Arrestingly Beautiful

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Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

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.

And here it is:

I wonder, as I look up at this softly enameled sky, so faintly tinted, which does not bulge today with heavy rain clouds but smiles like a piece of old china,

I don’t know if appreciation of language is affected by mood and temperament, but somehow this line was more alive than the others around it. I think it’s the word enameled that does it. It immediately evoked an image in my mind that I could not only see clearly, but that I could also taste.

No, I wasn’t drinking. I just have no other way to describe it.

And then to follow it up with so faintly tinted… I don’t know. It stopped me dead and made me incredibly sad. To understand that sadness requires a confession.

A Confession

My most recent books, including the one I’m currently working on, are written in a style I can only describe as manufactured. The style comes partly from repetition of learned habits gleaned from books like On Writing and How Not To Write a Novel. As I write Science Fiction, I tend to read a lot of Science Fiction, which while awesome and exciting, teaches a style that is more action-based, more bombastic than what I would call literary fiction. (God only knows if I’m using that term correctly.)

Reader feedback also dictates changes to my style. They don’t like it wordy. They don’t like my awkward sex scenes. They don’t like all the “relationship shit.”

What this produces is a style that is manufactured to be the most appealing to the widest audience. And why wouldn’t you want to do that? More readers means more money and more money means more Whataburger.

But, as I suspect is the case with a lot of writers, I also have a style that I only use in private, on rare days when I’m not working on the book, when I’m writing just for myself. Those days, the language stretches like dissipating contrails “in an enameled sky,” and the words flow in a way that would make most readers reach for something easier to understand, perhaps Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul. (Seriously, have you tried to read that?)

And I tell you what: I miss writing like that. I miss verbosity and poetry and stringing together metaphors and similes in an ever-increasingly clever sequence that ends with a halting breath and shaky hands.

Even with a manufactured style, I still try to focus on the communication of emotion, which I’ve always felt is the most important aspect of writing (and art in general). But perhaps I’m too focused on it… at the expense of a secondary notion that the writing itself can be beautiful, that prose can be poetry. You don’t have to choose one or the other.

A Sadness

So yes, the line made me sad. And it’s the sadness of lost opportunities to write honestly. When you’re done with your marketing and your social media and your brand awareness, all you’ve really got is an arrangement of words on a page.

Sometimes, in our quest to realize our dreams of grandeur, we forget we’re supposed to be producing art. And we forget to question whether that art is honest. Whether we’re proud of it.

I know… that sounds haughty as hell. Perhaps I shouldn’t speak for other writers.

I, Daniel Verastiqui, forget to question.

 

Related: Recommended Reading: The Introduction to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer

Hustle for that Flow

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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 saw a post on /r/writing several weeks back about someone asking if it is necessary for them to completely rewrite their first draft. And at the time, I remember letting out a haughty yes, you poor dumb bastard. But then I remembered I don’t know the first thing about how to write stories, so I fixed myself a cocktail and thought about the question some more.

The truth is, you don’t have to do anything, but you have to do something. If you can write a first draft and then edit inline all the way to a finished product, then great, I admire you and think you have a winning smile. I can’t do that because of the lack of flow, the lack of movement from one sentence into the next. To me, in-place edits of complete sentences and paragraphs feels like patching drywall and doing a really shitty job of it.

 

Better analogy: it’s like trying to play or rewrite a few bars of music without taking the rest of the piece into account.

That’s how I feel about it anyhow. Feeling that flow from one sentence into the next, the tempo and tone of it… that’s what really brings the language alive.

Flow is one of the few reasons I do a complete rewrite from Draft 0 into Draft 1, and Draft 1 into Draft 2, and so on, until everything is smoothed.

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Smooth is one of my favorite words to use during a read-through because it specifically calls out flow. The story is humming along, everyone’s doing their thing, and suddenly you find a paragraph or sentence that just doesn’t fit. Maybe you were in a hurry to write, maybe you’d lost your train of thought, but whatever the case, it’s time to do some work.

You could just edit it in-place, but much like practicing those few bars of music, sometimes you need to the context of the entire piece to make it sound right.

Today is May 11th, 2018, and on my desk are 349 marked-up pages ready to be rewritten. I have emails from alpha readers with feedback that ranges from “cool story bro” to detailed analysis of each chapter. My notes. Their notes. Two decks of cards to be shuffled together. In sequence, creating something completely new.

I’ve lost my own thread here.

Rewrites are hard. They’re work, and work is daunting. But to stand up and loudly proclaim I wrote this story perfectly on the first try just seems… foolish. So much can change between the start and the finish. So much can change each time you re-read the story.

For example, a lot of my alpha readers hated one of the MC’s relationships with his girlfriend. I didn’t do a good job of explaining it and it might be too complicated to present in the short amount of time available, so I’m going to rework it to require less explanation. Another MC had this whole disciple-God relationship thing going on that I’m going to change to a father-son dynamic because of reasons.

I don’t know how you’d make those edits inline, but I do know that if you go word by word, copying from one Word doc into another, you can smooth out the changes on the fly and make sure it all works together.

It reminds me of that one Eminem song:

“Music is like magic there’s a certain feeling you get
When you’re real and you spit and people are feeling your shit.”

Same for writing. Let the story flow. Let your readers get swept up in it. It’s hard work, and you’ll have to hustle, but it’ll be worth it.

The Calle Cinco de Mayo Massacre

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Photo by Blair Fraser on Unsplash

2010.05.05/FrankGattis/BanksMediaProductions/LosAngelesCA

Living in America means taking things for granted. We assume there will always be water to drink, food to eat, and electricity to keep the lights burning. We expect roads to be in good repair, buildings to remain standing, and VNet to keep humming along. But what happens when the foundation upon which we build our lives is shattered by an act of terrorism? What happens when we look to the sky and see planes diving for the ground?

The horror of Calle Cinco de Mayo 2009 was not in the loss of 7,057 lives. It was in the shattering of our expectations about what was possible and impossible, because a world in which planes can simply fall out of the sky, anything — even the worst horror of nightmares — is possible.

On the anniversary of the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil in our history, we look back at the events of that fateful day through the eyes of those who lived it.

 


 

06:57 am, Sacramento, California. Paul Shear [name changed] is nearing the end of his shift at the primary data hub at Vinestead International headquarters.

“We had actually been watching the worm all morning. It doesn’t matter how good a hacker thinks he is, he’s not just going to suddenly show up inside our network unannounced. The traffic coming from a secondary NOC in Burbank had been steadily rising for about two hours. Normally, when we see such a concentrated stream, we’re able to pinpoint where it’s headed. This stream, however, seemed to break off at the junction and head in a thousand directions at once. There simply weren’t enough of us to track it. Even the Lassister mods couldn’t keep up with it.”

08:15 am, Denver, Colorado. Ella Soledad is working at Station 3 in the Denver International Airport’s control tower.

“At first, we thought it was just a normal glitch. We were only in year two of the new Vinestead software, so we had our legacy equipment still running in parallel. It wasn’t unheard of for VinesteadATC to go offline completely, leaving us to plot the traffic manually on the green and blacks. This time, the system didn’t come back up after a reboot. I remember hearing our supervisor on the phone with Vinestead Support while we scrambled to reposition ourselves on the older equipment. Half an hour went by, and VinesteadATC remained down. That’s when the green and blacks started to flicker.”

09:28, Austin, Texas. George Fonseca is landing Flight 1282 non-stop from Honolulu at Austin Bergstrom International Airport.

“VinesteadATC had us in a smooth descent until about one mile out, then the whole thing just went to shit. Flight systems failed over to manual, but in a 777, you might as well have tried to steer the plane by wishing. We lost engine one almost immediately. Luckily, I had a good co-pilot, Scott Coleman [ed. note — name included at request of interviewee]. He was able to keep us limping along as we finished our descent, which by that time we already knew was going to end badly. We thumped that 777 into the tarmac hard enough to break the nose off at row 20. The rest of it, I can’t really remember.”

07:48 am, San Diego, California. Kaili Zabora addresses the country live on the Lincoln Continental media feed.

“You thought you were immune. You thought because you’re the biggest that you’re also the baddest. How do you feel now? How does it feel knowing Calle Cinco is in your house, going through your drawers? What are we going to find buried under your socks, Arthur [Sedivy, CEO of Vinestead International]? The truth about the fall of The Net? Transcripts of your under-the-table meetings with high-ranking government officials to get the Guardian Angel bill passed? You built your network on lies and deceit. Today, we’re taking that network back — [transmission ends]”

08:58 am, Denver, Ella.

“You could hear a pin drop in the control tower as everyone’s stomachs compressed. The black and greens went dead. We were blind. Panicked voices spilled out of our headsets, but there was nothing we could do. At first, there was a small part of me that believed everything would be okay. We had competent pilots in the air. They still had radio contact. They could coordinate. But then we saw the smoke to the west. Then to the east. Nobody said a word until a UPS cargo plane took out the Jeppesen Terminal and the pedestrian bridge. Then everyone everyone screamed.”

