Book Review – Close Your Eyes by Paul Jessup

One of Orwell’s key ideas in 1984 was the notion that language shaped thought. It wasn’t an altogether outlandish idea, even if he used it in sinister and double plus ungood ways. We need words for our brains to conceptualize things and explain them to other people. Without arguing the efficacy of communication or whether the intended meaning is delivered along with the rest of the message, it’s easy to understand how the languages we use can shape the way we think. Even Abbot’s Flatland touched on this idea when one of his characters was trying to describe the concept of “up” to a group of two-dimensional beings.

As I recall, Abbot’s character got locked up for the heresy of discussing extra dimensions beyond the required two.

Language is at the heart of Paul Jessup’s Close Your Eyes – a collection of two novellas and one short story stitched together into a novel. Each bit has its own flow, but they all work together to tell one meta story.

Jessup uses language as both the crux of the story where language is a virus and he uses language like a surgeon wields a scalpel as he weaves together the tale of a ship adrift in an ocean of stars. In the course of their adventures they stumble across a particularly virulent strain of language that rends sanity in twain. It would seem that even in a world of automatons made of wax and hyper-intelligent ship’s computers, the bug that strikes people down was something no one expected: Language.

It’s a unique way of dealing with diseases. The language in question is almost like a computer virus that infects, propagates, and ultimately consumes its victim’s minds. The novel alludes to the fact that the language has already decimated entire planets.

Jessup has his own style of writing that is unique in all the books I’ve read. At times it’s punchy, direct, and almost Spartan in its usage, at other times it flows with the symmetry of poetry. As if his concept of linguistic viruses wasn’t enough, he uses language to great effect to heighten the more surreal aspects of his world.

Think of Close Your Eyes as sci-fi with a purpose. It would be easy to say the ship’s AI is reminiscent of HAL from 2001 or the linguistic virus as similar to Stephenson’s Snow Crash, but Close Your Eyes goes in different directions. Even if the idea that there is nothing new under the sun is true, that doesn’t mean existing things can’t be rearranged into new and exciting things.

All in all, a good read.

“Language is a virus. Open this book. Read the words. Feel them infect you. Identity is a disease. Flip the pages. Stay up all night. Watch it transform you. You cannot deny it. You cannot close your eyes and shut out the changes. You know you want to. You really want to. But it’s too late. You can’t.

Critically acclaimed author of weird fiction Paul Jessup sends puppets to speak and fight for their masters. Welcome to a far future universe that stretches the imagination to breaking, where a ragtag crew of post-human scavengers rage and love on a small ship in the outer reaches of space, and moon-sized asylums trap the unwary in a labyrinth of experimentation in both identity and sanity.

Welcome to Close Your Eyes, a mind expanding surrealistic space opera that not only includes the out-of-print classic Open Your Eyes, but takes it to whole new level in a much awaited sequel.

Go ahead. Pick it up. Read it. Let it infect you.”

Get your copy on Amazon

Check out Paul’ Blog

 

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An Interesting Note About Twitter Writing Tags

When I was learning to program, I didn’t really get coding until I had to do it for a living. It’s all fine and good to understand how variables work or what LINQ does or how to stuff data into a database and get it back out later, but until I was given a task – write a program that will do this thing – I didn’t fully get coding. It was the act of being given a set of requirements and having to figure out how to convince a program to make those requirements work that taught me more than any class ever could.

The same thing happens with martial arts, or digging ditches, or writing blog posts. The theory is one thing, the actuality is something completely different. You can’t learn to dig ditches from a book, you learn to dig ditches by digging ditches. And if you want to get better at digging ditches, dig a lot of ditches.

martialshovels
Ditch digging martial arts. Yes, those are shovels. Trenching shovels have been used as weapons almost as long as they’ve been used as shovels.

It’s a common theme among writers that if you want to get better at writing, write a lot. Practice, after all, makes perfect. As long as the practice isn’t just further encoding bad habits like ending every sentence with “motherfucker”. Unless you’re Samuel L. Jackson, you don’t get to end sentences with “motherfucker” motherfucker.

Writing is supposed to be this free-form exercise of expression – and it is that to a certain extent – but it’s still nice to make some money doing it. To do that, you have to write things that people want to read. There are writers out there that refuse to sacrifice their artistic integrity to make a buck. It’s all fine and good to put on your black turtleneck, grab your ultra lightweight Mac laptop, and sit in a coffee shop all day writing wry observations about things, but if no one will read what you’ve written you’re just wasting time and turtlenecks.

That means writers need to be flexible enough to write things that people want to read, but clever enough to do it their own way. Because unless you’re Sean Penn, your book had better not suck if you want someone to read it. And sometimes that means you need to write something that doesn’t consist of wry observations or an awful lot of anxious alliteration, or , in my case, witty banter and explosions.

