A Writer Goes to New Orleans—For Halloween

What is it about certain towns? You know, those that draw in writers? As places to write. As places to live. Or places to do a little bit of both…

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Internationally, there’s that perennial favorite, Paris. Then there are some of my favorites: Moscow, Istanbul, Madrid, Fes, Buenos Aires, Arequipa. (Why are so many of these former imperial capitals or ports? Or both?…Anyhow…) Man!—Any one of the towns I could (and sometimes have) set up shop in, find some cheap digs and just write, write, write. Closer to home, here in the U.S., there are lots of choices for literary towns. Dear to many an American writer’s heart is the Big Easy, New Orleans. And lucky me, I’m headed that way this weekend.

And not only is it NOLA, it’s Halloween in New Orleans!!! Which will be sweet. One of the biggest impressions of the city is just its overall spookiness. All those cemeteries with their stone avenues of mausoleums, the hints of voodoo practice in little shrines and altars, the old convents and parks with shut wrought-iron gates. Its whole atmosphere lends itself to Halloween.

Then, there’s the music and the food which are, let’s face it, the cornerstone of civilization once you’ve finished your morning coffee. For music, there’s jazz, as the obvious choice, but also lots more on offer. I’m going to try to find myself some good jazz piano this time around. (Let me know if you have any advice on where to go in the Comments section.)

As for food, my mission this time in NOLA is to really understand the difference between Cajun and Creole cuisine. I think Cajun is the more rustic and country-food/gamey cuisine and Creole is more seafood-based and, well, mixed. But I will have to do a bit more hands-on research here. I also want to try trout—which is apparently a big thing I missed in my previous trips and some authentic Israeli food.

And finally that great literary heritage. There’s Chopin and Faulkner and Tennessee Williams and John Kennedy Toole—all these great mythologizers of the South, New Orleans and America—and all with some connection to this great city. Want to hunt down some of those places connected with them while I’m there.


Here’s a bit more on literary New Orleans from Huff Post. They do a good job of breaking down some of the highlights.

And PS, here’s the number one tip for doing New Orleans right: Get off Bourbon Street, and better yet, out of the French Quarter, and see what’s happening in the rest of town—you won’t regret it! And Gentlemen, don’t forget your dinner jacket, you’ll need it if you want to get into most of the decent restaurants.

See you next time,

DJ

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The Greatest Medium

Well, some say the “medium is the message.” This time it’s true. (Or at least the message of this post is about a medium).

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I was out on the Oregon coast this summer, as you know. And I had a great time. Deep-sea fishing, crabbing, going to beer festivals. One small scene unrelated to all of them, really struck me though. It was just a simple moment in the local seaside hotel we were staying in. To one side of the coffee table, I noticed a few used books on the shelf.

It was a cold and misty day, with alterations of sunshine and cloud. With wind at about 50 degrees, you wouldn’t want to stay outside too long (well, we did anyway). It was very tempting to grab one of those books—novels actually—and curl up beside the fire and start reading. But of course, I didn’t. There was too much to do and too much fun to be had.

But it got me thinking…Is there really any other medium like the novel? One in which you can grab a tea or coffee, curl up and be transported to a wholly different world for days on end? Where you can come into another person’s—another soul’s—mind and thoughts and live in their world for such an extended period of time?

I thought about it and I don’t think there is…With the possible exception of video games where you do live in a world for hours or days on end and where you live a sort of first-person existence. But even then, it’s not quite the same. And besides that’s not the point of this post…

The point of this post is that I have always loved the form of the novel. Not for me are short stories with their quick, clever plotting and their swift resolutions. Or even plays which are grand in their immediacy—but too short-lived.

No, best give me a samovar full of tea; a wet, dreary day; and a thick novel. And let me fall into a distant world and learn and grow and develop…and suffer, revel and laugh…along with a character in some far-off realm of imagination. And lit me LIVE there for hours or days until I finally finish the last chapter. That!!! That’s art in its highest form…What could be more sublime? 

Just a thought!

See you next time,

Darius

Five Years of My Blog: A Writer Begins

Well, well, well. It’s a bit early, but this blog has been around for FIVE years. Five years! The first post was on July 20, 2012. And here it is:


My New Novel

July 20 by dariusjones

[This entry is a repost from my earlier, Goodreads blog. It was the first post on “A  Writer Begins.”]

Well, here goes nothing.

My first novel has just been published. It’s on the Amazon Kindle store here. It’s also on Goodreads.

Please take the time to leave a review. And a big thank you to all of you who have already got it and are reading it.

,D


Sarasota Writer

I was so nervous to hit “PUBLISH” on that first post. And I honestly didn’t want to do it, but I felt that’s what a writer should do once they published something in this day and age. So, I did it. The blog has come a long way since then: the posts are longer, have a more conversational tone and have pictures (even GIFs and videos).

