William Gibson and Writing Crisis #1

Slightly over a week in now.   Things are going all right although I did have to push today to get to the 1,000 words.  That’s good though, that’s the point of the exercise.  Anyway I still don’t know exactly what to do with this blog outside of word count updates so here’s something I wrote about one of my favorite authors.


Somewhere out there (and I fervently hope the answer is “in a landfill”) is a purple spiral-bound notebook containing numerous probably (and perhaps fortunately) illegible stories written by a 17 year-old trying very hard to be William Gibson.   Gibson was probably my first ‘favorite author’ in the sense of an author who I admired for their style of writing and their skill at the craft as opposed to just thinking ‘hey that was a good book so this person must be a good writer I guess’.  I mean I remember writing down Terrence Dicks and Malcolm Hulke as favorite authors for something at school once but that was because they did novel adaptations of Doctor Who and Doctor Who was about my favorite thing at the time.  I kind of doubt I would have gotten the same level of enjoyment out of something else that they wrote, I just liked Doctor Who and so books involving Doctor Who were my favorite ones.

On the other hand William Gibson, once I got reading his stuff, I enjoyed on just about every level and even though the stories I read first were cool SF-y adventures (and thus, more or less in my wheelhouse), after the first one I was actively looking for more William Gibson to read, not more cool SF-y adventures.  So he’d be the first author I think I genuinely admired for themselves or their own work.  Maybe Susan Cooper should be in there, although again I haven’t read anything of hers outside of The Dark is Rising series and never felt any inclination to, so again, it’s not really the same.

Anyway, Gibson knocked my socks off.  I spent many lunch hours in high school in the library reading their copy of Neuromancer, which I would stash in a potted plant so that no-one could borrow it before I had a chance to finish it.  (This eventually led to a tragically damaged copy of Neuromancer after it turns out someone watered those plants from time to time.)  I’m not sure why I didn’t borrow it myself – perhaps the idea of bringing home a book that has an orgasm in it was not something I was prepared to contemplate at that stage – but anyway I didn’t.  But I did read it, love it, and set out to read everything by Gibson that I could get my hands on.

Eventually, Neuromancer did make it home because I did an OAC English project on it, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, which may or may not have been crap but I was super into this writing.  I eventually reached a point where I owned two copies of Burning Chrome, and I still don’t exactly understand how that happened.  But both copies travelled with me through several moves and sat there next to each other on the shelf because it was William Gibson and you don’t just get rid of that stuff.

Unfortunately (as I see it now) in admiring Gibson so much I set out to write stories that were basically William Gibson stories, and filled that spiral-bound notebook (along with various other places) with my own attempts at near-future cyberpunky dystopian tales that even at the time I had a deep and nagging certainty simply did not work, though I didn’t understand why.

I didn’t figure it out until very much later, although in retrospect I think the answer had been coming for a while.  The final penny drop was related to a story I wrote called ‘Virtually Dead’ which was supposed to open in Vladivostok.  I have no clear recollection as to why I chose Vladivostok except that a) that sure was far away b) the name is cool and c) (although I’m sure I would have denied it at the time) Gibson stories take place in  Unusual Locations.  Anyway my creative writing professor immediately observed that what I had described was ‘nothing like Vladivostok’.

Now my first reaction was to wonder what, exactly, were the chances that I would end up with a professor who had been to freaking Vladivostok, but as this criticism (valid, I do not doubt) percolated a bit I realized the problem.  I had never been to Vladivostok, and just had a vague idea of a story that I wanted to be international (also for vague, Gibson-tinged reasons) and so threw it into an international location I knew almost exactly nothing about.  And herein was the problem with trying to write William Gibson stories (leaving aside the whole problem of being a derivative parasite of course) – Gibson’s stories about shady underworld characters and the margins of society work because he actually spent parts of his life with shady underworld characters from the margins of society.

My stories had an indelible taint of lameness all over them because I had grown up in a reasonably affluent bedroom suburb in Southern Ontario and the closest thing I had yet come to an underworld character was that one guy in my Grade 7 class who shoplifted M.U.S.C.L.E. Things from Zeller’s.  (Although he was pretty hardcore about it – he got the big boxes that had like 50 of them in it, not the little ones)  Basically I was trying to write about things that I had literally no experience at all with, had no idea what they were like (aside from what I had gleaned from William Gibson novels of course) so what I was producing was like a bad photocopy of someone else’s depictions.  This clearly Would Not Work and Had to Go.

This became Writing Crisis #1 – can I write interesting stories that are not based on shit I know nothing about?  Because honestly I have not had that exciting a life so perhaps there may be a problem unless I wanted to write about life in a suburban town – which I emphatically do not.  Anyway somewhere in the midst of my undergraduate period (after the creative writing classes) I decided the answer to Writing Crisis #1 was “no” and promptly didn’t write anything for a long time.

I have since revised my answer, perhaps obviously.  In part, the solution is just the ‘smoke that baby’ directive with which I began the blog – write the story, don’t let yourself be ‘carded’ by people who have been to Vladivostok, there is no admittance requirement for this particular ride.  However, there was still a problem with trying to write William Gibson stories – they weren’t my stories.  This is the key thing to smoking that baby, it seems to me.  Make sure it is, in fact your baby.

I was trying to emulate stories that I liked a lot, not creating a story of my own.  They were set in seedy urban environments and involved shady characters making questionable decisions because this is what happened in cool stories that I liked, but there wasn’t much of me in there, just ‘me too!’.  Ultimately I had to figure out a story I wanted to tell on its own merits, and then decide if it really needed to be set in Vladivostok, or not (It doesn’t).

So even if my efforts to write my own Neuromancer were ultimately ill-fated and ill-conceived, I still love William Gibson’s writing.  Even Distrust That Particular Flavor, which is a collection of columns he wrote for various publications, is great reading.  It is (I imagine – this is another on the long list of experiences I have not actually had) kind of like hanging out with an inscrutable learned master of some elevated philosophy, waiting for the next unprompted utterance to meditate on (Japan, again?  All right…) and determining what you’ll take away from it.  It’s an unquestionably odd experience, but well worth doing.

So yeah, I still really enjoy William Gibson and he is on the short list of writers whose books I will buy without knowing what they’re about – I just take it as read (har) that whatever it is will be good.  However, I don’t think I’m trying to be William Gibson anymore, which is probably just as well.


Word Count: 10,278.  Keepin’ on.

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