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: http://www.ericbarnes.net/blog/2010/07/19/mensa-and-me-how-from-now-on-im-only-talkin-to-geniuses/
Early notes on Shimmer: http://www.ericbarnes.net/blog/2010/06/28/early-notes-on-shimmer-part-2/
Early ideas for Shimmer: http://www.ericbarnes.net/blog/2010/08/17/layoffs-excel-how-i-started-writing-shimmer/
More early influences/ideas: http://www.ericbarnes.net/blog/2009/04/19/nature-didnt-make-nutrasweet-shimmer-towery-and-the-dot-com-days/
And More: http://www.ericbarnes.net/blog/2010/08/29/lost-in-an-office-building/
And this review, I thought, was very interesting in terms of his take on the techonology in the book: