In this episode of Late to the Game, I want to talk about a game I purchased on sale and loaded on a whim and then stayed up way too late playing for several nights in a row. We won’t be discussing the game itself, but rather the story that drives the gameplay, a story that, if I may be so bold, supports my claim that all great Science Fiction writers should play video games and their wives should let them.
Category archive: Writing
Brains are unreliable, not that they’d ever admit it. A perfect example can be found in the proofing of a novel. Even on the tenth or twentieth read-through of a work-in-progress, you can still find typos and missing words and the like. And why? Because the brain has had enough of your piddly story, and in an effort to get back to thinking about how that drinking bird toy works, starts glossing over your text and missing the mistakes. Fortunately, there is an answer in technology.
I listen to a lot of Children’s music, and it got worse when El Matador was born. Usually, it’s just playing in the background as an alternative to the black silence that will someday consume us all. I’m a big fan of Charlie Hope and Caspar Babypants, but a song that recently caught my ear was called Marzidotes in Pandora. If you stop bathing your child and actually listen to the words, you’ll realize you’re hearing nonsense. And then it gets interesting.
As an author, it’s important to see the characters you create as real people. That may sound like a contradiction, but it’s true: if you don’t consider your characters as humans with feelings and thoughts and motivations, your readers won’t either. I don’t think this is a controversial opinion, but I also don’t think anyone with a normally functioning brain can pull it off. To write multiple people, you have to be multiple people. Forget the duality of man; embrace the infinity of identity.
It’s a beautiful night for writing. Jack is in the Coke, treason is in the air, my fingers are in the mood to fly, and also Jack is in the Coke.
I don’t use the highlight feature on my Kindle very often, and when I do it’s usually for something funny or interesting I want to remember. Sometimes, it’s for a sentence or paragraph I find particularly literary and beautiful and poetic, though that is rare when reading contemporary works. Last night, after a shitty day to end all shitty days, I opened my Kindle to continue reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and stumbled upon the most arrestingly beautiful line I think I’ve ever read.
Sometimes I like to talk as if I know the first thing about how to write stories. I do it mostly to psyche myself up, to convince Inner Daniel that we know what we’re doing here and that everything is going to be alright. When morale is low, I try to focus on the things I know to be absolutes. One space after a period. Words go left to right. And my favorite: you gotta hustle for that flow. There’s no way around that last one. Trust me, I’ve looked for years.
I don’t know anyone who enjoys revisions like I do. But then, I only know a few authors and they’re all that weird, tight-lipped kind of writer who doesn’t really want to talk about their “process” because either they’re not confident in their process or, more likely, they’re too confident in their process and they don’t want to give away trade secrets to little old me. Yes, this combative stance is why I don’t know more authors. Anyway, the alpha period on Hybrid Mechanics is finally up, so it’s time to get back at it! Here’s where we’ve been and where we’re going.
So I’m currently reading Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz. I watched the movie a few weeks ago and really enjoyed the universe Koontz created, so naturally I wanted to read the book and get all those extra details that are typically left out of movies. And though I’ve enjoyed reading, it doesn’t really feel like there is more story here. I have a guess about why that is. If you haven’t read Odd Thomas, head over to Amazon and load up the preview.
This post originally appeared on danielverastiqui.com on May 16, 2014,
but the concept of Maximum Overwrite still applies.
Or, if you’re the I don’t take my orders from blogs type of person, here’s a random excerpt:
“Robertson’s here,” I told her.
Suddenly he was on the move, walking between the headstones, toward the church.
“We better forget dinner,” I said, drawing Stormy to her feet with the intention of hustling her out of the belfry. “Let’s get down from here.”
Resisting me, she turned to the parapet. “I don’t let anyone intimidate me.”
The entire book (so far) is written in short paragraphs comprised of one or two sentences. It feels like a fast read because you’re constantly flipping pages, but then you get to the end of the chapter and it’s like, did something just happen?
Compare that to:
In the darkness, she dreamed of home, of the shadowy streets of Umbra where tech was a presence you could feel with every breath, bleeding from every jackport, collecting in the street like a river of energy. Wading through it, walking with her steel toes in a sea of people and information, was the only time Cyn felt alive. The people of Umbra were just like her, pursuing the same things in life, yearning for that singular nirvana of total awareness. To be all knowing, to be completely connected: these were the dreams of the populace, fleeting fancy no one truly expected to attain.
She imagined Tate standing at his window again, hands clasped behind his back, his occasionally sharp mind thinking of new and interesting ways to enslave the population with a satiation of the dependency some of them had lived with since birth. In a way, he was the first generation of the coercive feeder, a prototype attempt at controlling people’s lives. He chose the advertising, chose which stories to feed and in what light. If he didn’t think he was manipulating people by constantly running anti-Vinestead propaganda, then he was more of a fool than Benny Coker. It was hard to imagine Tate not seeing the similarities between himself and James Perion, how alike they were in purpose.
If you pull a bunch of books from the shelf at random, you may think sentence length is just a matter of style, that each writer simply falls at a different place on the spectrum between curt and garrulous. While that may be partially true, sentence length is often a conscious choice by the author. A writer who is verbose 95% of the time can increase a sentence’s impact by placing it alone in a new paragraph.
X SAT WITH C in his lap, her arms wrapped around his body. They were on the side of a hill he had recreated from a childhood memory. It had a long gentle slope that ended at the edge of a lake with a Japanese name he couldn’t remember. It was night in the construct, simulated, but dark enough to see the twinkling stars strewn haphazardly across the great expanse of black above them. The rig’s rendering engine struggled to deliver the necessary graphics, such that the reflections of the stars stuttered in the smooth glass of the lake.
Dean Koontz has a way with metaphors, and even with his short paragraphs, he manages to use them skillfully. It makes me wonder what his prose would be like if he wrote longer sentences and simply extended those metaphors into something approaching poetry.
I’m currently working on a new short story titled House of Nepenthe. This early in the process, I’m mostly cutting out as much as possible. Writing a zero draft is all about overwriting; writing a first draft is about stripping away all of the indecisive writing you produced.
I recommend overwriting to anyone who feels like they don’t know what to write. Overwriting is writing for the sake of putting words on the paper. Overwriting is writing anything and everything.
For example, maybe you aren’t sure which metaphor would best describe a character’s walk:
She spotted me through the crowd and began walking towards me like a queen through her subjects, like Moses through the Red Sea, like a knife slicing through warm butter, like any running back through the defensive line of the Dallas Cowboys.
You get the point. The zero draft is not the time to be making the monumental decision of your final say on this lady walking through the crowd. Just get some ideas down; brainstorm as you go along.
Here’s an example from House of Nepenthe:
What Kenny needed was someone who truly loved him, someone to comfort him in his time of vulnerability. He needed someone to tell him it was going to be alright, that there was a Heaven or somesuch nonsense waiting for him on the other side of death. He deserved more than a woman who could barely stand the sight of him, deserved a woman who wouldn’t throw dirt on his grave with a sense of satisfaction.
Sometimes it feels like I’m just taking notes when I write a zero draft. The above paragraph is where I stopped during my last rewrite; I was too tired to imagine how I could turn those words into something palatable. Still, having something to work with is often easier than staring at a blank page.
Every once in a while, I’ll find a paragraph that is long and flowing and decide not to cut it down to nothing. Every once in a while, you’ll sit there and overwrite and produce something you really love, even if it is verbose. For some moments, verbosity and languid language are the only options.
“You wrote me a poem?” Her eyes lit up.
“I prefer to think of it as a mnemonic cipher, but call it what you will.”
“I can’t wait to hear it.”
X cleared his throat, focused his eyes on C’s. “We will walk through the forest no longer, and no more will we dream of days past. We have pained enough in our lifetimes, let this dying love be our last.”
Slowly, the look of interest faded from C’s face, replaced by the impassive expression of a kitchen appliance. Her arms unfolded, fell lifeless in her lap. X watched her chest rise and fall, slower and slower, until it stopped completely. Around him, the room shaded down a few levels, a frozen background out of focus. Bringing a memory to a dead stop was at the same time a sad and beautiful thing to behold. It was the marker that differentiated the memory from the reality, that reinforced for the hundredth time that the original experience was long dead and even the memory of it could crumble under the weight of a few words.
Oh, I hope you didn’t think I was going to provide you with a personal example of how prose can be poetry. You’ll have to look to much better writers for that.
I suppose if this post has to have any kind of point, it is this: do not be discouraged by the succinct final product of Odd Thomas. Don’t think you have to find the perfect set of eight words to make up a particular paragraph the first (or fifth) time through. Just write. Overwrite. Put everything down on the paper.
Play your cards all the way to the river and then make the best hand with what’s on the table.
Turn ’em and burn ’em, and you’ll get through it.
PS. I’ve also started reading Cipher by Kathe Koja, which so far seems devoid of short paragraphs. Check them both out!
Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to spend the afternoon with a bunch of local writers, directors, and actors and discuss everything from when a child gets their first tooth to when a child takes their first step. It wasn’t lost on me that almost no one talked about their creative work–what they were writing, what they were directing, etc–which I found strange, because as an author, I’m always looking an excuse to talk about my books. I left the event feeling like I had rediscovered a group of people that I’m a part of but that I don’t spend time with. What really struck me, though, was how everyone there, as creatives, had a voice, and later, I realized, a responsibility.
Since my newest book is in alpha testing (hey, I mentioned my newest book!), I’ve been spending time catching up with a novel-in-progress by my writer friend Travis. He and I got to sit down and talk about his book, about the choices he made, the direction he was taking the characters, and so on. Since it’s just his first draft, I didn’t have anything huge to critique him about, except one thing: Trump.
There’s this weird kind of feeling pervading public discourse these days that we can’t be honest about our feelings without worrying we’re going to start a fight. We’re told not to bring up politics with family or at work or in mixed company because you don’t know who you might offend. Facebook, beacon of civilized communication that it is, has become a war zone where the weapons are Snooze, Unfollow, and Block.
People aren’t going to change their minds, so why rock the boat, right?
Maybe keeping your opinions to yourself and silently voting every 2-4 years is enough for the everyday Fine Upstanding Citizen, but you, blog reader, are an artist (I assume, anyway). In my humble opinion, I believe artists have a responsibility to own their beliefs and preserve them as best they can.
And I’ll tell you why in a minute.
Last night, as I sat around on the floor with students at Austin Impact Jeet Kune Do (come for the pulse-pounding music, stay for the scintillating aromas), we somehow started discussing Trump, and I got to tell a story that has become well-known to anyone who has asked how my newest book is coming (second mention!).
When Perion Synthetics was in alpha testing, I had a reader come back with some comments about the book’s political content. Consider this paragraph from the first draft:
“Vinestead stock rose again today on speculation its PMC division could be called upon by President Romney to secure our southern border. Many democrats are calling this back alley favors, citing the President’s push ten years ago for the controversial GA bill, which was introduced by the then-governor of Massachusetts. Speaking from the Rose Garden today, the President challenged his critics to suggest a better plan for keeping immigrants from becoming burdens on the backs of hard-working Americans. A statement released by Calle Cinco today calls the President’s remarks irresponsible and racist. No threat of terrorism was made with the statement.”
In the alternate Vinestead reality, Mitt Romney would have won the election. Having a Republican win elections is pretty much standard for any dystopia, but that’s another post. My reader’s feedback was to remove the reference to Romney and replace it with a generic name. And why?
Because taking sides in politics in a novel would alienate half of my readers.
This reader is a smart person, and you know me, always looking for more ways to expand my audience, so I changed Romney to Hadden and went on my way. It made little difference to the story itself, none actually, but to me personally, I felt strange about it. Why was I censoring myself? To potentially sell a few more books?
The advice I gave to Travis, and which I’m following in Hybrid Mechanics (third mention!), is to embrace your political view. Don’t make veiled references to a “part-time white supremacist,” call that minority-hating son of a bitch out by name. My reasoning is based on a very popular quote: history is written by the victors.
After the Sinclair / Big Brother fiasco of last week, it should be clear to everyone that the media can’t be trusted to remember history the same way those of us who lived it do. Therefore, it is my contention that history must be preserved by artists. Whether you hate Trump or love Trump (what the hell is wrong with you, honestly?), it is an artist’s responsibility to capture these moments for future generations.
Before El Matador was born, my wife and I used to make little videos chronicling his growth, telling him about the world and what we were doing in the months before he was born. And yes, the morning after the election, we recorded a video that I began with I wanted you to know how it felt the morning after Donald Trump was elected. And we told him how disappointing and scary it was.
The hope is that when El Matador is older, he can watch that video and know how his parents (just two normal middle class Hispanic Americans) felt the day after a pussy-grabbing racist dullard was elected President of the United States. No matter what the media says, no matter what the history books say, he’ll hear our feelings from our mouths.
And that I think is what is so important for artists to preserve: the feeling in America in 2017. They need to preserve it because someday in the future, the history of 2017 (and these following years) will be rewritten or forgotten or otherwise skewed. There are pure human emotions at play and enough mental gymnastics to fuel a thousand Olympics(es?). We need to capture it, keep it safe.
I tell the story about Perion Synthetics because in Hybrid Mechanics (that’s four), the entire premise of my book is based on the idea that the only possible way it makes sense that Donald Trump is the President of the United States is if we’re all living in a computer simulation that has gone way off the fucking rails. The characters live in a simulation (our reality) and they wake up to their real reality (the Vinestead universe). It’s an underhanded way of implying that our world is seriously messed up, but who can really argue otherwise?
I don’t know what my politically sensitive reader is going to say about the characters calling Trump out by name, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s staying in there. If the name of the President didn’t matter, if it were the same old Dem v Repub argument that has gone on since forever, I probably would soften it a little. But this is not a normal situation, and at some point, you have to take a stand.
Do a little. Do a lot. But do something.
You can keep your opinions to yourself and vote in private, but in your work where emotions drive everything, you can and should tap into how you’re feeling, even if polite society says you shouldn’t talk about such things.
Those are the same people who say you shouldn’t post about politics on a publicly viewable blog because it might hurt your employment chances when someone googles you.
But then, if someone doesn’t want to hire you because you don’t like Trump, doesn’t that imply something about their feelings towards El Presidente Pendejo? And would you really want to work for them?
Anyway, that’s my rant for today. If I offended you because you think Trump has some “really great ideas, the best ideas, everyone says so,” then you’re not going to enjoy my next book, Hybrid Mechanics, a cyberpunkian romp through an erotic dystopia chock full of witty one liners and inexplicable nudity (fifth and final mention!).