Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Knowledge Sets - advantages and disadvantages

Thank you to the participants who have responded about posting their work. I'm putting the pieces up in the comment section of the Workshop Participants area, for those who would like to see them.

I want to talk a little about using knowledge sets, by which I mean using words in your manuscript to access interrelated pieces of knowledge in a reader's mind. Knowledge sets are powerful tools for setting expectations, and because of that, they can be a really big advantage - or a really big disadvantage - to the writer who uses them.

In this workshop group the person with the most easily and completely accessed knowledge set is Bill Moonroe, with his mars explorer piece. The minute we hear the "giant leap for mankind," we're set. We can imagine the moon lander, the astronauts and their gear - let's face it, the entirety of human history up to this point. This lets us feel grounded immediately with a sense of "I know where I am," and it also frees us up to stop paying attention to certain things.

Our reader antennae, which have been reaching out for clues, start to focus in and look for what is new about this situation. Bill then has the job of making sure that what is new is fully in focus. The space suits, for example - he says the woman's suit accentuates her figure. This makes a reader pause momentarily and revise the worldview established by the existing set. He also talks about the Second Space Age. This changes the game considerably, but there's not much sense of what it means in the current piece. Yes, we'll learn more as we read more, but I think even in a short beginning bit like this one there are great opportunities to demonstrate what it means. More on that later.

Along with the responsibility to make clear what is new, there is another thing to watch out for with a very complete knowledge set, and that is, not everyone who reads the piece may be in possession of every part of the set. This is an issue that has to do with how broad the appeal of the story will be. Because I am not well versed in space history, the name Squyreston doesn't ring any bells for me (also, could "pulling a Ford" be related to this?). Without the expert background knowledge of Bill and Ryan, a reader might become confused.

On the other end of the set spectrum we've got David Marshall's underwater piece. There isn't much of a comfortable set to be had here - and in fact, that discomfort is probably intentional. I personally love to create an alien point of view that really makes people rethink what they know. But it has the disadvantage that it may create confusion. It may be a testament to my lack of sleep, but it took me several readings to figure out what the "Lesser Void" and "Greater Void" were, and what the protagonist was actually doing.

Yes, this is great stuff: creating a mind that labels things we find familiar in an unfamiliar way. But the job of the author then becomes that of dropping hints of orientation that will allow us to comprehend the analog being used. I'm thinking that in this case the addition of directions, up and down in particular, would be informative. A sense of the size of the "veil" might also help to orient a reader. When most of the terms are unfamiliar, people will jump more slowly to accept a very complete set. It is important to include as much of the familiar as you can to evoke the set you want.

Even a very few words can be enough to evoke a set. Kerry Thompson expressed some surprise that I would pick a Victorian English knowledge set for her sailing piece. For me it wasn't the sailing that evoked that set for me, but the names of the two men, and the way that they spoke to one another. By the time I got to "my dear fellow," the set was in place, and this was one reason why I guessed fantasy for her piece rather than science fiction.

If you ever end up with a set that is doing something you don't want it to (as in this example, evoking fantasy and not sf), you've got two options: either ground the set, i.e. talk about the planet Nova Britannia and how it was settled by Englishmen; or break the set intentionally. Breaking the set involves choosing and integrating some distinct differences that will stand out and change the reader's expectations, much as with Bill and his slimline space suits.

I'll give a little example from my own work. My Varin world has a complex caste system which is not at all feudal, but which can appear to be so at first glance. So though Varin is a high-technology world, I've had many test readers say the technology took them by surprise. So what I have to do is every time I start a Varin piece, I have to make sure to place the setting and technology in plain view as early as possible. I break, or defeat, the set. If I don't, the set will continue to work against me.

In Ryan's piece, I find myself suspecting a set - the Andean set - because of the people's names and the scenery description - but I don't feel certain. This is in part due to the use of the fantasy bird, pharu. It puts me on my guard for differences, and makes me want just a little bit more information to justify or defeat my suspicions. As the story goes on we may get more information to sway us one way or another, but we'll still be looking out for pieces of the Andean set, and for differences.

In K's piece we've got layered sets. The technology she mentions will cause us to anticipate other types of related technologies - all good. We've got enough unfamiliar information that we don't assume this is earth, and the relation between it and earth can remain a mystery. It's not critical to know the relation precisely at this point. Yes, K has chosen to use words like car and ComBud, which use familiar concepts, but this works to our advantage in visualizing them. There's no point in labeling them in an unfamiliar way simply because they are not earth-related; we can consider them translated for our purposes. Because the technology is not critically in question here, it's fine to leave those things under the radar. More intriguing is the question of the words "linked" and "psychic." Those words evoke some very strong associations, both in our world, and in the history of fantasy and science fiction writing. If this world has a unique combination of mental abilities, and if it impacts on the plot (which it already does here, in the form of the distinction between regular people and Corpa, and in people's behavior and morals), then this is probably a context where defeating the typical sets is recommended. Giving details and specifics about the way the linked affect works, for example; even possibly staying away from the most commonly used words to describe mental powers.

My final note for today has to do with knowing too much. The more time you spend in your world, the more it will tend to resolve into sets for you - which is to say, that words and phrases local to your world will evoke other aspects of that world for you. The trick is, it won't necessarily do the same thing for a reader who doesn't share your extensive knowledge base. I have this problem all the time. This is partly why it's so important to me to have "naive" readers who are unfamiliar with the world I'm using. They have a unique perspective on the issue of world entry, and whether I've made it reasonably easy, or unreasonably difficult.