I want to use this post to take a deeper look at my blog and my writing over the past five years. I’m going to do this via simple stats and lists.


First, here’s a breakdown of the stats for this blog:

Total posts: 198

Total followers: 188

Comments received: 103

Visitors in the first year: 5

Most popular post: The Craft: Poe’s Unity of Effect

Posting schedule: Once every two weeks.

Not bad, lots of progress there. I’ve also stuck to my established posting schedule of once every two weeks. I wish I could do more, but with my writing fiction, sleeping, working out and…Oh yeah!!!—that full time job—that’s about all I can handle.


Second, here’s a look at my submission/rejection totals for stories.
My first story submission was also in July 2012. This was the rejection letter I received July 8, 2012 (just before the blog began):

Thanks for submitting “The Hatchlings,” but I’m going to pass on it. It didn’t quite work for me, I’m afraid. Best of luck to you placing this one elsewhere, and thanks again for sending it my way.

Editor XXXX

And yes, I keep all my rejection and acceptance letters. Here’s a deeper look at my submission/rejection stats from my Duotrope listings which I use to track my story submissions. (Hat tip to Aeryn Rudel from which I’m errrrr, “borrowing” this idea of sharing rejection stats. But seriously, you should check out his blog, Rejectomancy!)

Submissions: 102

Rejections: 80

Acceptances:  4

Never heard back from publisher: 8

Withdrawal by author: 7

Pending submissions: 3

Acceptance/Rejection ratio: 3.9%  [Believe it or not, that’s not too bad.]


So, also looking back from the start of this blog…from that moment when I decided I’m going to give this writing thing a shot: What has changed? What’s different? Well, everything is the same, everything is different. I still have the same job, and I still write on the weekends. But certain writing milestones have occurred. I think a Q-and-A format might answer these best, so apologies for the cheesiness, but let’s dive in!

Darius, what writer milestones have you passed in these last five years?

Q: Have you self-published a story or book?

A: Yes. I self-published a novel, The Library of Lost Books and a novella, The Man Who Ran from God on Amazon Kindle. 

Q:  Have you traditionally published a story? That is, has a magazine/publisher published your work?

A: Yes, four times. All of them were stories: The Hatchlings, The Ghul of Yazd, Barabanchik, and So You Found Me.

Q: Have you received payment for publishing a story?

A: Yes, first via Amazon for my self-published work. And also for two of my traditionally-published stories for magazines.

Q: Have you signed a contract for a piece you published?

A: Yes. Twice for the same pieces I received payment for.

Q: Which of your published pieces are you most proud of?

A: The Ghul of Yazd. Its characters, its structure, its dialogue and its tone have that “unity of effect” I’m always looking to create. And it’s simply a good yarn.

Q: Have you attended a Con with a writing track and participated in writer events?

A: Yes. Attended writer panels and workshops at two RavenCons.

Q: Have you written a play?

A: Yes. Something titled The Sludge Ship Chronicles.

Q: Have you had a play staged/performed?

A: Alas, no. But it’s ready to go! Finished, and proofed and everything! If anyone out there can help market it, let me know! It can be produced cheaply, I swear! Anyone? Anyone???

Q: Have you had a novel traditionally published?

A: No.

Q: Have you received an advance for a novel?

A: Oh God, no.

Q: Have you got an agent?

A: Nope.

Q: Have you done a book tour or an event promoting your own work?

A: No.

Q: Have you quit your day job because you thought: “Let’s make a go of it as a pro?”

A: No!


So, there you have it. Five years of this blog, five years of submissions and five years of writing fiction. I’ve come a long way, especially when you consider I’m doing this on the side, catch as catch can.

The most fundamental thing I’ve done in writing and the one thing I’m really sticking to now is: Writing what I want to write. I can not emphasize this point enough. It is absolutely key, as I discussed in this post and many other places. In the end, picking the right story is easy. You know that strange, enduring story? The one that doesn’t let you sleep at night? That has you imagining the main characters as you sit through yet another PowerPoint presentation? That’s running through your mind as you’re on the bike at the gym doing Cardio? That’s the story you have to write! That one, right there! Get it out, and trust me, you’ll feel a lot better.

Well, that’s about it. Thanks to you, the blog readers, for tuning in. And a big thanks to friends, family and my partner for supporting my writing in ways big and small, spiritual and material. It means so very much to me to have you in my life and know you support what I’m doing.

With that, I’m off to write some fiction.

See you guys next time,

Darius

Thank You

Everybody,

Looks like 2017 is going to be a good year here on the blog. Already the blog has surpassed the readership total (visitors) for 2016. And in only 6 months. So, thank you to everybody that keeps coming back for more…and to our new visitors. I promise to keep posting and keep getting you inside the head of this fiction writer.

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More Soon,

Darius

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

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

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

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