Where to Gather Stories: Weddings

Gone are the days of Jan Potocki, when one could simply pull up to a roadside inn on a stormy autumn evening, dismount and spend the night eating, drinking and exchanging stories with your fellow travelers. I think that’s one aspect of pre-modern life I would have enjoyed immensely. A world of no phones, no TV and no radio. A world in which the only way to relieve your boredom would be your own thoughts, reading books and your fellow humans. Uighyur Storyteller

In such a world, a budding writer—or anyone for that matter—could go undercover and listen for the next great story. It’s something that Potocki likely did. I imagine him stopping at inns throughout Spain to just listen to stories from locals and fellow travelers alike. I imagine him filing them away for later use, embellishing and tweaking them. And finally putting them down on paper.

Nowadays, it’s much harder to connect with people in your travels and everyday life. Even if others aren’t checking their phones or just staying in to watch TV, there are these subtle cultural taboos about bothering other people or even striking up a conversation in many public spaces. There are exceptions to this rule…Some obvious ones come to mind: bars and some cafes for example. But I think there are other obvious places for you to go undercover and gather up some great stories.

Today, I want to share one of these non-obvious Taverns of the Mind: the wedding. I’ve been to two weddings so far this year and I have one more to go, so they’re top of mind.

Weddings seem to have those key ingredients you look for in an atmosphere conducive to good storytelling, places where people feel free to open up a bit and share. These venues seem to have these things in common:

  • People are forced to spend time together (without the intermediary of media and devices).
  • Those people are not likely to meet one another again (or not likely to meet one another for a very long time).
  • Cheap alcoholic beverages are plentiful and at hand.

Weddings, somewhat surprisingly, check all three of these boxes. You won’t likely see most of these people again and there is usually a good amount of time between toasts and other activities to kill. Of course, many of these stories can be reminisces about the bride and groom, sure. And hey, I know they’re what you came to see. But there is also just catching up with people and hearing some of the experiences they’ve had.

Why, just in these past two weddings I have heard tales…And I mean real tales told to me by other humans IN THE FLESH…about bus travel in Central America, the latest scams in Marrakesh, fishing bodies out of the Hudson river (they become full of eels quite quickly, apparently), breaking into safes to retrieve wedding rings you placed there—I could go on and on. These stories vary in length and quality, just like those in any fiction magazine. But they are from real people in professions and walks of life very different from my own. I always find something in them to tuck away, remember and let stew in my subconscious for a bit. If done right, a wedding (like many other venues) is a top place to shut up, listen and start gathering story ideas. All you need to do is go undercover and listen.

Something, my fellow storytellers, to remember next time you get a wedding invite in the mail.

See you next time,

DJ

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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