Birds sailing boats – how much to justify?

Posted: February 10, 2014 in writing
Tags: , , ,

I wrote a story in which birds were sailing a warship. It made perfect sense in my head and the writing was up to my usual standards. So I submitted it to a magazine.

The rejection I got was a good one. Positive about my writing and the story while pointing out the things the editor didn’t think worked. Among the she they raised was a question – why would birds bother with a boat?

Captain Beaky tries to work out how to work a rudder without hands

Captain Beaky ponders how to work a rudder without hands

It’s not a stupid question, and it’s not like I didn’t have answers. But I have to admit, there was a certain extent to which that was just the basis of my fantasy and everything flowed from there.

When writing fantasy you always have some point of departure, some way in which your world differs from reality. It’s good for it to make sense, but how far do you need to go in justifying the change? Do you work out how dragons evolved? The astrophysics of your hexagonal planet? The genetics that allows humans and orcs to make little baby half-orcs?

To an extent it’s probably a matter of taste. But how far do you like an author to go, or do you like to go in your own writing? Are you willing to accept a couple of big unexplained differences, or do you need it all justified? Help a poor struggling author to work out where he stands.

  1. glenatron says:

    I need internal coherence and I need for things to make sense logically For example, if the birds can fly you would probably need to explain their need for ships – flying with any amount of heavy cargo being totally impractical, for example – but you would gain points if the ship design reflected the practicality of being crewed by birds in some way.

    For example, castles in stories that have magicians and other creatures that can fly usually seem to be just like castles in our world, whereas you would think that the strategic divergence caused by flying enemies would affect the architecture in a world where that happens.

    So maybe you have perches in the rigging and no ladders up into the sails. Perhaps there isn’t even a deck, just a bunch of rungs that people can perch on and hop between. Maybe losing the ship is a risk that birds can take because they can fly home more easily so their lives are less placed at hazard by it. Maybe the birds are more like people with some avian features, in which case the usual principles apply. ( See also: Steph Swainston )

    In a reply ages ago I talked about reader-oriented writing being a kind of application of usability type thinking into writing. I think considering the practicality of life for creatures of different body shape or ability to us is a way of applying that thinking to world building.

    So for me the world needs to make sense, but I don’t necessarily need to know how it got that way- for example I don’t know how or why dragons can fly and I don’t care as long as the story has got a handle on me. That said, when Terry Pratchett does make an explanation for it in Strata, it certainly added something or gave a different angle on the traditional story, which I think was really his goal in that book.

    • Reading your comments, and how many different details you came up with just for a blog comment, has made me realise how little I’d thought it through for my story. I think that when writing fantasy we at least need to think the consequences through a bit to give it an air of authenticity, and I hadn’t really done that. I’ll head back to the story later with a new style of rigging in my head at least.

  2. Tom Seaton says:

    Tolerance for inconsistencies is contextual and perhaps separate from the effect on suspension of disbelief… perversely I find the more effort an author appears to be putting in the less tolerant I am!

    Although detailed settings have a harder time maintaining consistency (it’s easier to poke holes), maybe they simultaneously create a greater appetite for it? When reading a really deeply thought out piece of sci-fi, say Banks or Hamilton’s stuff, I’m far more jarred if I spot a minor problem than in something short and abstract.

    The class of inconsistency seems to matter as well. Economic or cultural oddities bother me more than scientific ones. (Although this might just be because I’m more used to spotting the latter and when I pick up on the others it’s more memorable.)

    Conclusion – it’s probably impossible to find a compromise that satisfies generally. But there’s a lot of successful fantasy material out that’s full of contradictions, so there must be a proportion of readers who’ll tolerate whatever level/kind is in the work (and it’s a question of crossing fingers that the publisher/reviewer falls into the right group?)

    • That point about people who go into more detail needing to be more accurate is an interesting one. I wonder if it’s about audience as well as atmosphere – an atmosphere that relies on detail and precision to hold up the structure, and an audience that’s reading precisely because of those well written details.

  3. John Moley says:

    I’m pretty sure that most birds could not sustain flight for long enough to cross an ocean. So, even in what we like to call “the real world”, there’s a good justification for birds making such voyages by ship. In a general sense, I can’t remember reading any story about which I felt the conceits that were clear from page 1 ever needed further justification. On the other hand, I think authors need to tread carefully when suddenly revealing after fifty pages that the world is not the way I thought. Depending on how it is executed, that can be either hugely enjoyable or rather vexing. Also, like Mr Seaton, I find that once an author starts to explain it activates my comprehension-brain and I start automatically looking for totally consistent rules. From what you have told us, it sounds like a failure of imagination on the part of the editor.

    • The point about sudden reveals further into the book is a good one. One of the trickiest things about it is the things readers will assume that a writer might not have. You’ve got to look out for the things you imply by accident and later explicitly contradict. Can’t think of a good example, but it’s definitely happened in drafts that I’ve handed to alpha readers.

      As for why these birds have a ship, I did have several good reasons in my head, but I’d not even hinted at them in the story. Funnily enough long distances weren’t really something I’d considered, though they may now get a mention as I do edits.

      • glenatron says:

        Conversely, the trick of implication followed by later explicit contradiction is one of the best tools in the box when you’re building up your plot. Every trap is also a potential asset, depending on who falls into it…

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