How to Write in a World of Distraction

Distracted from distraction by distraction…” –T.S. Eliot

Feeling a bit distracted lately?sIIwU

No?

Really?

Lucky you. I admire your self-discipline. What with the constant news, smart phones, websites and more and more media choices, the human beings of this world are being distracted half to death. It’s also shortening attention spans, among other things, but I’m not here to talk about the larger ramifications of this trend. Instead, I’m here to share a bit about how I tune those voices out when it gets time to write.

Here is what I do every weekend when I go to write and I need all those voices to STOP:

Head to a Public Place
It doesn’t matter if it’s a café, library or rented cube farm. Get to a public place where the cultural expectation is that people are coming there to work. And  then settle in and get going…

Why go out to write? First off: peer pressure. If it’s a place where everybody is expected to do mental work you’ll feel the pressure to do the same. It’s one of the situations where you can use peer pressure, the desire to conform, to your benefit. (It’s on the page where you need to stand out and go your own way!)

Second, home has all those distractions, doesn’t it? Internet, TV, books, reading the mail, doing that project, mowing the lawn. Well, if you’re at a café, you can’t do any of that stuff…But there are other things which can distract, which brings us to.

Put Your Phone on Airplane Mode
I always bring my phone with me to write. But as soon as I get to the café, I put it in flight mode. I understand if all of you out there can’t do this (families, kids, etc.), but I highly recommend it. There is NOTHING that ruins a great writing groove like a call from a friend you haven’t heard from in awhile, or someone trying to sell you something. Believe me, because it’s happened to this writer. And once that groove is gone, you ain’t  getting it back, at least not that day.

At first flight mode silence was difficult for my close friends to accept, but now they know this is what I’m doing on Sundays and they anticipate it. The few times I have accidentally left the phone on during my writing sessions, I have not gotten calls. People have adjusted and learned to work around it—and I’m very, very grateful for that.

Kill the Wi-Fi on Your PC
Most cafes these days offer Wi-Fi which is great—unless it’s a distraction. I usually have the Internet handy as I write in case I need to do some research. I have also found it useful to read a little news before I dive into writing to loosen up the brain. But it can also become a distraction. When I find myself reading too much and writing too little, I press the F2 key and turn off the Wi-Fi. Suddenly, all the distractions are gone.

Any I’m sitting there in a world without cell phones, the Internet or  TV. There’s nothing to distract me…almost.

Put in Your Headphones
It’s only other people or the ambient, piped-in music that will distract me at this point. Usually, the music is ok, but some days there are people (or their children) who dial up the volume a bit. Or, like last week, there was that woman with the high-pitched, squeaky voice. In that case, I bring out my final, secret weapon: ear buds.

I plug in my headphones, access my music library (or Pandora, if I still have Wi-Fi) and crank up the tunes. It has to be something I’ve heard many times or which doesn’t have English lyrics (Brazilian pop and instrumentals work) and I’m back in business. Bring the screaming kids, I don’t care! Just as long as they don’t knock over my coffee, cause then, it’s on!


Now, this doesn’t guarantee you’ll actually get down to the writing. There have been writing sessions in my past where I just stared at blank screen for four or five hours and didn’t produce a thing. But that’s very, very rare for me now—I haven’t done that in over 10 years. I think I just naturally grew out of that and will eventually force myself to write/edit even if I’m feeling out of it. Usually I write between 800-2,000 words per day, with any day over 1,000 words usually considered “good.”

So what’s my point? Even in this world—the modern world of smart phones, 24-hours news cycles and all sorts of content engineered to hook you—you can still turn it all off, quiet your mind and settle down to do hard, mental work. You just have to have the will, time and energy to do it. I hope those tips above will help you have a productive writing day next time you sit down to write.

See you next time,

DJ

The Craft: Plot, Plot, Plot

Lately, all I’ve been thinking about is plot. That’s right, that little thing that makes a big difference in your story. And like anything we obsess over it’s been invading my subconscious starting with my dreams.

Can’t get Plot out of my head…

So, there I was a couple of nights ago, just enjoying my sleep, minding my own business when I had this dream, which I jotted down as soon as I woke up:

Suddenly, I was reading pulp fiction. A big, long book—400 pages or more. Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, Kresley Cole or something like that…I read and read and read, faster and faster. I understood where the plot was going, where the characters were headed, how the conflict was moving ahead…I was looking down on the words from above.

