Three years I attended the week-long bootcamp/spiritual pummeling/lovefest known as Viable Paradise. If you’re a serious genre writer, or simply looking for your tribe, check them out.
Several of our instructors discussed the special challenge faced by SF/F writers: how much exposition is necessary to create the world? More importantly, how much is too much? They referred to this as the burden of exposition. For every cool technology, language, ritual, gender, and dinner item that you invent for your story, there is a corresponding weight for your reader. They have to carry that around in their mental backpack as they traverse the landscape of your tale. After a while, that backpack is going to get heavy. When it’s heavy, it’s distracting.
I had a trunk story that I revised after VP. It was a Jack Vance-inspired story, set in a far future Earth where garbage men were priests, and hereditary Princes ruled absolutely, surrounded by Official Toadies. I filled it with all sorts of weird world building because hey, I was having fun.
However, the story was too long. I needed to bring it in at 5000 words. I needed to lose at least one scene, and a lot of description. I really fought through those edits, since I was worried that the readers wouldn’t appreciate the story I didn’t provide context for everything.
Wrong. Readers are “extrapolating machines” (Therese Hayden Smith). Give them enough clues, and they’ll usually figure it out.
Once I embraced this principle, I carved away enough words to meet the editor’s requirement. The end result wasn’t my original vision, but it got the job done. And I still liked it.
So did the editor at Perihelion SF. In his acceptance letter, he wrote:
“I’m sort of glad you didn’t make any attempt whatsoever to explain how that society came to be. That would be unnecessarily confusing and probably elicit an immediate rejection.“
So when you’re asking the reader to carry all your Cool Details, choose wisely.