February 20th, 2011

An introduction to the destructive nature of disbelief

So I've recently been working with an editor on some of my stories, and having a very frustrating time of it. He's very good. He's very talented, and he's likely more representative of editors that I am trying to sell to than anyone I have worked with before. But I've heard things from him that I've never heard from anyone else who reviewed these stories, and it confused me greatly.

It turns out he has a very interesting habit that I am having trouble dealing with. It's best to show by analogy. Imagine if someone was talking about having read Fellowship of the Ring, and they said something like this?
It seems like a solid book, but it's got such a slow start. Nothing happens until Rivendell. They need to either start the story at Rivendell, or make the trip difficult. Give us some challenges, something to have to get through on the way to Rivendell. That would be a much better start.

You'd be staring at the person like they had grown a second head, wouldn't you? This is exactly how I felt when reading his reviews.

After a lot, and I mean A LOT, of time thinking about this and looking at several of his reviews, I finally figured out what the problem is. He picks out things in the story that he doesn't believe or doesn't work for him, and then completely removes them from the story in his head. They simply cease to exist. For example, in the analogy above, with some probing you would learn that he found the nine horsemen unlikely. Because the explanation about them didn't work for him, he simply disbelieved them out of existence. And thus found the trip to Rivendell boring.

I think that most review-group peers are willing to point at something and say "this didn't work for me" but assume that the thing does exist, and the interactions with the thing are still part of the story for them, and review in that sense. I know that I give peers a bit of tolerance so that I can try and see what they intended.

However, even when I'm reading a story for pleasure and something doesn't quite strike me right, I do notice it. But I hold some suspension of disbelief, some trust in the author and let the story flow.

I totally understand than an editor should identify what doesn't work and flag it. I've just never seen such an intense activation of disbelief -- willing characters, scenes and plots entirely out of existence. And without much mention of the thing that was disbelieved. You have to go through the story carefully to pick out the thing which was dropped from his mind.

In the latest review, he suggests that the first scene could be cut. He then goes on to criticize things in the story that would absolutely be true... if the first scene didn't exist. But as these things are very clearly laid out in the first scene, most of the other points don't make much sense. They make perfect sense to him, who has already disbelieved the first scene out of existence.

This begs an interesting question. How many readers out there do similar things? I guess I find it hard to believe in, because I've never seen this before. I've seen many people argue or whether or not a given character or scene was believable, but I've never seen the person then disbelieve the character or scene out of existence and then make a judgement of the rest of the movie/book/story with the assumption that this thing was never there.

I do intend to think about this more, and see what I can change in my writing to prevent this. But I know from experience that lots of people disbelieve things with are 100% rational, true and existent today. It's a funny thing that the futuristic bits of my science fiction has rarely been challenged, the vast majority of challenges have been about real things that are commonplace today. And I've had to write justification into my stories not for the futuristic technology, but to justify things you can see on the evening news every day. So I've got a significant sense that this might be an impossible effort.

Originally posted at http://jorhett.dreamwidth.org/7731.html. You can comment there using OpenID, or here if you prefer.
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