Suddenly, I turned the next page and realized it was the end of the chapter.  The author wrapped it all up perfectly. The tension reached a climax and—bam! That last sentence was dynamite. It propelled everything forward, but put in that last bit of mystery and fricking INTRODUCED a new, unanswered question.

“Damn! I thought! This guy/girl is good.” I put in my bookmark and thought—I can’t wait for tomorrow night when I can pick this up again and FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. That guy/girl is a CRAFTY author.

And that was it. That was all. But it was enough. It’s exactly what I’m trying to do subconsciously when I write. My conscious brain is too overloaded with dialogue, scene-setting, action, etc., etc, etc., when I’m actually writing to worry much about plot. But that (from the dream above) is exactly what I’m aiming at. So now, the subconscious sleeping Darius and the subconscious awake (and writing) Darius are in synch. United and working on the same problem: How to build tension slowly, all while turning up the heat bit by bit. It’s something I’ve screwed up massively in the past and I really want to get this right this time.

It’s great place to be with the writing for now, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Until next time…

Keep Reading, Keep Writing,

Darius

Giving a Little Comics Help

Well…Life is always giving us opportunities: to learn, to live, to make new friends, join new adventures. But we have to make sure we’re receptive to these new adventures. So that when the right opportunity presents itself we’re ready and can say, “Yes, let’s go!”

1836_6_46-comic-book-drawings

So, my good friend D—, the Renaissance Man from the Upper Midwest—was talking to me last month. About getting more time, in his case, more time for his art. And art for him lately is tending toward the graphic: sketches, drawing, that sort of thing. This specific project is a comics/graphic novel. It’s a good fusion for him: he’s got experience writing too. So he can put that together with his latest, the graphic stuff, and tell stories in a new and exciting way. And the story line is all realist stuff too, so it’s not exactly normal comics fare.

Well, I offered to do some editing/proofing for him. It’s been lots of fun already, although he’s only a few pages in. I’ve already learned a few important things like: try to get your edits back to him as soon as possible before he “inks” the actual panels. That should have been obvious, but I hadn’t really thought about it.

And again, the bottom line is that it’s just plain fun. I’m getting to see someone create a story graphically, page by page. It’s a nice little mini-adventure and I’m glad I signed up for it. As a writer, you’ve got to look out for new opportunities, new chances to stretch yourself, have new experiences and just plain learn. And as they say, “Know what you write” or something like that???? So, I try to be open to new opportunities to learn and take them when I can. I hope you do too, even if you’re not writer.

Something to think about next time somebody talks about doing something crazy and different. See if you can worm your way into their project/adventure. Who knows? It might even give you something to write about a little further down the road…

The Final Achievement: Simplicity

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” – Chopin

So let me riff, jam, groove, improvise on this theme today. Simplicity. What is it? How does one achieve it? Hawkins

Funny. Seems no one is aiming at simplicity these days. They seem to be aiming at money or success or something else. But simplicity? Who seems to be aiming for that? I can’t say many are, even me. But I like to think I try to follow this thought of  Chopin’s some of the time and Thoreau’s even plainer injunction to “simplify, simplify.” Not least, I hope I put some simplicity into my writing, but it’s tough. So surprisingly tough. But this week, I got a good reminder about doing just that.

I was over on the Guardian’s book section and I read a review of Paula Hawkins’ new book, Into the Water. It wasn’t exactly a glowing review. Now, it’s funny thing…I used to read book reviews from a different point of view, let’s call it a reader’s point of view. Then, I started writing and I started to read reviews from a writer’s point of view. So, I read the review and I empathized with (pitied?) Hawkins. I mean, here she is writing book after book, going through financial travails, not meeting with a huge amount of success and BAM!!! It happens. Her book becomes a bestseller!! And what a bestseller: it gets turned into a successful movie!

And all is well, until you have to sit down in front of that blank page. With everyone out there expecting you to do the same thing. Again. Whether you really want to, or can, is irrelevant. Everybody expects it.

I can’t say I know what happened, but I think I got a hint of it here (from the review):

It’s a set-up that is redolent with possibility. But that promising start fails to deliver, and the main reason is structural. The story of Into the Water is carried by 11 narrative voices. To differentiate 11 separate voices within a single story is a fiendishly difficult thing. And these characters are so similar in tone and register – even when some are in first person and others in third – that they are almost impossible to tell apart, which ends up being both monotonous and confusing.

I’m theorizing here, but I wonder if when it came time for Hawkins to sit down and write, she knew she had to go big, really big, in her next piece. So, she went all in on complexity. She tried to weave 11 (11!) voices into a coherent plot. And perhaps it was too much, I don’t know. (I have to admit I haven’t read her book).

