Why Is It Not Bats?

The post title is a direct quote of a friend’s 3-year old, who asked her mother the above question when told she was having chicken for dinner. (I like this kid) But it turns out to not just be funny but I think good advice for me when I’m writing science fiction.

See, one of the things that I’ve gotten criticism for in my science fiction is that it’s not alien enough — I write about people living in the future, on alien worlds and in new paradigms. And yet my characters speak English in much the same way I do, they drink coffee and wine, they eat pretty much the same vegetables, grains, and animals. It’s not that weird. It’s a “Future people wear hats” sort of problem, the kind of thing I can deal with, but only if I think carefully about it. It’s not that I can’t write “bats” where I usually put “chicken”: I have notes for interesting stuff — For example, I wrote a scene in an off-world sushi bar just for fun, with the chef talking about how to deal with the calcium carbonate crystals embedded in the flesh of a local fish-thing (which ordinarily dissolve when cooked, but must be specially treated to enjoy raw) I just don’t put them in my fiction.

To some extent, I don’t want “weird” to get in the way of the story. I had a mention in one draft of The Body and the Bomb of a pickpocket tree. It stole stuff out of Crandall’s pockets, which he had to take back and wipe the pollen off. Loved the idea, but I couldn’t make it fit and be germane to the plot. It’s almost entirely cut out now, but I keep coming back to it: is it worth reworking a later plot point to make that relevant? Does it add enough flavor to be worth the few dozen words devoted to it? Or does it just stand in the way of a pared-down story that needs to be shorter if it’s going to sell?

I also don’t want to succumb to some form of funny-forehead syndrome or just calling everyday things by weird names. But I think maybe I worry about that too much, I over-react. And as a result, I think my fiction ends up being too mundane.

So I need to start asking more often, “Why is it not bats?” Sometimes I’ll have a good answer. If I do, so be it, but if I don’t: Bats it is!

4 thoughts on “Why Is It Not Bats?

  1. In my (very, VERY) humble opinion, you should always leave the weird stuff in until your trusted beta readers go through it. They’ll tell you whether or not it was worth keeping, or if you especially want to keep it, how you might do it. They’ll either confirm your suspicions, and then it gets the axe, or they’ll tell you how delighted they were with the concept and how it made them think about it for days.

    I’m assuming, of course, that you have those trusted beta readers. (If you don’t, I will help you find some. One of them will be me, because “pickpocket tree” and “calcium carbonate sushi” sound awesome.)

    1. No, that’s good advice. Good beta-readers won’t be shy about telling me whether it’s really a distraction.

      I really just need to be less self-conscious about it — I’ve been writing for a while, but it’s only been really the last year where I’ve been trying to get published, and looking back I’m being much more conservative (hell, timid) with my “This will get published!” prose than with my “screwing around as high school/college/grad school escapism” prose.

  2. I was wondering where you’d go with that :).

    So I’m wondering if this is hard because maybe it’s a place where your genres are warring against one another. I mean, in sci-fi, I want it to be bats. Part of the reason I read that genre is that I want to see how people construct new worlds, and what the implications of their choices are (and how they think them through), and what light these alien elements shed on what it means to be human. Awesome!

    But it seems to me in a mystery — with my standard disclaimer that I do not generally read mysteries — the reader needs a fair chance to figure out the riddle, and that’s hard if there’s too many bats. You have to explain the bats well enough that the reader can understand how they affect the solution, without sinking into a morass of boring exposition. And the bats always pose a threat of deus ex machina. Deus ex chiroptera. Whatever.

    1. This is true: my choice of two genres works against me here in some ways. Fairness demands that the reader understand what’s possible in the universe. Deus ex chiroptera will feel like a cheat if it’s the key to the solution. Bats also grab the reader’s attention, which may be a help in the story-writing process, now that I think about it, a convenient way to draw their attention away from someone else. While it would be a cheat if it were the solution, it’ll always seem like it could be. I’ll need to think about that some more.

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