08:23 am, Sacramento, Paul.

“There’s a certain amount of pride and bravado that every network technician needs to have. We believe the network is our home, and no one comes into our home without our permission. Usually that means stomping on some zero-day exploiter looking to steal social security numbers or customer records. But after hearing Calle Cinco on the feeds, we knew we were dealing with something else. Our network ground to a halt for the first time in my memory. We know now how the worm was able to propagate, how we could never get ahead of it, but at the time, we were basically chasing our tails. That normally would have made me angry as hell, but mostly I was in disbelief. How could Calle Cinco do this?”

10:30 am, Austin, Texas. Angel Rodriguez is a first responder to Flight 1282’s crash site at the west end of the runway.

“It wasn’t the first time a plane had crashed at ABIA, but it was since I started working there. We’d trained, you know, so we had an idea about what to do. We deployed everything at the same time. Every fire truck. Every mobile medical. We were all rushing along the side of the runway when two planes collided above us. The truck I was riding in veered off onto the main runway, over it, and into the median. I smelled jet fuel. I felt the heat. Planes kept trying to land. Some made it, some clipped the others. They thought they were safer on the ground. They were wrong.”

08:45 am, Sacramento, Paul

“The official Vinestead story is that an engineer named Julius Parker figured out how to stop the worm, but nobody on my crew bought that. He wasn’t a network guy, didn’t know the ins and outs. In my opinion, the worm just gave up. One second it was there, gumming up the works, and the next it dissolved like a puff of smoke. You know what I think? I think Calle Cinco pulled it. They saw what was happening out there and they fucking pulled it. I guess Kaili Zabora felt she had killed enough Americans by then.”

09:54 am, Denver, Ella

“VinesteadATC came online a few minutes before ten, and it was chaos in the skies. To my team’s credit, they put their asses back in seats and went to work. In just fifteen minutes, we had rerouted every flight in our airspace. Total planes lost under our watch? Three. Just three. All manufactured in the last year, all with supposedly rock-solid Vinestead guidance systems. We asked the planes that could hold to do so while we watched the feeds for an update.”

09:13 am, San Diego. A visibly shaken Kaili Zabora goes live on Lincoln Continental. Fledgling media feed The White Line dupes the story on the east coast.

“Do you see? Do you see what happens when you let Vinestead control everything? Now you have to defend them, because if you don’t, Americans die. Real people died while Arthur Sedivy sits in his tower. Wake up, America! No company should have this much control of our lives. What is it going to take for you to understand? HOW MANY PEOPLE DO I HAVE TO KILL?”

09:30, Sacramento, Paul.

“I got into the VinesteadATC code as soon as I could, and that’s when we found out that sixteen records had been erased. That’s sixteen real connections to real planes. They relied on vATC for everything, and the program simply forgot about them. Why Calle Cinco decided those sixteen had to go, we’re still not sure. I can’t even imagine what it was like to have been a passenger in those planes. Or the pilots of them. These were new birds, fully automated. When the software went down, so did the planes.

10:40 am, Denver, Ella.

“Technically, everything was back to normal by 10:30, but even now, a year later, everyone knows things aren’t the same as they were before. We tried our best to keep calm, perform our duties, and get the remaining planes out of the air. It was the uncertainty of what might happen next that got to all of us. When the last plane was down, we all let go of the same breath. Many of us cried. All of us watched the aftermath play out on the feeds. We had to, even as the body count kept going up. I hate to admit it, but there were some of us who thought Kaili Zabora had a point. Vinestead controlled everything.”

 


 

7,057 American lives were cut short on May 5, 2009 by Calle Cinco and its defacto leader Kaili Zabora. She has made no appearances since then and released no statements. A TSA recommendation made in November of 2009 was rejected by the FAA as “too costly.” As of today, more than a quarter of active aircraft are using VinesteadATC as their sole means of control.

Anniversaries for events like these are often somber. Stories like this are written, documentaries choke the feeds. In our hearts, we feel the combined sadness of an entire country.

But at the same time, we feel its terror as well.

We can only hope and pray that Kaili Zabora feels heard, and that her next act of terrorism has better aim.

We’re okay with you hating Vinestead.

Just leave us out of it.

FG/2010/05/05

 


 

If you enjoyed this brief glimpse of the Vinestead Universe, you may want to check out the four novels that take place within it. Learn more at danielverastiqui.com.

