That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

Perfectly Gonzo: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash

Authors, I think, are the sum of many parts. One component that makes up our narrative DNA is surely who we are, what we think, where we come from. It’s us. But another part of it isn’t us—just as our own real genetic makeup features DNA that has come from others far beyond and before us, so too does our narrative DNA comprise voices that are explicitly not our own.

What I’m trying to say is: Writers are made up of other writers.

We’re formed, Voltron-like, of other storytellers who we’ve loved and whose words and characters have inspired us, challenged us, stayed with us in some formative way. We read books. We love them. They stay with us. Each is a thread, woven into our fabric.

But here’s the trick with that: The voices that we subsume can be a strength, but they can also be a weakness. We read books and we see how things are done, or how they’ve been done, and unconsciously, even unwittingly, we let those voices form a fence. And we learn to stay inside that fence. Here, we think, are our borders. These voices make up a boundary for us to stay in—or they form a brand, if you will, a brand in the advertising way, but also in the way that you burn a sigil into a cow’s hide to tell everybody who the cow belongs to.

So, those voices, those authors, they can be good. But they can also trap us and limit us and make us think, This is how it is. This is how it must be.

Then there’s Neal Stephenson.

Then there’s Snow Crash.

Snow Crash, from the first sentence, bursts through the fence of expectations. It obliterates everything you think you know. Or, at least, it did for me. Opening up Snow Crash and reading that perfect (and perfectly gonzo bananapants) opening chapter was like the first time I connected to the Internet. It’s like the first time using proper VR. You get the sense of—what is this place? It’s something new. The rules are unknown. The laws remain undetermined. It is wild and ill-mannered.

For a writer, that’s gold. Because suddenly, everything I thought I knew about writing, about books, about what books could even be, was so far out the window it was now careening off satellites in outer fucking space.

Let’s dice it up and see what this book did and does, yeah?

First, present tense. Snow Crash hasn’t happened. It’s happening now, as you read it. I’d never read anything in present tense before. A lot of stories read like there’s an old storyteller on a porch, and you’re pulling up a bit of real estate as you sit and hear the tale told. Stephenson’s Snow Crash is like a guy on speed and ayahuasca who grabs you, pulls you into a matte black car, then drives your ass at top speed on a pizza delivery mission through a cyberpunk dystopia. You’re not looking at a painting with this book. You’re watching the painter paint. Frenetically. Madly. With great swoops and swipes of color and ink—you have no idea what it’s going to look like when he’s done, but sweet hot hell you want to find out.

Second, the protagonist hero’s name is literally Hiro Protagonist. It’s amazingly on the nose, and you probably shouldn’t do it, unless you’re Neal Stephenson and your book is Snow Crash, which it isn’t. It works because it works. In fact, everything in this book works because it works. The second sentence of the novel—which is describing Hiro but could also be describing the author or even the book itself—is: “He’s got esprit up to here.” It’s the kind of sentence that a judicious editor would label a darling, a preening peacock in need of murdering. The argument is that it adds nothing—it stands on its own. But that’s not true. It adds character. It adds life. It self-defines—“got esprit up to here” is a description that has, appropriately enough, esprit up to here. It’s like the word sesquipedalian, which is a very long word that means ‘very long word.’ It is exactly what it is.

Third, the pacing is relentless. It’s not to say there’s no rhythm, but it’s a stomping romp, a hard drive, an armor-piercing bullet. It’s swords and cars and skateboards. It’s uranium flechettes from a railgun. It’s poor impulse control tattooed backward on someone’s forehead.

Fourth, it mashes up—well, everything it damn well wants to. Computer coding, sure. Linguistics, why not? Gods and religion, fuck yeah, okay. I had at this point already read a lot of cyberpunk, and this was something different, something more, something far stranger. Like it pulped cyberpunk and smashed the juicy leavings into weirder, bigger ideas.

Fifth, it’s either satire that takes itself incredibly seriously or a serious book that wears the raiment of satire. It’s madcap metatext that sometimes feels like instead of a book, it’s something that should be downloadable or injectable.

All this stuff adds up to one thing:

It’s a book that doesn’t give a fuck.

Nary a single fuck. It is what it is. It’s gonna do what it’s gonna do. It doesn’t care if you like it. And as a foundling writer in the early 1990s, I read that and I instantly became an endless animated GIF of that guy from Scanners with the exploding head. It blew me away. It was the first time I’d read something where it felt like the rules didn’t matter, where it became clear that inside the story was a lawless place where you could do whatever the hell you wanted—as long as you did it well, and you did it without flinching. No compromise. No hesitation.

(SMOOTH MOVE, EXLAX.)

Sometimes, we let the voices in our head become a wall.

And, sometimes, you need a voice like Neal Stephenson’s in Snow Crash to drive a car clean through that wall.

Early on in the book, upon learning Hiro’s name, the character Y.T. says, “Stupid name.” And Hiro responds with: “But you’ll never forget it.”

And that’s Snow Crash. Some of it sounds absurd on the surface. It breaks nearly all the rules.

And it really doesn’t matter.

Because you’ll never forget it.

Chuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. He’s the author of many published novels, including but not limited to the New York Times bestselling series Star Wars: Aftermath and the Miriam Black books. He is co-writer of the short film Pandemic and the Emmy Award–nominated digital narrative Collapsus. Wendig has contributed over two million words to the game industry. His collaborative comic book project, The Sovereigns, will be released from Dynamite in April. He is also well known for his profane-yet-practical advice to writers, which he dispenses at his blog, TerribleMinds.com, and through several popular ebooks, including The Kick-Ass Writer, published by Writers Digest. He currently lives in the forests of Pennsyltucky with wife, tiny human, and dog.

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