WIRED has an excellent article on Neal Stephenson’s latest book, ANATHEM. The book sounds like a good read, but buried in the article was an informative bit of Stephenson’s back story that I wanted to pull out.
His early books, a satire about big universities and an eco-thriller, were well received but not huge sellers. In search of big sales and big bucks, he collaborated with an uncle on a couple of political potboilers. “We heard that Tom Clancy had made something like $17 million the previous year and thought if we could snag 1 percent of that, we’d still be OK.” They didn’t come close, and in 1991, Stephenson says, his career “was moving along at low rpms.” Then he wrote Snow Crash, a book that postulated the Metaverse, an exquisitely fleshed-out vision of a digital alternative world, and Stephenson found himself at the front ranks of cyberpunk authors. “I was sort of going for broke with Snow Crash,” he told me a few years back. “I had tried to write stuff that was more conventional and that would be appealing to a large audience, and it didn’t work. I figured I would just go for broke, write something really weird, and not be so worried about whether it was a good career move or not.”
What I find interesting is the number of different angles of attack that Stephenson used before he really succeeded as a novelist, and the number of books he attempted. It’s not like he had one overarching plan and voice–he was testing different ways of writing about the world, different genres… If you read the Big U, or Zodiac, or Cobweb, you can see elements of his core voice, tested in many different formats. All of them have strengths, and if any of them had hit big, it’s interesting to guess where his writing career might have gone instead.
The other thing is his comment about “going for broke.” I’ve seen other authors who have described a similar process, where the moment they really started to break out was the moment when they stopped worrying so much about succeeding and just let their ideas run wild. Turned it eleven, so to speak.