The point is, I’ve been there. Of course, except, you know, for having the mega-bestseller that gets turned into a huge movie…Minor point, really! But I’ve felt the compulsion to keep adding stuff into my pieces: More plot lines, more characters, more voices. More scenes, thoughts and ideas. And sometimes, that’s not the point. Sometimes, it’s better to keep the plot to ONE PLOT LINE, to strip out voices, pair down characters and KEEP IT SIMPLE. There’s always this temptation to write convoluted plots with twists…Or to write in a heavy style that is super distinctive. But what happened to simplicity? To telling a simple story well without the overwrought stage dressing? And can I, as a writer, avoid those temptations? Give people a slice of life, yes, but get to the heart of a character and tell that one, simple story that changed their life.

Simplify, simplify, simplify.

That’s something I’m going to be telling myself as I take up the pen this week. Maybe you should too???

Good Luck,

DJ

Nothing Much to Say

Just a-writing along and thinking of Juan Rulfo selling tires. I don’t have much to say right now, just reading, thinking, writing. And then getting up and doing it all over again. eric-hoffer-learners-journal-keeper

Loving all things Elvis lately, (especially Last Train to Memphis, what a book!) and reading Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. Thinking a lot about Hoffer’s link between “frustration” and fanaticism. And how they can become an explosive mixture, able to transform societies in positive and negative ways…The book seems more relevant than it has been in some time.  You should read it.

Sometimes, I have things to talk about on the blog, sometimes I don’t. I like to put who I am into my writing, and by that I mean my fiction writing. And if anything is left, it makes it into the blog. But here’s the deal: I don’t have much left after fiction writing right now. I could become a blowhard and write some fluff here, but I won’t do it. So, having nothing much else to say right now: I’ll keep quite this time and save it for the fiction writing this weekend and my next blog post.

Until then, I will be writing more fiction and submitting more of my pieces. See you all down the road and remember:

Keep Reading, Keep Writing,

Darius

The Craft: Research, How Much Is Too Much?

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

I’m trying to get the balance right between research and writing. One thing I don’t want to do when writing fiction is research too much.sketch

The other day, I read an interview with Tom Stoppard, the playwright. I haven’t been able to track down the exact one again. But the important point was: can one over-research before sitting down to write a story? Is there  a point where you should be begin writing before you know too much about a given topic? In the final analysis, Tom says yes, you shouldn’t wait to become a total expert, but dive in.

Now, I’ve written my fair share of stories in historical settings. And the question is: where do you stop? I don’t know the exact answer, but I do know you can overdo the research. You have to go into a work still a bit ignorant about it. You must choose the difficult middle path.

Over-research or over-plot your story/book and you risk making it stale. You’ll sit down to write and have nothing to say, it’s almost like you’ve written yourself out. Written the idea out. On the other hand, research too little, plot too little and you could soon lose yourself in a trackless forest of options and alternatives. There’s nothing to guide you back to the kernel of the story. And your world’s details are flawed or inaccurate.

So, when do you put the research down and begin in earnest? As always, there’s no hard and fast rule, you just have to make a gut decision. Right now, I think of it like a sketch of the human body. You want to have the skeleton and its position complete in your mind, but you don’t need all the organs in place or the skin. You just need a basic idea of how the thing will look on the page. That’s not to be dismissive of research or world-building, but you have to know when it’s time to stop and begin to write.

Everyone will have their limit for this, my only point is there is a danger in doing too much research, too much plotting, too much thinking. Your research and plotting has to be a foundation. The story itself is the building. When the foundation looks good, you have to start putting the walls in place. And in a writing a story, the writer is the only one who can make that call. It’s your world, writer, you have to build it.

Good luck and see you next time,

DJ

No Reading Fiction While Working!

Here’s something I picked up while reading a quick, great interview with Paul Auster, the American writer. It seems Auster will NOT read fiction when he’s writing fiction:0115-BKS-ByTheBook-blog_Auster

What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid when writing?

No fiction while working on a novel — only after I’m done and before I’ve started something new — but poetry, history and biographies are acceptable, along with books to help me research various things related to the book I’m writing…

Now, you all know I’m always looking for ways to lift my writing game. I’ve thought this way for a long time. I’ve always been reticent to read other folks’ stuff while writing my own stuff in the fear that it might subconsciously affect my writing style. And sometimes the style of a writer is so strong—think Poe or Cormac McCarthy—that you can’t imagine it not affecting your writing. (That McCarthy—what a  style, too!)

