Archive for September, 2010

Voice, Style and Batman

September 27th, 2010 Comments off
A student of my wife’s was nice enough to read Shimmer and send me some questions about the book recently and which I’m repeating here, if only because these are the sorts of questions people often ask. This was the second part of his questions. (The first part was here.) Another of my questions was whether you write with a certain style in mind or a certain effect? As you write, do you use certain styles and techniques with the intent of them having a certain effect? Or do you just write what comes, and that, in and of itself, has the desired effect? Specifically, in cases where Robbie would get a text or an email, you would go on, not telling the reader what the message was until after you had described Robbie’s reaction. Or when you write only in gerunds, leaving it all in fragments, do you do that with the purpose of creating a sort of detached feeling? Or do you just think, wow I would really like to write it that way? I mostly write my way into a style. Originally, I think I set out to write a much more comic book about office life. (I started Shimmer long before The Office hit TV, but it’s probably good I didn’t write an office-based comedy. It’d be like getting a Batman tattoo in 1987, years before the Batman movies came out, but then after the series of movies do come out you have to live with the Batman tattoo on your chest for the rest of your life while everyone asks you things like, “So do you like the Michael Keaton Batman more than the Christian Bale Batman?” and you have to say, “Well, I’m really more of an Adam West guy.” Not that I know anyone who did this and is, still, living with the ramifications. I’m just throwing it out there as a hypothetical-type example.) But as I wrote, I kept finding my way into these darker, less comic places, and into a more personally, internally conflicted narrator. Still, I never thought about using a particular style, and definitely didn’t think about issues like fragments versus sentences. That all just sort of happens for me, and then evolves as I edit. It’s part of the overwriting that I mentioned, the sense that I keep writing in multiple different directions until I find a direction (or directions) that stick, that make sense, that interest me. (Even these answers I’m writing to you, I’m writing all of this out of order, focusing on one question, then another, with multiple unfinished sentences throughout the message, then copying and pasting pieces around.) And out of that overwriting also comes a voice. In this case, Robbie’s voice. But I never set out for it to sound one way or another, or to use a certain style. I always find those answers through the act of writing. More about my erratic way of writing here:
Categories: About Shimmer, About Writing Tags:

Research and Technology in Shimmer

September 12th, 2010 Comments off
A student of my wife’s was nice enough to read Shimmer recently and send me some questions about the book, which I finally managed to answer. This was the first part of his questions. I’ll post the second part next week. Dear Mr. Barnes, I am the student of Mrs. Crosby’s that read your book. I liked your book very much, but I had some questions, and she said I should ask you, since this provided a rare opportunity to ask the author why he wrote the book the way he wrote it. I noticed in your book that parts of it were very technical, and I wondered whether or not you studied all the stuff you discussed, if it just came naturally to you, or if you made it up. My greatest fear no only as I write but also as I converse with people is that they might stop me in the middle of what I’m saying to tell me that in fact I’d gotten it all wrong, there was something I was missing, didn’t know, or had forgotten. Do you write with those people in mind, making sure that every fact is correct? Or do you write in a sort of science fiction setting, where everything works, no matter what? I did very, very little research for the book. Mostly because I hate doing research. (Don’t tell Ms. Crosby.) I get chills and become short of breath just thinking about research. The technology in Shimmer was based on my own interests and experiences. I’d worked at a dot-com type company in the late 90s and had been at a number of publishing companies that were transitioning from old paste up to desktop publishing. This was in the early 90s, which, to my endless surprise, is nearly two decades ago. But comptuers were still new to the workplace back then, and the idea of designing a print publication on a computer screen was pretty radical. I’d always been something of a closet computer geek. Even though I was an English major in college, came out of college wanting to write and be a reporter, I was always interested in computers and technology. So that led me to a whole host of jobs in publishing that, for better and worse, went far beyond writing and reporting. (People ask me if write now for The Daily News, where I’m publisher, and my standard — probably tiresome — joke is, “Not really. But I do put together a really great memo from time to time.”) And so with that background, writing about the technology in Shimmer was relatively comfortable for me. It isn’t real — the technology described can’t and doesn’t truly work — but I didn’t particularly worry about that. I simply wanted the technology to be true itself, true to the reality I was creating in Shimmer. In that sense, yes, it’s like science-fiction in a way. But, really, all books have this problem or challenge in one way or another. And so I wouldn’t worry about someone stopping to question you on a given fact or detail. You have to take control of the reader in a way that negates those questions. If you’ve pulled the reader in, engrossed them in your writing and the story you’re telling, they won’t question the technical details any more than they question the believability of your characters or their dialogue or the setting. Put another way, you have to write with tremendous confidence — really, it’s arrogance, but that’s an ugly word — an unrelenting, unbreakable confidence in all facets of your work, the tone, the characters, the dialogue, the breaks, the style, and, yes, the details. But no one part is more important than the other. You have to own the reader. You have to control them. The hardest part about the technology for me was a concern about how much detail to include because, in including too much detail, I might lose the reader. I tend to overwrite anyway — if Shimmer was 280 pages in final form, I probably wrioe nearly 400 pages over the course of writing the book — and wrote way, way too much technical detail in the early drafts. Parly, I simply needed to define the world and the technology within it to myself first. Maybe this was a form of research, in a way. Writing out a far too detailed framework of how Shimmer and the shadow network and the entire operation of the company all inter-related. Once I had all that detail on the page, then I could come at it from the point of view of a reader — what does a reader want to know? What details are, for a reader, extraneous? In a sense, I had to cull the relevant facts and pieces from my own writing — i.e., do some research within my own writing. It’s all very circular and self referential. Writing, for me, requires a great deal of personal self-denial, constantly removing myself from the words I’ve written, the characters I’ve created, the world I’m trying to create. (By the way, some of the best writing I’ve ever read about the process of writing comes from Kurt Vonnegut. His essays, which are collected in a couple of different editions, are lucid, helpful, practical, self-deprecating and, thankfully, extremely entertaining.) One other thing I did that vaguely smelled of research was putting together a series of spreadsheets that calculated the value and scope of the financial and technical fraud underlying (undermining) the company. And I did a series of big, detailed timelines. I even had to put together a layout of the building — which group was on what floor, etc. Those things weren’t research necessarily, but it’s about as close as I got. Few of those details needed to be in the book, but I, as the author, needed to know all those facts, from which I could choose the necessary details to share with the reader. Ms. Crosby, in fact, was a great source for this sort of perspective, because she’s not someone particularly interested in technology, but she and I tend to like very similar books. My last thought on the technology is that I love when people tell me, “Well, I didn’t fully understand the technology and, actually, I skimmed some of those passages, but it didn’t matter, because of the writing and the characters.” In the end, for me, that’s what the book is about: The people, the characters, the unraveling of their lives. I was actually very disappointed that the publisher marketed the hardcover edition of the book with a lot of talk of the book being a “high tech literary thriller.” All the reviews had to unwind that notion — the book isn’t about high tech and isn’t a thriller, any more than Blood Meridian is a Western literary adventure novel, or Sirens of Titan is a Sci-Fi adventure. I actually wrote about some of these sorts of questions here: Fact and fiction and how a genius called me out on an impossible plot point: Timeline: Spreadsheets: Early notes on Shimmer: Early ideas for Shimmer: More early influences/ideas: And More: And this review, I thought, was very interesting in terms of his take on the techonology in the book:
Categories: About Shimmer, About Writing, Posts Tags:

