Sunday, November 30, 2014

Aztec Art

Note:Aztec art is sometimes gruesome.

My researches have so far turned up two things about the Aztecs:
1. The term "Aztec" is not very precise and may refer to various different groups depending on who's using it, and so is not necessarily the best term if you want to do a bunch of research on the subject. Since I don't know the best terms, yet, I'm going to stick with the general term.
2. I don't have the background/context to really understand a lot of the art. So your thoughts on them are probably as good as mine, if not better.

According to the Wikipedia, this is Xipe Totec, a fertility god associated with spring and patron of goldsmiths. He doesn't have four hands, though--he's wearing a flayed human skin. I'm not sure why the flayed person has spots. Maybe they were sick, or decorated like a jaguar? Or maybe spots just look nice.

Well, I assume this illustration from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer is meant to illustrate the dangers of putting your foot into severed-head traps, but it's hard to say for sure. (The next two pictures are also from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer.)

I have heard that it took anthropologists a long time to figure out that the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice. In retrospect, it seems kind of obvious.

This guy looks so bummed. And what are those snake-tail like things?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Thoughts on Writing

When you're working through your second draft, editing and cleaning things up, pay attention to where your characters are physically located (and what condition they're in.) While betaing manuscripts, I often encounter characters who, say, get into bed at the beginning of a paragraph, but are leaning against the wall at the end (with no account of them getting up.) Or holding something large and fragile at the beginning of the paragraph, and waving their hands around at the end (without putting down the thing.) Or transitioning from asleep to awake to asleep, or from mourning to laughter, etc.

Also, pay attention to the passage of time--especially if you've been adding, deleting, or shuffling scenes, it can be quite easy to accidentally end up with conflicting time references. Characters may note that it's dark out in one paragraph, and comment on the evening shadows in the next.

And remember, if your characters have to walk all night, they will be tired in the morning.

Friday, November 28, 2014


I have heard that the Aztec capital--Tenochtitlan, located in present day Mexico City, more or less--was one of the world's biggest cities in 1500, just before the Spaniards arrived. According to the Wikipedia, "With an estimated population between 200,000 and 300,000, many [who?] scholars believe Tenochtitlan to have been among the largest cities in the world at that time. Compared to Europe, only Paris, Venice and Constantinople might have rivaled it."

Logic implies that the Aztec civilization, therefore, most have been one of the most complex an organized in the world. After all, it take a lot of food to support that many people, which requires some form of infrastructure and administration to ensure that the food made it from the countryside to the city. With no draft animals to pull plows or carts, (or ride around on), the number of humans who had to coordinate to grow and transport that much food was probably higher than in Europe. As for the city itself, most of the people there probably weren't priests or rulers, but artisans or administrators of some sort--implying a substantial (for the age) middle class of skilled people.

All of which implies a pretty darn complex civilization.

About which I know virtually nothing.

Compare to ancient Rome: I learned Latin in highschool, can name most of the major Roman deities off the top of my head, and can sketch a vague outline of Roman history and culture.

At the very least, this implies that there's a lot of interesting stuff for me to learn.

Habsburgs = Trust?

A quick excerpt from, "The Empire Is Dead, Long Live the Empire! Long-Run Persistence of Trust and Corruption in the Bureaucracy," by Becker, Boeckh, Hainz, and Woessmann, recently published in The Economic Journal:

"We hypothesize that the Habsburg Empire with its well-respected administration increased citizens’ trust in local public services. In several Eastern European countries, communities on both sides of the long-gone Habsburg border have shared common formal institutions for a century now. ... We find that historical Habsburg affiliation increases current trust and reduces corruption in courts and police."

Congrats to the authors, and congrats to the Habsburgs!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Just Published #2: Friends and Foes, a Memoir

Today's interviewee is Jim Williams, author of Friends and Foes, a memoir about his battle with homelessness and schizophrenia.

I particularly recommend this book to anyone working with the poor, the homeless, the downtrodden, or the mentally ill, (or anyone who intends on working with them.) I recommend it for people whose loved ones are facing such difficulties, and of course, I recommend it for people suffering such difficulties themselves.

Thank you, Mr. Williams, for joining us today.

Why don't you start by telling us a little more about your memoir?