So, going forward, I’m going to follow Auster’s advice on this one: no more reading fiction while I’m on a writing project. I’m going to save that for the time between projects. The only exception of course, which would be rare, would be for reading fiction as research for my piece. That will be exceptionally rare. And, as Auster notes, history, biography, non-fiction are still OK.

Bam, another small tweak to my writing process and a good one. I’d be curious to know if any of you writers out there have recently tweaked your writing process to help you focus/perform better. Let me know your thoughts in the Comments section below. Thanks! 

See you next time,

DJ

Did Hemingway “Write Drunk, Edit Sober”?

It’s no secret writers—especially American writers—like their drink. In fact, one of my earliest memories from English class in high school was one of my teHemingway drinkingachers telling us: Never become a writer because as an American, you could win the Nobel, yes, but you’d more likely end up dead before your time or at least, a hopeless alcoholic. I was skeptical at first, but I started to do some research starting with some of the American writers who won the Nobel. And turns out, my English teacher was right. Here’s a list of 15 writers (not all  American) who were alcoholics and many  of whom died before their time. In the end, it’s all quite sad and tragic. Especially, somehow, the loss of Fitzgerald who died at 44.

But somehow in my mind, the Writer-Drinker Prize goes to Hemingway, although he was a teetotaler compared to Fitzgerald. Just pick up a work—any work by Hemingway—and read a few pages. Among many other things, you’ll soon be encountering wine, beer, spirits, aperitifs, tonics and beverages that you have never even heard of. (Of course, some of this has to do with the fact that many 20s/30s drinks are no longer are popular.) But it’s also clear he knocked back more than a few. Which all leads us to the supposed Hemingway quote on writing:

“Write drunk, edit sober.”

So, what do the scientists say? Well, I found some scientists in a lab who are willing to help us decipher…Actually, no…but I did find a blog post of dubious scientific worth which takes up the issue. According to it, there may be some benefit from a micro-dose (1-2 drinks) of alcohol.

Alcohol has been shown to depress certain response in the brain resulting in unusual connections/associations being formed… Alcohol boosts your imagination and inner consciousness.

When I had first heard about this, I was dubious. So, what did I do? That’s right! I tested it!

Now, this was not scientifically studied by yours truly. And I used myself as the test subject which violates all sorts of rules, I’m sure. As well as making it statistically questionable. Anyway, after a drink or two, (which kind of breaks the premise anyway), I wrote one day. Just, you know, to see what would happen. I wrote about 1,000 words and put the results away for a couple of weeks. And what did I find when I pulled it up???

It was junk. Almost immediately, I saw it was auto-trunkable, un-publishable, irredeemable prose. So, I ascertained, at least for my biochemistry, “writing drunk” was a horrible idea. Thank God for that.

What about coffee or tea though? Caffeine? A stimulant, not a depressant? The world’s most widely-consumed psychoactive drug? Well, our article has something to say about that.

Caffeine provides us with more working memory …Coffee also helps  you ignore distractions…

Turns out, I have also tested this. It’s true. But my experience with caffeine/coffee has been much different. On days I drink coffee I feel I write and edit better. I also feel it helps in pre-writing, drawing connections between ideas that had not been synthesized before and creating new directions in existing ideas. I find when I don’t drink coffee the writing doesn’t comes as easy and I’m not quite as optimally sharp as I should be.

So, if I had to rewrite Hemingway’s dictum it would be:

“Forget drinking. Write caffeinated, edit more caffeinated.”

Of course, the correct dose is a big question here, but it’s safe to say you don’t want to overdo the caffeine. You want to write, you don’t want to feel like you need to climb the walls. And there’s the related question of combining your caffeine with your chocolate (tryptophan). But that’s a blog post for another time.


So…what about the man himself? Did Hemingway actually ever say this, let alone do it? For starters, I can find NO evidence Hemingway actually did say this. It’s not on Hemingway’s Wikiquote page. In actual fact, it seems that it’s a quote from Peter De Vries from his book Reuben, Reuben. It seems in that passage in De Vries’ book, it’s a quote from the main character—an alcoholic poet—who has condescended to give an interview to a New York journalist about his “working habits.”

In other words, there is NO evidence Hemingway ever said the phrase. In fact, from what little evidence I could find, he only drank AFTER he finished writing for the day. Now, there’s no doubt he liked a good drink, but it seems he only indulged on his down time. Here’s the first quote.

When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?”

