Revisionist William Gibson

When I made yesterday’s entry, I intended to talk a bit about William Gibson‘s appearance at the Boulder Book Store last week. The reading took place in the large upstairs room of the store, which Gibson referred to as a “ballroom,” and the crowd had standing room only. I was fortunate enough to get there early since I work in Boulder, and I was rewarded with not only a good seat, but a low number for the book signing line.

Gibson read a chapter from his latest book, Pattern Recognition. Well, initially, I thought he was going to cough a chapter of it; something got hold of his throat and the water he drank to soothe it seemed to make the problem worse. Despite this, Gibson croaked on, and eventually he seemed to find his voice again. It was a bit surreal for a moment, more than a hundred of us sitting there silently listening to his amplified coughs reverberating through the store. I expected people to involuntarily clear their throats, but if anyone did, I didn’t hear it. There wasn’t much we could do, but it was an awkward moment in which I wanted to do something to help him, and didn’t.

The chapter was short, a bit shorter than the Q & A session afterward. I did manage to pose a question to him. The exchange went something like this (paraphrased, since I didn’t take notes):

SJ: You seem to have a talent for putting words together in unusual ways.  Are there any exercises you do to cultivate that talent?

WG:  Revision.  It’s all revision.  I write the drafts, then rework it until it’s right.  

That makes sense. Although I’m a big believer in revision, for some reason I continue to have the notion that Great Writers spew complete paragraphs forth, Zeus-like, from their heads. This personal myth is probably fueled by reports of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury writing without revision, and surely, the more one writes, the easier it becomes to pre-form great sentences. But that’s no reason to expect that all successful writers write without revision; I’m glad Gibson reminded me that it’s not the case in his life. That makes me feel a little better about the level of his writing, too. It’s a bit more attainable now.

I haven’t read all of Pattern Recognition yet, but what I did read grabbed me. It’s Gibson’s first novel set in the present day, and it’s interesting how it still feels very much like a Gibson novel, despite the fact that no one has an input jack in his head and there are no major characters that are AIs. The evil international mega corporation backdrop is still there, but this time it takes the form of corporate branding á la Tommy Hilfiger. Heavy fragment use in writing, much like this sentence.

One notable difference is that September 11, 2001 plays a direct role in the development of the main character, Cayce Pollard. At his appearance, Gibson spoke at length about how he had completed 100 manuscript pages of the book before the attacks, and how the real world events utterly destroyed those pages of fiction. To be believable, Cayce Pollard had to be completely re-imagined as a result of the attacks, and the first 100 pages had to be re-written. He did so, and I think the revision contributed to the dark feel of the book. Reading this, I get the feeling it’s not such a big jump from Pattern Recognition to the shatterglass worlds of Neuromancer or Virtual Light.

I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.

From Limbo to Focus in Nine Easy Paragraphs

In case you can’t tell, I’m having a problem with project commitment in regard to this website. I’ve made two Creativity Journal entries in the last four months, where I had been making daily entries for months before that. This drought roughly corresponds to the last time I wrote anything creative.

My last creative writing act was finishing the first draft of “Chesterfield Gray” on the airplane to Florida in October. I pulled that story from the dusty electrons of my Treo’s memory yesterday and was pleased to note that the story was just as bad as I remembered it being. It’s trite. It’s full of dull language and stereotypes like this:

She closed her eyes and bent her head back, holding the cigarette high between two fingertips, her crimson nails matching the lipstick stain on the unfiltered butt.

It sounds like something that should have Fabio on the cover. A certain amount of that is okay; after all, the setting is San Diego in 1945, and I wouldn’t mind if it has kind of a Bogey and Bacall feel to it. But the story’s problems don’t end with the hackneyed language. The story has three main characters: a sailor, a bartender, and, for lack of a better word, a tramp. The tramp and the bartender are cookie cutter characters; they don’t seem to have much life. They are definitely stereotypical.

The sailor, however, flies in the face of time. He’s not typical of a wartime enlisted man at all, and as such, he’s not believable. His sensibilities are much more 21st century than mid-20th, and that makes me wonder if I’m ruining the story by working my own agenda into it. I don’t want to do that, but I’m also interested in exploring the notion that real people in the 40s were not all clones of each other. Each person had his or her own feelings about the War, the Japanese, the Nazis. I’m sure all of those opinions were influenced by the times, but I doubt if Japanese sympathizers in the military were as scarce as history would lead us to believe.

One means of determining the truth of my suspicion is to interview primary sources. I may send out an e-mail questionnaire to friends and relatives that I know were alive during the time, asking for pieces of their memories. I could also go into a 50s+ chat room and ask general questions of the people there.

I’ve discussed this problem a bit with my friend Jeff at Old Possum’s Book Store. Jeff has a very good sense of plot structure and pacing; he has a couple of suggestions on how I could make the character more believable, and I will probably use those suggestions. Implementing them would require changing the structure of the story dramatically. That’s okay; I’m not really attached to the story’s structure. I was playing with structure a bit in regard to viewpoint shifts between the three main characters, but perhaps it would make more sense to focus on the most dynamic character and delegate the others to the background.

In that case, this first draft has some use as a character study. Though the characters are flat, I can use what I’ve written to define their actions in a limited viewpoint story.

I hate to say it, but I think I just convinced myself to go back to the drawing board on this story. I’m not too upset about that, though. By having some distance from the piece and working through it in this journal entry, I have rekindled some interest in finishing the story. Hopefully I can keep that flame burning for a while.