In the earliest parts of a piece, the knowledge sets you rest on are either real-world sets, or sets that come from a reader's previous experience in the genre. What I've been talking about here is how to tune those so they start to become the sets you need for your own world. Pay special attention to the sets that will be directly applicable to the main conflict of your story, beause a reader's understanding of the whole story may rest on how the relevant set is established.

Participants, by Friday can you please give me a brief description of the main conflict of your story, what your protagonist's role will be in it and where this scene stands relative to it. Please also tell me the approximate length of the story, i.e. short, novella, or novel.

Thank you so much! Questions and comments are always encouraged. More soon...


  1. My excerpt is from this year's NaNoWriMo novel, so I can tell you that it is exactly 50,330 words long. :) I'm hoping to edit it in the near future though, so it will likely grow a bit.

    The scene here is the third chapter in the novel, but the first with Curo.

    The main conflict in the novel is that the emperor dies (under mysterious circumstances) and a war of succession breaks out when the emperor's brother Malyapac, and both sons (Eputequil and Thocapac) lay claim to the throne. To make things more complicated, an invading fleet led by Amos Steele arrives at about the same time. Curo, the protagonist introduced in my scene, is one of three main characters. He befriends the emperor's younger son, Thocapac, who turns out to be the rightful heir to the throne by the emperor's dying wish. Curo will escape with Thocapac from the capital city, which has been claimed by Malyapac, and help the prince to raise an army and take his rightful place on the throne.

    Sorry if that's confusing... lots of unfamiliar names and events to fit into a short blurb.

  2. Lison is my antagonist, although I have a weakness for ambiguity in this regard. The protagonist is Kei, the unnamed celebrity being carried away after having been discovered in bed with another woman. The spine of the story is her struggle for survival and acceptance in her singularity, although Lison would frame it as his heroic effort to eliminate her deviancy and contain her dangerous pseudopathy in a way that makes her compatible with the greater collective. They both have a role to play in a larger quest for racial legitimacy in the universe. This is the first scene from Lison’s POV, and directly follows the lovers’ arrest. It is a novel.

  3. Hi Juliette,
    The Squyreston reference gets a few more "arrows" as the main character regards the Columbia Hills above the habitat, and the "rover-size mound of dust" on its flanks, but that's a few pages later. As far as "pulling a Ford", that may be something to edit out later, but sort of refers to the classic Gerald Ford airplane step.

    This is an incomplete novel, but the main story is what would it be like to be the first to climb Mount Olympus, though there are personal conflicts along the way. I sort of view Eric as having a Frank Burns kind of a personality, and mountain climbing was not on his list.

    The main character, Perry--is that too obvious a name for an explorer?--is the driving force behind this expedition, and when all the things that can go wrong do go wrong, he's the one who has to cope with the consequences. This scene was an example of the subconscious being smarter than the conscious, since Eric later has a fall that isn't brushed off quite so easily.

    It's interesting that you've zeroed in on the suits. I think it was sort of important to set them up as being more advanced than what we have today. Both in terms of the Mars mission--it seems unlikely that such a mission would be sent without the gear for prolonged time on the surface, and in terms of climbing Olympus Mons, pressure suit technology is going to be fairly critical.

  4. Bill, thanks for the clarification. My issue is basically that it wasn't clear whether Squyreston was a person place or thing as you have introduced it, so maybe you could add an explicit clue which lets on that it's a thing/place named after a person. That would be enough for me to accept it easily even without the inside knowledge about Squyres. Pulling a Ford (okay, I get it now) seems somewhat distant in time by "now," so unless that event somehow took on greater importance between now and however many years in the future, it might not be the best choice. On the other hand, I like it because it could be used to imply a particular type of world knowledge on the part of the protagonist.

  5. Okay. My excerpt is the opening scene of what will probably be a novella. It sets up the (as-yet-unnamed) protagonist, an arcati equivalent to a teenage girl. The conflict begins with her mother dragging her back to the Great Reef -- the only place a sensible arcati would be if she wished to avoid the night-time predators.
    The daughter is not quite as sensible as her mother might wish. She is a dreamer, and her dreams include exploring the stars. But, given her race's tech level and environment, she will never get there.
    She gets the next best thing when her father apprentices her to the Watchers. But the reality does not live up to her expectations. The Lord of Astrophysics spends most of his watches sleeping, and there are severe penalties for waking him. So the Watch upon the stars is only kept properly by those who are diligent. Like her.
    So she is the first to sight the human starship when it slips into orbit around her homeworld.
    Of course, the humans are having conflicts of their own…

  6. P.S. Your comments on size and direction to help orient the reader are good. Second draft will definitely reflect them. :)

  7. Juliette, I've been going over your comments on "what the character was doing".

    Now, I had used the word "veil" to replace my earlier choice ("interface"), but I agree it's just not clear enough.

    Current plans for second draft -- she will swim up, and up, to the End Of The World. And then she will look through the End Of The World, and see what's on the other side.

    And, as the reader is absorbing that, I'll start talking about the way the End Of The World keeps moving.

    I can't believe that I forgot to put in waves...