Don DeLillo on the overview effect

In “Human Moments in World War III” from The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, an astronaut gazes down at Earth from orbit:

The view is endlessly fulfilling. It is like the answer to a lifetime of questions and vague cravings. It satisfies every childlike curiosity, every muted desire, whatever there is in him of the scientist, the poet, the primitive seer, the watcher of fire and shooting stars, whatever obsessions eat at the night side of his mind, whatever sweet and dreamy yearning he has ever felt for nameless places far away, whatever earth sense he possesses, the neural pulse of some wilder awareness, a sympathy for beasts, whatever belief in an immanent vital force, the Lord of Creation, whatever secret harboring of the idea of human oneness, whatever wishfulness and simple-hearted hope, whatever of too much and not enough, all at once and little by little, whatever burning urge to escape responsibility and routine, escape his own over-specialization, the circumscribed and inward-spiraling self, whatever remnants of his boyish longing to fly, his dreams of strange spaces and eerie heights, his fantasies of happy death, whatever indolent and sybaritic leanings, lotus-eater, smoker of grasses and herbs, blue-eyed gazer into space—all these are satisfied, all collected and massed in that living body, the sight he sees from the window.

Complement with Maria Popova on reality's density of wonder, a counterintuitive way in which science empowers us, and there aren't even any endings.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter and lives in Oakland, CA.

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Chapter 0

Whether you make books, music, software, or sandwiches, how you describe what you make is a crucial part of how other people experience it.

Some authors submit their manuscript and expect their publisher to handle the rest. But a book's cover, dust-jacket copy, and marketing materials are promises to the reader about the journey on which they're about to embark. They aren't ephemera you can safely ignore. They are Chapter 0.

Next time you make something that you want to share, remember to invest at least as much care in Chapter 0 as the thing it describes. That’s the surest way to help your thing find its people, and to help them get the most out of it.

Complement with how to grow an organic fanbase, why most successful people have no idea what made them successful, and my advice for authors.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter and lives in Oakland, CA.

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers. Become a member.

Broken, but not irreparable

Six weeks ago I finished the rough draft of a new novel. While I was writing it, this book felt perfect—a spitfire of a story. When I reached the end, I knew that, barring minor edits, it was ready to rumble. I was more confident of it than any other rough draft I’ve written. I sent the manuscript to a small cadre of trusted beta readers and waited for the kudos to roll in.

Hmmm, they said.

Hmmm? What do you mean, "hmmm"?!

Well, they continued, the characters and set-pieces are fascinating, it’s buzzing with big ideas, there's a lot of awesome stuff here, but can you clarify this small question about the premise?

The floor fell out from under me. I didn't have answers to their questions—holes that should have been obvious, holes that bored straight through the foundation of the story. If the inconsistencies they pointed out didn't make sense, then the context for the whole story didn't make sense, even though the events and relationships within the story were compelling.

I've spent the last few weeks grappling with these problems, dreaming up solutions that seem airtight, only to see them collapse on arrival. I ride the merry-go-round back to square one over and over and over again. Is this manuscript not a novel but a compilation of three separate novels that need to be teased apart and further developed? Or is it a singular story that needs to be rewritten from scratch? Am I missing a crucial surgical intervention that might clarify things? I started diagramming the structure, trying to find new angles. My desk is covered with so many enigmatic narrative equations that at a glance, you might mistake me for a deranged mathematician.

Part of what makes this book tough is that it's very different from the last one. Veil had one point-of-view protagonist. This has five. Veil grew from a single, specific "what if" question. This has many different themes and ideas that ricochet off each other—more mosaic than portrait. Gene Wolfe nailed it when he said, “You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you're writing.” I'm finally, and probably prematurely, feeling like I'm on the brink of learning how to write this novel.

That lesson applies to many creative projects. If you’re doing something you already know how to do, you’re not being creative, you’re being productive. It’s only when you throw caution to the wind and yourself into the unknown that you’ll discover what you’re capable of and learn what the project has to teach you.

This story might be broken, but that doesn’t mean it’s irreparable, and maybe, just maybe, it can grow to be much, much more than the original seemingly-perfect-but-crucially-flawed vision I had for it.

Here’s hoping I’m up to the challenge.

Complement with creativity is a choice, cultivating a sense of presence, and what's worked for me as a novelist.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter and lives in Oakland, CA.

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers. Become a member.