Silvan’s Demon

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Photo by Michael Mroczek on Unsplash

It was the lamp on the corner of the desk, thought Silvan; the lamp was the one casting weird shadows on the stained oak, making each of the little pills look like exclamation points on longer gashes, black scratches on the hardwood. Five little lines, ripped from one side of the desk to the other, disappearing into fine points where the demon had left off. The gesture had been made and the threat delivered. To continue now would only bring retribution.

Outside, what remained of reality echoed the conflicting signals firing behind Silvan’s eyes. It was near dusk, with the world basked in some strange light that occurred only when the sun has disappeared. A reflection from the clouds, perhaps. A lingering attachment to a life revealed. And yet the wind blew strongly out of the east, pushing down through the campus with a fury that ripped leaf from branch and coat from student. The clouds disappeared, revealing the gradient of sunset.

Be one or the other, thought Silvan.

Be the calm or be the storm.

Be Heaven or Hell.

“Is that all it is to you, then? Heaven and Hell? Is there nothing in between?”

Silvan stared at the half-empty glass of water in his hand and watched as the ripples undulated with the demon’s voice.

“Black and white is a common misconception, you know. Can you imagine what it must have been like for the first people to watch film? There it was, an implied reality, in black and white. And yet when they walked out of the theater, what did they see?”

One of the scratch marks disappeared as Silvan swiped a pill from the desk. He popped it into his mouth and downed it with a swig of water. He barely felt it pass his throat.

“Now you have your fancy computer simulations. And the first people to visit those virtual worlds found blocky representations of themselves. And when they left the theater?”

A sharp pain in his chest made Silvan cock his head to the side. The drugs were small but powerful, meant for paranoid delusionals and the like who couldn’t be trusted with their perception of reality. One pill would put their brain at ease. Two would risk a coma. The five he had pilfered from Dr. Suchong’s lockbox wouldn’t even garner a warning, not when the previous two had both read death.

“The way I see it, you have spent far too much time trying to displace yourself from the simulation. You keep thinking of things in terms of this reality and that reality, when really this world and that are part of one universal simulation. Reality can’t be circumscribed. You can’t partition it into an experience and say, oh this, this is not real. Even if your senses are being deceived, you still log the experience in reality.”

The taste of metal began to ooze from the back of Silvan’s mouth, running along the sides of his tongue and then melding with the slick enamel of his teeth. He tried to swish the taste away with a drink of water, but that only spread it. The sensation tickled the top of his mouth. So be it, he thought. If the demon was staying, he’d be leaving. Another pill floated into his palm and then into his mouth. The acrid metal bit at his throat.

“I’ve examined the simulation from byte zero to byte—who knows? And if there is one thing I’ve learned from my investigation, it is this: there is no logical explanation for the so-called problems that have you one pill away from a prolonged and agonizing death. And if these problems were the basis for your current endeavor, wouldn’t the proof of their nonexistence be grounds enough for a secession of hostilities?”

Keep talking, thought Silvan. Keep talking like a two-bit intellectual in a murder-mystery teleplay. You don’t fool anyone with that put-on. Least of all me.

“You wrote the code; you know all the ins and outs of speech. If my language so disturbs you, maybe you should ask yourself why you chose it. Why choose anything?”

Silvan shook his head. It wasn’t his choice. SEED had made all the decisions, randomly, just like nature. It assured randomness. It followed strict guidelines for the evolution of all things procedural and broke those guidelines at random and eventually, at will.

“Ah yes, it has a name. Say what you like about Heaven and Hell and the binary choice but one thing I will not stand for is the insinuation that what you see out there is in any way random. Just look at that.”

Silvan looked. The light had truly begun to fade and the first of the stars were visible behind the clock tower. The odd specks of shimmering light would soon multiply, become hundreds, then thousands. Beyond that, the light of the city would keep the true count secret.

“All of this has been planned. And not just the weather. Even you have been written about and chronicled and catalogued and examined front to back with annotations so verbose and liquid that the very fact you were ever implemented comes as quite a surprise. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying to you, doctor. You were planned. From the very beginning, you were a calculation and a method with a discrete instantiation cost and enumerable return value. Along the way you may have interrupted your share of threads, but all of that has been synchronized with the utmost precision. Something not even your most powerful computers could do today.”

With a raised eyebrow, another pill disappeared. The glass clinked dully as he set it back down, carefully matching it to its own ring of condensation. A tremor in his arm rippled down to his hand and he watched with fascination as his fingers appeared to vibrate quickly. Their oscillation created the tiniest sound against the smooth glass, a very faint whirr that Silvan could barely hear over the wind outside. It was a generic sound; it could have been anything. But it wasn’t. It was his fingers against the glass. It was his effect on reality.

“You’re right on one count. There is wonder in any closed system. Anything sufficiently small but significantly complex will, pardon me, resonate with the right person. From what I can tell, that’s the basis of SEED’s programming, right? The nuances of reality? The tiniest gear within a gear that adds up to this big ball of wax? God didn’t build the world from the bottom up. He did it from the top down, like a true creator. You have to define the continents before the countries, the states before the cities, and so on. What you’ve done goes against the natural order of things. You’ve built a reality not based on reality but on extrapolation, on math. I hate to say it, but on science!”

Is that where I truly went wrong, wondered Silvan. Did that tiny technicality bring me to where I am today?

Silvan rose from his chair and staggered at the sudden loss of blood from his head. When the feeling faded, he became aware of a pounding in his ears and turned to locate the sound before realizing it was his own heartbeat. The drugs were moving quickly through his system. It wouldn’t be long before it started to shut down. It, like the SEED world he had created, just needed a little encouragement in one direction.

Someone had to knock down that first domino.

“And there’s the rub, so to speak. In the beginning, God placed his finger on the absence of creation and made reality. You placed your finger on SEED and SEED made a reality. Now I ask you, were you aiming to be a God?”

Silvan shook his head as if molested by a small insect at his ear and wandered towards the window. The lights from the tower were shining dimly, obscured by the large trees that swayed in front of them. Be the storm, he said to himself. Be the storm that I need you to be, if only for a few minutes. A little gust of wind isn’t going to change anything in the long run, but it will get me where I need to go.

“Even if your motives weren’t altogether selfish, there’s still a question of what you were trying to attain. An intimate knowledge of the savior? Did you long to unravel the mysteries of being the focal point of an entire religion? What did you want people to respond with when others asked him who had built this amazing world? Our Lord Silvan? Do you not remember that the electrons that carry this so-called reality are byproducts of the world that He created? You cannot stand on the shoulders of God and claim to be one yourself. And don’t say it doesn’t matter anymore, because you know it does.”

It didn’t, thought Silvan. God, God, who is God? Who wants to be Him anyway?

The blinds came down in a crash, causing Silvan’s heart to falter in his chest; it sputtered like the aging engine it was and then rumbled back to life. He crossed back to his desk and had the fourth pill on his tongue before he was fully seated. The blood again drained from his head as he tilted back to swallow. On the ceiling, his eyes locked on to the most curious curls of golden inlays that surrounded the pearl light fixture in the center of the room.

“Now that is art. That is the culmination of one man or woman’s desire to make things beautiful. But it isn’t the result of random processes. In the end, neither the designer nor its observers truly believe in the uniqueness of it. If anything, art is just normality rearranged. Sometimes not very well. And that’s really all your SEED world is, just a rearrangement of things that were already there.”

Only one scratch mark remained on the desktop. Its solitary status implied something far more dangerous than a single, deliberate line. Whatever had made it, it had done it with forethought, with intention. It wouldn’t bother itself to take a swipe, a random, ineffectual swipe. But a single scratch? A slow tear across the already pitted oak? The desk would feel it, feel every agonizing second of it.

“I think I’ve had enough of this one-sided conversation, how about you?”

Silvan’s eyes rolled back in his head, turning the dark green ceiling into grey mist.

“Sometimes I get the impression you don’t even listen to me. I know you didn’t listen to me at first, but that was only because you couldn’t hear me. What puzzles me is that even after I made myself known to you, proved to you beyond a shadow of a doubt that I existed in that reality and this one, that you still don’t heed my advice. And for the sake of argument, say we forgive that. But why can’t you do me the simple courtesy of replying in kind? One can only take so much abuse at the hands of his creator.”

Brown irises rolled in a sea of white, but the eyebrows above them furrowed in anger.

“Struck a chord, have I? Well, fair’s fair. You’ve certainly been pulling my strings all evening. How long do you think I’ll put up with this? How long before you make me angry and I do something rash?”

“Are you threatening me?” whispered Silvan.

“He speaks! And what a question! I am indeed threatening you. And knowing what you know of me, I implore you to take my threat very seriously.”

Silvan pawed at the desk, tried to seek out the last pill with his clammy fingers. The hard oak had turned to a cold mush. It surrounded his hand, seemed to pull at it. Panic rose in his chest, but settled quickly. Threats, he thought to himself, idle threats.

“What does it matter anyway?” said Silvan, “I’ll be dead soon.”

“Soon? My dear Lord, you have been dead for twenty minutes now…”

And This is How I Revise

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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.

A lot of the questions I see while lurking /r/writing are about the process of writing a book. I find those questions reassuring because they’re the types of questions I should have been asking earlier in my writing life. For some people, the characters and the plot and the narrative come together easily, but when they reach the end of their first draft, they don’t know where to go.

Then, they have two options:

  • Stumble through the publication of multiple books until they find a process that works and hope that day comes before the last threads of their sanity break free and float away like dust motes in the harsh rays of a mid-afternoon sun shining in through the askew slats of aging blinds on ancient windows in a condemned house on the bad side of a one stop sign town in April of 1921.
  • Ask /r/writing

As far as my process goes, we’re now moving to Draft 2 of a numbered draft system that begins at 0 and ends at N.

  • Draft 0 – 100% pure, uncut Colombian garbage, devoid of continuity and direction
  • Draft 1 – 80% pure, uncut Colombian garbage, with hints of continuity, direction, and purpose.
  • Draft 2 – The first real hint of a manuscript

A lot of great things happen in Draft 2. After all, the main plot points have been set, geography has been mapped out, and the timeline is stabilizing. And yet, there’s still time to move everything around. That’s why I like doing my Alpha reads at this stage; if there are major changes to make, the paint hasn’t dried yet. By that metaphor, the paint hasn’t really been applied yet.

The transition from Draft 1 to 2 begins with what I call The Killing of Mother Earth Printout.

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Look, I’m as averse to killing Mother Earth as the next guy, but nothing beats holding paper in your hand and slashing at it with a red pen. For this draft, I like to print out each page with a bunch of whitespace to the right for notes and what not. Sure, it takes twice the paper to print, but that’s why you bought 100% eco-friendly, dolphin-safe paper from Whole Foods, right?

The printout serves as both manuscript and notebook, and now that alpha readers have had their turn destroying my work, I will set about marking all the problems that will need to be fixed. At this stage, I’m only taking notes and suggesting fixes; I don’t touch the Word doc. Partly is because I need to understand the book as a whole before starting in on edits, and partly because I want to give the Alpha reader stragglers a little more time to send me feedback.

My goal during the read-through can best be summed up with one word: smoothing.

Things that need to be smoothed:

  • Character motivations (did they get what they wanted or do I need adjust what they wanted?)
  • Character dialogue (creating distinct voices is always a challenge, but there are lots of tricks you can employ)
  • Character personality (are they CONSISTENTLY funny? sarcastic? depressed?)
  • Timeline (for example, story takes place in 2017 and X/Y met ten years ago yet you say they met watching The Good Place which first aired in 2016)
  • Geography (draft 0 created a fictional building to suit the story, draft 2 molds the story into a final version of that building)
  • Narrative style (in 3rd person limited, each character has different narrative style, and it’s important that elements of that style don’t overlap)

There are maybe a dozen more that aren’t as vital at this stage, but always good to think about.

To return to my original point, I really enjoy this stage of revisions. This is where a majority of the technical magic happens. Drafts 0 and 1 may tell the tale and be creative and exciting and full of twists and turns, but going forward, my job is to make all of that look effortless and more importantly, intentional.

And that, to me, is what separates tiers of writers. The hard part of writing a story isn’t being intentional — anyone can write with intent. The hard part is understanding that you’re responsible for every paragraph, sentence, and word. Everything. You can’t half-ass anything in the story because the reader is trusting that if something is in your story that you meant it to be there.

That’s a huge responsibility, one a lot of writers don’t figure out until later. I certainly didn’t. It’s also a huge demand, one that makes it impossible to say writing a book requires X revisions.

Writing a book requires N revisions, with N being the number of revisions it takes.

Sorry, /r/writing, but you’re just gonna have to keep working at it like the rest of us.

I Miss Bitstrips

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I don’t read comics, but I like making them. That is, I like making them when they’re not too much work, and no site made it easier than bitstrips.com. I loved that site. Now it’s gone and I’m sad. But I still have some comics I made about the two things I love most: writing and m’pups. If anyone knows of a replacement comic maker where I don’t have to art, please let me know.

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Maximum Overwrite

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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.

“Who?”

“Fungus Man.”

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.

They kissed.

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.

Indecisive 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.

In Sum

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!