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

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

Still Writing, Still Dreaming

All, I’m going to take a little break from updates on my writing. I will still be here and writing, but will take a step back from updating you EVERY BIT OF THE WAY on my works in progress. But, rest assured, I’m going to continue writing fiction. In order to do THAT, I’m going to have to continue to make these posts short and telegraphic. And maybe focus on larger issues in writing and life…but, you know, in a concise way.

So to recap, here’s a quick review of where things stand:

1. I’ve submitted a number of works and will submit more. (You can find out more on my Works in Progress page). These pieces include Pacha-Mama, The Number Thief and others.

2. I’m writing this weekend. (And hopefully not looking like poor Tom here.)

mrw-im-still-writing-a-paper-the-morning-its-due-169598

That’s all I’ve got. Nothing more to say. I’ll catch you  guys next time, hopefully with something a bit more substantive. Until then.

Keep Reading, Keep Writing,

DJ

Where My Writing Is Going in 2017

It’s a little late for resolutions, but I wanted to post this before 2017 gets too far away from us. writing headphones

First, let me say I’m pretty pleased with where my writing is at. So, these are more like adjustments than “resolutions.” Overall, I’m keeping disciplined and writing “what I know and love.” So, all’s pretty good. But I was noodling on what to change and these three things came up. So, here are my writing resolutions for 2017.

1. No More Novellas
Well, well, well. Here’s the deal: I love writing novellas. I’ve never been comfortable writing short stories: I always feel things are just starting to get good when I get to about 5,000-7,500 words—the upper limit for a short piece. So, I always feel like I have to stop just when things are getting going. It’s very, very frustrating.

On the other hand, novellas are fine, but they have one big problem. BIG  PROBLEM. No one wants to publish them. Well, I can’t say no one. But I can say there are far, far fewer markets for novellas than short stories or novels. And it’s really tough finding just the right market for just the right stories. (If you think I’m wrong about this, please reply in the comment section, I’d love to learn about more novella markets).

So, this year I’m going to concentrate on NOT writing novellas. I’m going to go short/long this year. NO MORE NOVELLAS.

2. Listen to My Music While I Write
Back in the day, I used to write with music on. I mean I would ALWAYS write with my music playing in my apartment. Nowadays, I write at a café and  listen to whatever they’re playing. And this can be distracting or annoying, especially when the music doesn’t fit the  mood of the scene you’re writing. I think it can also overpower your brain if it’s too loud or too complex. For some reason free-form jazz seems to be quite distracting for me—and  that’s a fairly common genre for cafes to play.

So, I’m going to try something different this year. I’m going to buy some headphones and plug those in. Then, I can select the music I need to write by. This usually means instrumental music or something sung in a language I don’t know. I’m interested to see if this will help or hurt productivity. But hey, this  is part of the experimentation I talked about, the tweaks you need to make to see if they help or hurt your writing.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

3. Go to One Con
I have messed up this one  again and  again. It feels  I haven’t gone to a Con in ages. I need to change that now. So, here’s my commitment to go to ONE Con this year. I think I should be able to do one.

I’m looking for a mid-size Con with a good writing track. You know, one with lots of workshops and seminars on writing. Maybe with some filking on the side. I’m thinking about going to BaltiCon in May, but haven’t decided yet. I’ll keep you posted.


So, that’s it. Three easy pieces. Going to start making this happen right now. See you out there, fellow writers. And best luck to all of you in 2017!!!! Let’s do this!

,DJ

A Look Back at My Year in Writing—2016

2016 was a pretty good year for my fiction writing. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad. This post follows an annual tradition: it’s the one time in the year where I look back at what I said I wanted to do way back at the start of the year and see how I did. It will also look at other things I accomplished. So, here we go.


1. I Didn’t Go to Any Cons.Pushkin Writing
This was bit of a fumble. I wanted  to go to two Cons (you know, those assemblages where fans and creatives get together and talk), but I didn’t even make it to one! Well, it was a crazy year. I moved to a new place, work was hectic—and oh yeah!—there was  all that fiction writing to do. So, this didn’t happen. I will definitely try to make up for it—penance, penance—in 2017.

2. Blog Changes
I did get the blog headed where I wanted it to go. The posts are regular, but short and telegraphic when they need to be. I’ve also blogged a little bit about subjects that aren’t writing- or art-related. So, little steps. Little, good steps.

3. I Wrote What I Wanted
Hell yeah. This was probably my biggest breakthrough this year. Early last year, I just thought, “To hell with it, I’m going to write what I want to write.” And I’m glad to report I have. Regardless of marketability or clear genres or even common sense—I just dove in. I wrote those stories which were “burning in my belly” like Halberstam said. I finished a South American gothic horror fantasy, wrote a comedic play with a medieval setting and started a piece of flash fiction for crying out loud. Me! Flash fiction! A style which I swore I would never write in. But an idea came to me in the airport, I fired up my laptop and in 30 minutes later it was done.

And I brought it all back home with a story featuring the protagonist of The Ghul of Yazd—Yusuf ibn-Yaqzan. They’re all very different pieces, but they have a common thread. They’re EXACTLY the pieces I wanted to be writing when I took them up. And that has made all the difference.

4. I Saw my First “Literary” Fiction Piece Get Published
This year was the third time I had a piece of mine get published traditionally (i.e. by a third party publisher/magazine). Well, that felt good. And any year when you get something (anything) published is a good year. It also marks the first time I had a work published anywhere which had NO supernatural  elements. It was “literary fiction,” you could say. Anyway, it was exciting to see it in print.

5. I Wrote my First Play
This was also the first year in which I dipped my toe in a very, very difficult new style: I wrote a play. I still think it has flaws, but I was  able to keep it together, write five acts and have some consistency in plot, character, setting, etc. I’ve been shopping it around, but must admit I’m finding it rough going since I have to learn a whole new way of putting forward the piece. No emails sent to distant lands without a second thought. (And I get a lingering sense that I may not be enough of an extrovert to be a good playwright. All that dealing with playhouses and working through the script with total strangers—ugh!). But I wrote what I wanted and—damn it!—It was fun!

6. I Felt My Writing Improve
Now, it can be hard to judge your own stuff. I realize that. We always think our own works are the best. It’s a human weakness. But I do feel that the preparation, the thinking behind them and the outcome of my works improved this year. I would definitely say—to get a bit down in the weeds—that my plotting improved. I have struggled with that aspect MIGHTILY in the past. It’s very difficult to do the right amount of planning. Plan too little and the story fly off the rails. Plan too much and you risk not allowing your characters to breath and  live—and the whole project comes off as flat and sterile. I’m finally starting to zero in on a happy medium where I plan just enough to keep the whole thing moving and alive, but within the proper constraints. It was gratifying to see that change in my pieces this year.


So, all in all, it was a pretty good year in fiction writing. I will see you guys in a couple of weeks, where I’ll post a bit about my plans for 2017. I’m looking forward to another year of writing fiction.