Stories are bicycles

There’s a myth that puts storytellers on pedestals. It says that storytelling is the province of poets, novelists, and screenwriters. It says that there must be a moment of perfect inspiration, that the muse must whisper in your ear. It says that stories are supernatural, the revealed truth of someone of extraordinary talent and insight who has something authentic and original to say.

To anyone espousing this myth, I reply that stories are bicycles.

The characters are the pedals driving everything forward. The stakes are the gears ratcheting up and down. The plot is the wheels that take you where you’re going. The theme is the frame holding everything together. The power comes from you, the rider. You embark in one world and travel to another.

Stories are bicycles: machines that move people.


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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter and lives in Oakland, CA.

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers. Become a member.

How to make sense of complex ideas

You know that feeling when someone is explaining an idea and you're struggling to make sense of it—like peering out into dense fog, hoping to glimpse the outline of an approaching ship? Maybe it's because they're using unfamiliar acronyms or taking leaps of logic, or maybe it's simply not something you have any personal experience with. The idea is obvious to them, but not to you.

In Richard Feynman's hilarious and incisive memoir, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, the Nobel Laureate shares his personal method for cutting straight to the heart of seemingly complex ideas, even when speaking to experts in fields far beyond physics: “I had a scheme, which I still use today when somebody is explaining something that I’m trying to understand: I keep making up examples.” 

Whenever anything was vague or confusing, he would ask for a concrete example. Then, even as his interlocutor reverted to describing general theory, Feynman would follow the concrete example along in his mind—often noticing flaws or opportunities in the idea that weren't obvious in the abstract. Just as Theseus escaped the labyrinth by following Ariadne's string, so you can use real, physical examples to escape the labyrinth of abstract thought, and arrive at insight.

Writing fiction is often about reversing Feynman's scheme: making up compelling stories that provide concrete examples from which ideas can be derived, thereby illuminating them.


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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter and lives in Oakland, CA.

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers. Become a member.

Creativity is a choice

It’s easy to make your creativity dependent on your environment. You can’t write that book until you escape to the perfect cabin in the woods. You can’t produce that song until you find the ideal recording studio. You can’t initiate that difficult conversation until the time is right.

When I’m working on the rough draft of a novel, this is what my perfect day looks like: Wake up. Make breakfast. Take the dog out. Dive straight into the manuscript and write for a solid three or four hours. Go on a run. Eat lunch. Spend the afternoon working through email, connecting with friends, etc. Make dinner. Relax. Read. Sleep.

But here’s the dirty little secret: if I waited for days like that, I wouldn’t be a novelist.

I finished drafting Veil as my wife and I walked the five-hundred mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. After a quick breakfast, we’d hoist our heavy packs and trek all day through the misty mountains, secluded valleys, and rugged coastlines of northern Spain. Summer sun beat down. Freak thunderstorms soaked us to the bone. Finally, hungry, exhausted, and nevertheless buoyant, we’d stumble into a rural village and arrive at an albergue—a local guesthouse run by volunteers. We’d eat a simple meal, tend to our aches and pains, and then I’d retreat to my bunk in the shared dorm, pull out my laptop, and write a chapter, or a paragraph, or a sentence, before falling asleep.

Veil exists because I didn’t make writing it dependent on finding optimal conditions. 

Veil exists because I wrote it whenever and wherever I could.

Creativity isn’t some chance aligning of fickle stars. Creativity is a choice. You don’t need the perfect cabin, the ideal recording studio, or the right time. The only right time is now. So stop making excuses. Go make the thing you dream of making, the thing you wish someone would make for you. We’re here, waiting for it.


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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter and lives in Oakland, CA.

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers. Become a member.

Don't forget to feed your soul

In times like these, while it's crucial to stay informed, I often lose myself in the news cycle—emerging horrified, furious, and drained. It helps to complement with people, music, and stories that feed my soul, that give me energy for the thing that really matters: action.

A few things that feed my soul: novels by N.K. Jemisin, Malka Older, Mohsin Hamid, and Kim Stanley Robinson; music by Yo-Yo Ma, Grupo Niche, Nina Simone, and Kygo; blogs by Maria Popova and Seth Godin; podcasts from The Moth; Parks and Rec; essays by Craig Mod and Viktor Frankl.

Go feed your soul, and then find ways to make things better.

Complement with How to kill a dragon, William Gibson on tracking reality's Fuckedness Quotient, and What my secret agent grandmother taught me.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels that explore the intersection of technology and culture. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter, hosts Fellow Travelers, and lives in Oakland, CA.

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers. Become a member.