The Static Hiss

From Writer Unboxed:

I don’t much listen to my car radio. With my phone connected via Bluetooth, I can listen to audiobooks, stream podcasts or enjoy my own playlists. Plus, the top hits of the Eighties and Nineties were great back then but I don’t want them on an endless loop in my head. If I stream a radio station it’s jazz, like Newark’s WBGO.

Still, once in a while I’ll want traffic news or weather or Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” because Steve Winwood always lifts me up. But when I switch to radio receiver what I get is static hiss. I punch the Seek button to find a station. The receiver jumps to the next signal, which might be Blondie singing “Heart of Glass” or it might be static hiss. Yes, I could have presets. I don’t, so I punch. Hiss. Punch. Hiss.

Static hiss is electronic interference to a radio signal. If the signal-to-noise ratio is low then the signal is overwhelmed and rather than music you get hiss. The interference itself comes from different sources. It can be neighboring radio signals, electrical switches, motors, computers, or thermal noise in circuits. There’s also electromagnetic interference such as lightning, explaining why static hiss gets louder when you see a zig-zag flash in the sky. There’s also cosmic background noise coming from the sun and even the center of the Milky Way.

The radiation that produces hiss is, in essence, louder than the radio signal that you really want. It is a signal but it’s random and erratic. Our brains do not process the hissing into anything meaningful. It’s just noise. We turn down the volume dial and punch the Seek button, looking for a stronger signal carrying more intelligible and interesting sounds. Hiss is natural. It’s part of the universe. It’s there in the background all the time but we find it irritating and quickly dismiss it.

Manuscripts are like a radio signal. Too often static hiss interferes with the story. Static hiss is anything we don’t need in order to understand and enjoy the tale we’re reading. It’s the stuff we tune out, if not immediately skip. Hiss. Punch.

Why do manuscripts, and published novels too, present material that we don’t want? Obviously, the author set down what seems important—but is it? Not always. Think about it this way: Is every page of every novel you read absorbing, exciting and memorable? Obviously not. While we don’t expect that level of memorability from every single printed page, we do hope always to get something interesting, or at least something we won’t skim or skip.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG loves the sound of “Static Hiss”. It occurred to him that it might be transferred to a character in ancient Rome named Staticus.