Lessons from reading

Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson contains endless lessons for writers. Here are four:

  • Don’t be afraid to expand and explore. Rather than Netherland, which demonstrates the virtues of a tight focus, Cryptonomiconexplores widely and wildly. For example, I imagine a simple comparison like “The Vickers cut through the roadblock like a bandsaw cuts cheap wood” in a rough draft.  Stephenson seems to have revised by expanding both the tenor and vehicle of the comparison into long detailed paragraphs. The vehicle (a bandsaw) becomes a several page flashback from the narrating character’s past and the tenor (the Vickers) becomes a several page scene in the character’s present.
  • Stephenson seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the main subjects of his book: WWII, cryptography, information theory.
  • The novel consists of several long narratives that I expect to interconnect as the novel continues. Stephenson connects them thematically, obviously, but also by simply having the characters be related. The narratives take place years apart, but the characters are generally part of two families.
  • The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing (a composition textbook) suggests what it calls the “Old/New Contract.” Old information, information readers either have already been told or can reasonably be expected to know, is presented before new information. The effectiveness of this for some forms of writing is obvious. But Stephenson builds many of the sections within his chapters (and the chapters themselves) in a “New/Old/New” pattern. This pattern seems likely to increase reader engagement because it offers at least some degree of surprise consistently. For example, characters often begin sections in new, relatively unexplained situations. The next paragraphs in the section explain some backstory, explain how the character got into that situation. Then the section or chapter ends with more new information, usually shown in a scene, pushing the narrative forward. This new information creates a new hook or “cliff hanger” to varying degrees, but always propelling readers on.

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