This is where breaking out comfort zones is a good thing and one great way to do that is to just do it. Just like with me and programming, sometimes you have to be given a task – write something – and not be able to write what you want about what you feel like writing about. There are writer’s groups out there that emphasize exactly this kind of task. Or you can go a different route and try playing some of the Twitter writing hashtag games. The writer’s group will give you better feedback, but you can play the Twitter games stone drunk in your underwear if you want.

The way all these games work – and you can usually just check Free Writing Events for up-to-date info – is there are daily hashtags that let you write something up and tag it for other people playing the game. Then everyone goes through and checks out the Tweets. Sometimes the themes are tricky to pull off creatively, sometimes they’re just fun. For instance, this morning’s #Thurstale theme was just “Favorite Line”, so Tweet out whatever your favorite line is. This is one of mine from 06/07/18.

#ThruLineThurs, on the other hand, had a distinct theme: Red Herring. There are a lot of ways that could be interpreted, so I decided to have a little fun with it:

Most of the games will have a theme that the Tweet should adhere to. Ideally, you’re supposed to pull a line or two from whatever book you’re working on, but that’s not strictly a requirement. #SlapDashSat is one of the few that’s completely theme-free.

As an added bonus, Twitter writing games are an excellent opportunity to gauge how well a particular line will be received. I’ve had a few lines that I thought were brilliant, but they just laid there like a bored hooker when they hit Twitter. On the other hand, a few throwaway lines like the one about Jennine above, did pretty well and this morose bit of dark humor did great (by my standards, anyway):

The point is, there are very good reasons to play these games. You might not win anything, but the chance to stretch your writing legs and test a few things out is priceless. Do yourself a favor and try ’em out. Let me know and I’ll even retweet you.

Word Up, Yo

Here are some fun (if disputable) facts for you. The total number of words in the English language – at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary – is 171,476. Apparently there can be some dispute about what constitutes a word, so that number is just the total number of words they have listed in the dictionary.

Of that 171,476 words the average person knows between 20,000 and 35,000. Average is the key word here. Not everyone knows what fustian means, let alone cares, so most people tend to avoid that style of writing and speaking. Compared to 171,476, 35,000 seems like a small percentage, but it’s still 35,000 words rattling around in the average person’s skull. Some, like fustian or pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis are just hanging out waiting for an excuse to make the user sound smart, others like instantiate or concatenate pop up frequently in specialized jargon or argot but aren’t used in regular speech or writing.

So, how many words does the average person use during the average day? Anywhere between 1200 and 2000.

That’s it. It’s also been estimated that 95% of writing and speaking can be easily understood with just 1 3/4% of the available words in English. With a vocabulary of only a couple thousand words, anyone can usually get by on a day-to-day basis.

And, to make things even more fun, there’s a theory that most writing should be capped at about the 7th grade level. Why? Because it’s easier to digest information when it’s presented in a simpler format. I’ve read books that rely on complicated sentence structure and flowery prose. While I applaud the author’s linguistic skills, the resulting book is exhausting to read. The reason is because it takes time and effort to parse out the language to get to the heart of the meaning. And, ultimately, it’s all about the meaning. Without meaning, a book is just a bunch of pretty words.

So, why do I bring this up? Well, there’s a little program called Pro Writing Aid that, among other things, analyzes the level of writing in your manuscript. My recent one is showing a 7th grade reading level.

When I first ran the analysis and found that out, I was a bit pissed off. I’ve got a damned Master’s degree after all. How did I manage to write something at that level? Shouldn’t it be at least High School? I mean, sure, I’ve got a penchant for sophomoric humor, but I thought I was presenting it at a higher level. After a little research, I felt a little better because, as I pointed out earlier, the more complicated the sentence, the longer it takes to read and you don’t want to leave a reader feeling exhausted after reading your book. Enthralled, ecstatic, elated, or eviscerated, sure. But not exhausted.

How do you keep writing at a 7th grade level when, unlike me, you’re actually trying to? It turns out a lot of the “rules” we accept as writers wind up dropping us into that magical realm. Short, punchy sentences, avoiding passive voice, keeping things simple instead of going for the complicated words. All these tips to increase readability inadvertently drop the writing level to right around 7th grade. And that, as it turns out, is a good thing.

goodjob

Just for a lark, I ran this post through Pro Writing Aid and let it work its magic. It turns out this post contains 568 words, 274 of which are distinct. The most unique words are:

  1. fustian
  2. pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis
  3. punchy
  4. sophomoric
  5. concatenate

It’s got seven easy-to-read paragraphs and one slightly difficult-to-read paragraph. The average sentence length is 15.4 words (good) and two long sentences (over 18 words, bad). It’s also written at somewhere between a 7th and 8th grade level, which is a little higher than it could be, but that’s probably just the evil effects of fustian and pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

There you go, your interesting but useless bit of trivia for the day. There’s a very good reason for keeping thing simple: It makes it easier to read and easier-to-read stuff sells better.

Further reading:

Oxford dictionaries

The Economist

Quora

BL Copywriting