On my way home to camping in Golden Gate Park, unknown assailants bludgeoned me into a coma and left me to die. Two years later, as I was being diagnosed by my physician for mental illness, my friend offered his silence while the doctor examined me. My case for being in reality would have been stronger if my friend had existed.

I slept inside discarded rolls of carpet to get out of the rain. Professional caregivers openly mocked my failings. Security guards ousted me from benches at three in the morning, and I sobbed alone in the darkness. I participated in dialogues with illusory voices, and we formed a World Government. Amidst day-to-day functioning on the streets, my unreal friends and I anticipated the day our telepathic leaders would end warfare and run the planet.

Finally, with detox and therapy, real voices began to replace my auditory hallucinations. Friendships developed while I realized people do still care about people. Reuniting with my brother, I started this book, detailing my 15 homeless years and struggles with hearing voices and psychosis.

FRIENDS AND FOES is a memoir complete at 45,000 words. My story shatters stigmas and provides hope.

What inspired you to write about your experiences?

My outrage at the severity of the assault. No matter what I haven't accomplished in my life, the assault was too much for anyone need endure. I couldn't just absorb it alone.

What was the hardest part of your story to write?

Anything to do with my failings to my children. I had a daughter that died when she was four and a son I'll probably never know. I got to email the son a reference to my book, but I don't know if he'll pick it up.

If you could change the way society treats the homeless and/or mentally ill, what would you change?

For "professional caregivers" to realize how competent street people have to be to survive. Yes there's help, but all needs, whether hygiene, shelter or food, must be met by street people on their own. Doing so takes effort and competence not always recognized.

And if you could give one message to other people struggling with homelessness and/or mental illness, what would it be?

Life, at least DNA based life, universally wants to live and thrive. Find that part of yourself that also wants to live and thrive, and follow it. In other words, be yourself.

Tell us a little about yourself. What are you reading these days?

Time magazine because I have a subscription.

What's your favorite kind of coffee?


What are you working on, now? Do you have a new project?

Designing a painter's easel that will stand in the sand.

All right! Thank you so much for joining us today, and good luck!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Just Published #1: Things Grak Hates, by Peter J. Story

Today's interviewee is Peter J. Story, the auspiciously named author of THINGS GRAK HATES, a darkly funny and occasionally horrifying tale about a man who hates olives and the depths of sociopathy. You can follow Mr. Story on his Facebook or his blog, or probably practically any social media platform you prefer.

I stumbled upon Things Grak Hates mostly by chance back during its drafting stages, read a few excerpts, and decided this was a book worth following. And now I have finally had a chance to read the whole thing, and yes, I think it is a fantastic, 5-star book.

Thank you, Mr. Story, for journeying all the way to Elflandia. So, tell us about your novel. What was the hardest part of the story to write?

Limiting the scope of my writing has always been the most difficult thing for me, as I think it is for many writers. I have a tendency to run away with a story and its characters, but that would have broken the rules I defined in my outline. Namely, the pace had to be slow, and the build-up had to be gradual. Another very important, but limiting element was that everything is seen through Grak's eyes, so he only notices the world and those around him when they threaten his desires. Those rules were all crucial to both style and story, but meant taking some very deep breaths when I sat down to write.

What motivates Brak? What motivates the others?

When the story opens, everyone is motivated by habit and naivete more than anything. The supporting characters all begin with a very simple and peaceful set of habits, reflecting their simple, peaceful way of life and establishing a clear comparison to the tribe we see at the end of the novel.

Brak cares about others, yet is a bit of a pushover, partially because of self-image issues. Jafra has always had quite a bit of strength as a matter of necessity--because Grak has grown up rather spoiled, her proximity to him has made her more responsible than might normally occur. Doran is accepting (perhaps to a fault) and a dreamer. Even Grak is motivated by habit, though his habit is self-absorption.

As the tale develops, each character's motivations develop in direct relation to Grak's actions, thus showing a bit more of their true tendencies. Their decisions aren't dictated by unalterable personality traits so much as by sheer force of habit. Thus, they follow their tendencies along the path of least resistance to form the characters we see by the end of the book. Except, of course, for the handful of brave souls willing to go against the grain.

Why hunter-gatherers? And why tyrants?

The nomad choice was basic enough. It seems to be one of the most uncluttered and rhythmic ways of life, which is exactly what's needed to show a drastic shift in the dynamic of a community. And it gave me room to slow the story's pace down enough to give proper focus to Grak's descent.

