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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Science Fiction Author Gray Rinehart: Do the Math, but Don't Show Your Work

Do the Math, but Don't Show Your Work
By Gray Rinehart
Science Fiction Author

Do you remember in school, when you took a math test, being required by the teacher to show your work? To put down every step in the problem-solving process, even though some of the steps seemed trivial? Even if you could work them out in your head and get the correct answer, if you failed to write down a step or two the teacher would mark your answer as incomplete because showing your work was how they knew you understood.

Have you ever applied that technique to your writing? As the "Slushmaster General" for Baen Books, I see nearly every unsolicited manuscript that comes in and I can say with confidence that many writers recall that "show your work" experience and practice it when they shouldn't. They "show the work" to such a degree that the details begin to overwhelm the narrative. Sometimes that comes through in the form of the much-maligned "info dump," sometimes in digressions that distract from, rather than enhance, the story.

Including a lot of detail isn't necessarily a problem, of course. Some readers love the details, and even hunger for more, whether they prefer fantasy or science fiction. Detail-oriented readers may enjoy learning about spaceship specifications or magical creature habitats, and in some respects we write such stories because we, ourselves, enjoy those details. Furthermore, many readers, whether hard science fiction or epic fantasy readers, demand a certain level of detail in order for them to visualize the settings and characters and actions clearly enough to enjoy the story.

Other readers' eyes glaze over when we stray too far from the narrative, the actual story we're trying to tell, in order to delve into something that may be important but need not be visible. We may be tempted to fill our story with details and research that we find interesting but those readers will find tedious.

In my science fiction, I try to strike a balance between telling a straightforward, plausible story, and including enough detail to help the reader understand what's going on. For example, in my novella "We Side With the Free" (Analog, November 2016), it was important for me to figure out the mass, gravitational pull, and rate of rotation of the asteroid that was the cause of concern, but not for me to walk the reader through any calculations. I did the math, but didn't show my work.

I see the opposite problem in some stories, in which writers haven't done enough research into the scientific underpinnings or haven't worked out the details enough. As a result, their stories lack a measure of authenticity, a sense of plausibility. And plausibility is the key when it comes to science fiction: not that all of the science has to be proven, but that it has to sound reasonable and seem plausible to the reader.

On one extreme, some readers care hardly at all for details. An army of ten thousand orcs has appeared at the city gates, with no baggage train and no rumors reaching the city of a marauding, foraging force? Some readers will not bat an eye. We built up the space fleet in short order, with no mention that the cost of a single ship might equal the gross domestic product of an entire planet? A trivial concern, to some readers.

Such forgiving readers are precious indeed, but on the other end of the reader spectrum are those who will tear the story engine down to the parts out of the sheer joy of finding out how it all fits together. And if one of the parts of the story we designed doesn't seem to fit ... disappointment may be too mild a word.

So we balance in between: we try to be thorough, without being pedantic, and to give readers a sense of reality even in the careful unreality of our tales. And when it comes to science fiction in particular, yes, sometimes that means we have to do the math to make sure the foundation of our story is solid. But we can usually do without showing the work, so that we don't bog down the story with the steps.

*Review of Walking on the Sea of Clouds coming July 23*

Walking on the Sea of Clouds
by Gray Gray Rinehart
July 26, 2017
WordFire Press
. . . survival and success require sacrifice.
. . . some sacrifices are greater than others.
. . . sometimes surviving is success enough.
Every frontier, every new world, tempts and tests the settlers who try to eke out an existence there. In Walking on the Sea of Clouds, a few pioneering colonists struggle to overcome the unforgiving lunar environment as they work to establish the first independent, commercial colony on the "shore" of Mare Nubium, the "Sea of Clouds." What will they sacrifice to succeed -- and survive?

David Farland, author of the NYT-bestselling Runelords novels, said, "This book will be treasured by anyone who has ever dreamt of visiting the Moon, walking on another world, or bathing beneath the light of a distant star." 

About the Author:
Gray Rinehart retired from the U.S. Air Force after a rather odd career. “Eclectic,” he likes to call it. During his first and second assignments, he researched and wrote the first edition of Quality Education. He is the only person to command an Air Force tracking station, write speeches for Presidential appointees, and have his music played on The Dr. Demento Show.

After retiring from active duty, Gray became a Contributing Editor for Baen Books, and also spent several years on the staff of the Industrial Extension Service at North Carolina State University. His fiction has appeared in Analog Science Fiction & Fact, Asimov's Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, several anthologies, and elsewhere. His first novel is slated to be published by WordFire Press. He is also a singer/songwriter with two albums of mostly science-fiction-and-fantasy-inspired songs—two of which have been featured on The Dr. Demento Show.

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