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!

An Artist’s Responsibility, IMHO

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Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

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?

Wrong.

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!).

Love, Angst, and Marriage

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Last week, at the ripe old age of 37, I got married. It was a small affair with family and friends, just west of Dripping Springs, Texas in the Hill Country. The weather had been rainy leading up to the day, but on Friday, the sun was shining and a cool breeze was blowing. Dominique was beautiful, the flowers were beautiful, and everyone we hired to play music and serve food did a great job. We danced the night away with friends and later, listened to stories from drunken family members as we sat around a fire. All of that was expected… what I didn’t expect was that in the course of writing my toast for the reception, I would finally nail down where my writing style came from.

I’ll explain.

As religion fades from popularity, traditional church weddings will surely follow. We were no exception, and through a series of compromises, we settled on a non-denominational ceremony. I was surprised to learn, upon meeting with our officiant, that we could write any ceremony we wanted. What an opportunity! A writer who has written about love all his life with the chance to write his own ceremony? Surely, he would not pass that up, right?

Ha! Wrong.

With El Matador going on 10 months, a book to finish, a wedding to finalize, and so on and so on, there just wasn’t any time. So we compromised again and Frankensteined a new ceremony based off the officiant’s past work. That did not, however, keep us from having to write our own vows, and in my case, a toast.

I went through several iterations before settling on a final version. I kept the political jokes at bay and removed anything vaguely sexual (I’m so glad we decided to wait until marriage, sweetie, as El Matador looks on). Early on in the process, I found myself sitting and thinking about a single question: what is love?

Baby, don’t hurt me.

It dawned on me that I have been trying to understand love since a very young age. I continue to explore the concept in my books, rifling through the variants as if choosing a flavor of ice cream: I’ll have one scoop of unrequited love, a scoop of romantic love, and two scoops of pragmatic love with a cherry of infidelity on top.

One draft of my toast started like this:

I started keeping a diary when I was fifteen. It was in a Word doc that I named dec6.doc and it’s still on my computer. The first line? Fuck the world. I was fifteen. Also, I had started using fiction to help deal with my problems. So I would sit down and write as if my life were a story, and I’d make things out to be bigger than they were, and I’d get my rage and frustration and sadness out that way.

My diary wasn’t about my day-to-day life, and I didn’t write it in more than a couple times per month. What I wrote wasn’t an accurate depiction of my life either, and over time, I realized I’d created a second, fictional Daniel.

What I wrote most about was love, or at least, what I thought love to be. And over the years, I noticed I was constantly redefining what love actually is. This continued to present day in my books. I’m still trying to figure out what makes relationships tick. Relationships… not love. I’m no longer trying to understand love. At 37 years old, I’ve taken a stand on what I think love is.

Love is a choice.

At that point, as I started to meander towards describing love versus attraction, I abandoned this thread. I didn’t need to tell a room full of people what love was. They either knew or they didn’t. And regardless, my opinion on the matter shouldn’t really hold any water for them.

Also, worse, love is a choice just sounds kinda shitty. Too pragmatic. It implies that we choose to love someone but that we aren’t compelled to love them. That sounds a little more like codependency to me, not love. You may be compelled to love someone, to feel a connection you can’t explain nor would ever want to, but you choose to be with them, you choose to work on that love and make it into a relationship.

My early novels are blatantly focused on the idea of love, but there’s no discussion of how that love came to be. In Xronixle, X loves his high school sweetheart C, so he makes a copy of her in virtual reality after she breaks up with him. But why does he love her? Even if it is simple puberty-fueled, high school love, it should be addressed and investigated. Having lived and written the book, and having come out the other side, I know, as the author, that what X felt wasn’t love… but how do I express that in a story?

I didn’t. 24 year old Daniel didn’t even try to explore it. Shame on you, young Daniel.

I feel like I did a better job of questioning love in my latest book, Por Vida. There is love between Sepideh and Natasha, but it’s because they fill holes in each other’s lives. There’s love between Doyle and Vida, but it’s revealed to be more obsession than anything else.

And spoiler alert for my newest book, but there are two characters, a male and female, who by all rules of storytelling, should fall in love. But they don’t. The story, the situation, and the characters themselves don’t allow it.

There always has to be a reason people love each other. There has to be a reason people choose love.

Last night, Dominique wanted to watch the first episode of Altered Carbon, which I certainly didn’t mind seeing again. After it was over, I asked her thoughts and she said it was interesting. We talked briefly about Science Fiction in general; she’s not a big fan of the violence and futuristic technology.

To which I replied:

That’s the thing about Science Fiction. You have to look past the technology and the guns and the gratuitous nudity, because at its core, it’s just a story about people, and relationships, and love. The story is always about humanity.

And that’s how I write my books. Technology, both real and fictional, allows us to look at our humanity in ways never thought possible. Eternal re-sleeving. Memory modification. Virtual reality. Augmented reality. Instant communication. I mean, look what social media has done to us in just the last few years…

Lastly…

I think love, relationships, and humanity are at the core of every good Science Fiction novel (and other genres as well). Books like Replay by Ken Grimwood and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger come to mind.

Hell, even 1984, with its bleak dystopian setting and eerily prescient system of government, comes down to one single, simple, devastating act of betrayal between two humans. That’s it. Do it to her. The reader feels something in that moment, and I’ve always wondered if that was the one true emotion George Orwell wanted to communicate to people, so much so that he built an entire world just to support it. Who did he betray in his lifetime? Or who betrayed him?

Anyway, choose love, my fellow writers. Choose relationships and humanity. You can still have your mechs and your spaceships and your vorpal swords, but if there aren’t any people in your story… what’s the point?

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

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I had only ever heard of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (and the sequel Tropic of Capricorn) from that one episode of Seinfeld where you heard of it. Not once was it ever mentioned in high school or in the many classes I took as an English major at UT Austin. So what was this book? Context suggested it was erotica, on par with Lady Chatterley’s Lover. After all, the version I bought on Amazon has a preface by Anais Nin. Not that I haven’t read Delta of Venus front to back and sideways, but as a Science Fiction author, erotica isn’t really up my alley.

The introduction to Tropic of Cancer was written by Karl Shapiro, an American poet who died in 2000. At first, I misread and thought the Intro was written by Anais Nin, which is the only reason I read it in the first place. I’d read her work, so I was curious to hear what she thought of Miller. Two pages into the Intro, I sank into a deep depression.

Here is a quote from Shapiro’s introduction:

I call Henry Miller the greatest living author because I think he is. I do not call him a poet because he has never written a poem; he even dislikes poetry, I think. But everything he has written is a poem in the best as well as in the broadest sense of the word. Secondly, I do not call him a writer, but an author. The writer is the fly in the ointment of modern letters; Miller has waged ceaseless war against writers. If one had to type him one might call him a Wisdom writer, Wisdom literature being a type of literature which lies between literature and scripture; it is poetry only because it rises above literature and because sometimes ends up in bibles.

There is a type of writing that I learned about throughout college that I’ve long forgotten. It’s easy to read the classics and then break away from them in favor of what is easy, marketable, and universally appealing. When I sit down to write a novel, I ask myself, will anyone find this interesting or entertaining? I’m starting to wonder if that’s how art is supposed to work. Who, ultimately, are we writing for?

I also got the sense from the Introduction that one of the greatest thing modern indie writers are missing out on is a sense of community.

Orwell has written one of the best essays on Miller, although he takes a sociological approach and tries to place Miller as a Depression writer or something of the sort. […] Orwell adds that the Tropic of Cancer is almost exactly opposite! Such a thing as Miller’s book “has become so unusual as to seem almost anomalous, [for] it is the book of a man who is happy.”

I can just imagine all these writers, poets, and artists getting together to critique each other’s work. Okay, maybe not getting together, but being on a level were Orwell is critiquing you? Please. Imagine having insight like that to help you understand your writing.

Still, as I reread some of the Introduction, I can’t get over how Shapiro speaks of Miller. It’s less an introduction and more of a glimpse into a literary world that most of us will never visit, and perhaps no longer exists. That was the world I wanted to be a part of when I started writing in overlong, self-reflective sentences that seemed to wind and zag with no rhythm but somehow ended up in exactly the right place. Now that type of writing only shows up in dialogue as a character flaw.

It’s not every day that you realize you’re no longer writing honestly, that you’re more concerned with the number of reviews on Amazon than sharing emotion straight from the heart. It’s nice to have a reminder now and then, and if you haven’t had one in a while, pick up this book and feel shitty about yourself for a day or two. Then pick up your Mac and get back to work.

Oh, and as for Tropic of Cancer itself, I’m only 40 or so pages into it, but it’s excellent. Much like the introduction, it’s a whole ‘nother world. I could see the style being applied to Tech Noir, with a seedy, neon city replacing Paris. I don’t know if some of Miller’s language will appeal to you or whether his blunt description of lady parts will send you running for Harry Potter, but the writing, the stream of consciousness, the thoughts that come at you from left and right… it all fits together very well. What a shame I’m only discovering it now.

Grab a copy. It’s the best $9 you’ll spend today.

EDIT: You know what it reminds me a lot of? The Ijon Tichy books by Stanislaw Lem, that same kind of rapid-fire narration. Check those out too.