All About Me, Me, Me

September 6th, 2010 Comments off
I had to write a biographical blurb about myself recently as part of the promotion for this TV show I’m going to start hosting on our local public television station. I hate writing biographical blurbs. My tendency is to write something short, flat and restrained. But not in an interesting or even self-deprecating way. Instead, I do this in a fearful and insecure way. Thankfully, this time, the person who requested the bio rejected my first blurb, and insisted on more details. And she gave me some questions to answer — What do I read? When did I first start writing? What sort of TV do I watch? My answers follow (and my original blurb is at the bottom of the page): I first got into journalism in 8th grade, when I started writing for the student newspaper and where my deeply sarcastic columns about the holidays caused tremendous discord and not a small amount of confusion among a student body most concerned about buying the newest Journey album. Later, after college, I became a reporter because that seemed like the only paying job an English major could get. That first job was as a community reporter in Old Saybrook, Conn., where I covered everything from the town council to the opening of a new sewage plant. I moved to New York City in 1992 and worked in book publishing, then for a business magazine, as well as getting my MFA in writing from Columbia. I started publishing short stories in 1994 or 1995. I moved to Memphis in 1995 and started working at Towery Publishing. Shimmer, a dark and sometimes funny book about the people and friends at the heart of a company built on a lie, was an American Booksellers Association IndieNext Pick in 2009 and came out in paperback this past summer. Fredric Keoppel was nice enough to say: “One is reminded in Barnes’ language and locution of Don DeLillo’s scalpel-sharp delineation of American corporate culture and paranoia, and of David Foster Wallace’s penetration into the heart of the relationship between human consciousness and rapidly changing technologies.” I have 600 channels on my TV, but seem to only watch Charlie Rose, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. I listen to a great deal of Miles Davis, but, if pressed, I will admit that I remain fan of Led Zeppelin. If I’m alone in my car and a Neil Diamond song comes on, I won’t necessarily turn it off. In phases, I read too much Cormac McCarthy, which can leave me feeling as if life has no purpose and hope is just a dream. At those points, I switch to reading narrative nonfiction focused mostly on various obscure scientific endeavors such as island biogeography and string theory. For reasons I don’t understand, topics such as those have a deeply calming effect on me. I read a great deal of Don DeLillo and most recently finished Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.” I’ve watched, in their entirety, each of the 8 episodes of Ric Burns’ PBS documentary “New York” at least six or seven times. Here was the original blurb: Eric Barnes is Publisher of The Daily News Publishing Co., which includes the daily business and politics paper, The Daily News, the weekly edition of that paper, The Memphis News, the real estate information service Chandler Reports, and a newspaper in Nashville, the Westview. He has been publisher since 2003. Prior to that, Eric held various positions at Towery Publishing, the Memphis-based national publisher of city guides, hard cover books and business directories. He worked in publishing in New York and Connecticut before moving to Memphis. Eric attended Connecticut College and Columbia University. He is the author of the novel Shimmer. Eric lives in Midtown with his wife Elizabeth and their four children.
Categories: About Shimmer, About Writing, Posts Tags: