more cerebral. I suppose it is. World building is my favorite part. :)

  8. As a long-time SF reader, I really like SF I read to be true to science whether there's romance in it or not.

    It seems to me that old-time SF is filled with romance and sex. Look at Robert Heinlein. Couldn't get much more sex back in the day and still be mainstream SF.

    I hope when my book comes out that readers will read a non-paranormal, non-alien, hard SF dystopian future . . . with rayguns. ;)

  9. @M.Pax - I've heard similar. Cerebral's all well and good, but you have to grab the heart as well as the mind. I love world building, but I like character interaction more (and fight scenes...LOL). But I love to be taken to new worlds by other authors -- it's great to see what we all come up with, because it's a never-ending variety of interesting places and ideas.

    @Marva - You never know what's going to grab whom and how. I agree that there's a lot of romance in older SF. I think there's a lot of romance in not-that-old SF, too. And from what I'm seeing at places like SF Signal, the hard SF folks are chomping at the bit for your book. :-D

    I could get into the "true to science" debate with you, because I don't think there's a clear line for what IS true to science, if you will, but that's for either another article or over martinis. ;-D

  10. Great article, Gini. And I appreciate the Garden Party quote, too. So true.

    I learned the dangers of "over-building" with my first novel, where I had pages and pages of description of a palace. With help from critiquers I learned how to cut all the dull static descriptions and keep it interesting by using character interaction--either physically or emotionally--with their environment, much like your definition: "so the reader/viewer is included into the story with a sense of acceptance or wonder and is able to suspend disbelief."

  11. @Laurie - thanks! I'm really glad you enjoyed it! (And so glad someone else knew which song I was referring to...LOL!)

    Some readers like over-building (my husband, for one), some don't. It's all about finding what works best for our individual writing styles and voices, isn't it? And then having those wonderful critiquers and beta readers who are able and willing to point out where we still need to improve. :-D

  12. @Gini--My books are all wips right now. I think they all lean toward the SF or harder side. Some of vital elements that will definitely need explaining but I'll try to make that short. LOL.

    I just hope to finish them. LOL. My muse needs some butt-kicking. LOL. Or maybe I just need some unbroken sleep.

  13. @Anna - short isn't always right. Sprinkled in and through is better. If you can do it. Yeah, it's FUN! walking that line. LOL

    And, just relax and remind your muse that you can always edit or cut. Every word coming out doesn't have to be perfect, that's why we call them drafts.

  14. Awesome post. I will have to read it later when I have more time to savor all the SFR worldbuilding goodness.

    I just popped in to say that SF Signal linked to this post!

  15. Great post! Thanks for sharing. It's nice to see other SFR writer's views on this.

  16. Gini, the B&N in question was the store at the Crossroads Mall in Bellevue, WA.

  17. @Laura - Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

    @Marcella - Ooh, thank you for the info!


We love to hear from you! Comments must pass moderation to be published. Spam will be deleted.

SFR Brigade Bases of Operation