The tyrant aspect of "Things Grak Hates" just followed naturally from Grak's character. Left to our own devices, I think it’s easy for anyone to become a tyrant of sorts. Most of us have witnessed the likes of a new middle manager in the organization. A person who gains the slightest bit of power, but thinks they've arrived at some promised land. The difference is that their power has natural limits. With "Things Grak Hates," I'm asserting that this hint of megalomania is the same drive behind the tyrants and dictators of history. They crave that control, and they'll do anything to achieve it.

Some of us are less inclined to this trait than others, but ultimately, we are all selfish beings. The natural progression of an undeterred selfish soul ultimately ends with some sort of tyranny. Some are merely tyrants over their immediate circle of friends and family. Others rule tyrannically over their peers and employees. Dictatorships aren't so different--they're just ruled by a tyrant on a much larger scale.

So, without giving away the ending, how much do you agree with it? (You readers will just have to read the book to figure out what we mean.)

That's difficult to answer without giving anything away. Obviously, I don't agree with Grak's behavior. That's the main point of this book. But I do agree with the concept of redemption. Truly. But does Grak deserve redemption? Does any tyrant? Does anyone? Where do we draw the line? More importantly, would redemption be so sweet if it were deserved? Would it fill us with such hope?

In the end, I'm not Grak's judge, so I've left that question open. But like the rest of this book, I think that answer will be different for each person. It all depends on your particular set of experiences, your current focus on life, and the goals you've laid out for yourself. Which side of Grak are you looking at? I've been encouraged by the myriad of reviews that have applauded so many different angles of the story. That's what I was aiming for: to tell a tale with many facets and new meaning from each reading.

Tell us a little about yourself. What are you reading these days?

Most recently, I've been working through an alpha version of book two of "The Last Bucelarii" by Andy Peloquin. It's a dark fantasy series from an incredible new author. The first book is coming out in the next few months. It's kind of fun to read alpha copies, but also somewhat sad. I get to read it first, but since I almost never read a book twice, I don't get to read the final version. But Andy has an intimate relationship with his words, so his alpha versions are actually better than many other completed books that I've read.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and have lived here for much of my life. I find it a charming place. People here are generally quite friendly, and the pace is rather slow for such a large city. Plus, there's a lot of history here, which is precious to me.

What's your favorite kind of coffee?

I use a pour-over coffee brewer at home. People complain that pour-over coffee takes a lot longer to brew, but the flavor is surprisingly better than coffee from a machine. I take it with a little cream, no sugar, a pinch of cinnamon, and a few drops of vanilla. Beyond that, I really have no preference.

What are you working on, now? Do you have a sequel planned, or something new?

It's something new. Very different from Grak in many respects. I'm working on the outline in the spare moments I have while promoting "Things Grak Hates." I'm very particular about my stories, and if something doesn't flesh out into a full story, I won't push it. I'll even scrap a story or put it back on the shelf for later if I don't like it. Because of that, I'm trying to finish the outline before I give away any details.

It's my observation that books seem to reflect their writers. What aspect of you is reflected in your book?

A great deal. More than I even intended. Much of my younger life, I was a bit of a Brak. In fact, other than the fact that he's bald, I think he and young me have a great deal in common. Doran's ability to live on a dream and get completely absorbed by it was also me. Jafra was based mostly on the strong women I've known in my life, but that same willingness to speak the truth through fear was something I drew from my own experiences.

And then there's Grak. I have some OCD tendencies, so I injected that into his character. Also my eyesight is weak, so when I considered putting that in, it clicked with Grak's limited view of the world around him, and I just had to do it. And I've been the young middle-manager I spoke of earlier, so I know firsthand that the desire for control can be addictive. But most of all, I drew on my own fears and pain for Grak. Of course, I had to follow them into new territory, but I'd like to think that if I had clung as tightly to myself as Grak did and rejected the people around me who cared, I could have gone down a darker path. It's sobering.

Would you like to leave us with a quote from your book?

I have such a hard time making decisions like this, but someone recently posted a quote on their Tumblr feed and it's definitely one of my favorites.

“Sometimes life just … happens. And sometimes it hurts, and we can’t stop it. We can’t control it, no matter how hard we try. And that hurts even more.”

Thanks for everything!