Which seems to indicate he would start drinking AFTER he worked “hard all day.” Then, there’s this from the great, great Paris Review interview of Hemingway.

So I got dressed and walked to Fornos, the old bullfighters’ café, and drank coffee and then came back and wrote “Ten Indians.” This made me very sad and I drank some brandy and went to sleep. I’d forgotten to eat and one of the waiters brought me up some bacalao and a small steak and fried potatoes and a bottle of Valdepeñas.

And then, the there’s this rather long-winded story about how the owner of the pension and the waiter try to get him to write although he’s been drinking. Hemingway doesn’t budge.

The woman who ran the pension was always worried that I did not eat enough and she had sent the waiter. I remember sitting up in bed and eating, and drinking the Valdepeñas. The waiter said he would bring up another bottle. He said the Señora wanted to know if I was going to write all night. I said no, I thought I would lay off for a while. Why don’t you try to write just one more, the waiter asked. I’m only supposed to write one, I said. Nonsense, he said. You could write six. I’ll try tomorrow, I said. Try it tonight, he said. What do you think the old woman sent the food up for?

I’m tired, I told him. Nonsense, he said (the word was not nonsense). You tired after three miserable little stories. Translate me one.

Leave me alone, I said. How am I going to write it if you don’t leave me alone? So I sat up in bed and drank the Valdepeñas and thought what a hell of a writer I was if the first story was as good as I’d hoped.

So, I really doubt that Hemingway ever “wrote drunk” though there is an awful good chance he wrote hungover at least some of the time. And there you have it.

,DJ

The Craft: How to Make Your Characters Like Metamorphic Rock

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction...]

[Spoiler alert: This post contains plots details from Hamlet and Moby Dick.]

I hope you forgive this very extended metaphor…

I wonder if my fellow writers out there have ever considered how their characters are (or ought to be) like metamorphic rock? Hmmm…I don’t see many hands going up or nods of agreement out there, so let me explain. NY-Central-Park-Rock-7333

It  turns out that there are not three forms of rock like we learned in school: the igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic. We were lied to…sort of. In reality, there are just two types: rocks made from magma (igneous) and rocks made from falling sediment (sedimentary). Now, both of these can be turned into metamorphic rock, but they both start as igneous or sedimentary and become metamorphic rock.

But how do these metamorphic rocks come about? By the application of heat and PRESSURE.

Metamorphic rocks arise from the transformation of existing rock types, in a process called metamorphism, which means “change in form”. The original rock (protolith) is subjected to heat (temperatures greater than 150 to 200 °C) and pressure, causing profound physical and/or chemical change.

Ok…So what the heck does ANY OF THIS have to do with characters in fiction??? Well, here it is: compelling characters always change (almost always). And they change because they are brought under PRESSURE. So, if you have a great character, don’t just put them up on the shelf or in a monastery free from temptation and trial. Bring them down from the shelf, thrust them out into the world, into the marketplace, onto the field of battle. And THEN see how they do. Do they remain the same? Or do they evolve, change, metamorphosize (spell checker says this is not a verb in English???? Is that right?) because of the pressure? And if they do…Voila! You have two of the three elements of your story: character and plot. You just need to add a setting.

So remember: take that beloved character, that untested protolith, apply pressure/heat and see what they change into. These days, I don’t pre-write a main character for a story (protagonist) without wondering how he/she will change. How he/she will be different at the END of a story than they were at the START.

PS…What about those great characters who DON’T change? Those Hamlets and Ahabs of yore?  It’s interesting that both are transformed ultimately by death. That being said, they come under extreme pressure and don’t change, but become hardened in their ways, more what they are. Even they change—to a degree. At least the pressure is applied, even if it comes to naught. It’s their standing in the way of this pressure which makes them great, albeit tragic, characters.

Alright, see you next time. In the meantime, don’t forget to apply to some pressure to your most beloved characters.

See you,

DJ

The Writing of the Fiction

Guys, getting into the writing…of the fiction…this week. So, I’ve got to post and run.

I thought I would like to talk about events at large, and I started this writing day fully intending to do that, but it just melted inside me…and was gone. I almost threw down the book I was going to quote from. It just no longer worked and I had no motivation to write about it.  

But in fiction writing, it’s whole different story. I’m reading, absorbing, researching, submitting, writing. All good stuff, but it means not much time left to blog. I hope to have more substantive posts in the future. Until then, I’m working and doing this fiction writing stuff.

Now back, to that writing/submitting stuff. 

giphy Ren

See you guys next time,

DJ