Storytelling at Çingleton

My friend Guy English has deemed me the Çingleton conference’s “running joke,” and I’m only too happy to oblige. I gave the last talk of the conference for the third time this past October—and was subsequently upstaged by another friend, Scott Simpson—but I put a different spin on my talk than in years past.

Rather than just get up and crack jokes, I spoke about the nature of storytelling and how it relates to everything from writing novels (and rewriting them) to developing apps. This was probably the most challenging and most personal talk I’ve ever done, and while it wasn’t quite as laugh-a-minute as my previous endeavors, I hope that the audience got something out of it anyway. If they didn’t, well, there were plenty of other great talks from everybody else.

We’ll see if the tradition carries on for a fourth-year running. To my own surprise, I’ve really enjoyed speaking every year; I just hate the part where I have to plan out what I’ll say. Next year, I’m just going to wing it. It’ll be great.

The forge and the spiderweb

Rewriting is probably my least favorite part of writing. I miss the adrenaline thrill of the initial writing process, when you’re forced to think on your feet and, more often than not, spin whatever happens next out of whole cloth. For me, writing is about letting the subconscious take over, allowing subsumed ideas to come to the forefront and spill, raw, onto the page. The conscious mind—the one that worries that your ideas just aren’t good enough, or that things don’t quite make sense—is pushed to the rear, in favor of in-the-moment, tip-of-your-tongue inspiration.

It’s later, after that heat and excitement cools, that the rational brain has its day in the sun: Does this plot point make sense? Would this character really act in this way? Thus begins the lengthy process of rewriting, making sure your story fits together in a cohesive, reasonable way. You don’t want plot lines that go nowhere, or characters who seem wildly inconsistent from one moment to the next. Rewriting smooths the edges, puts all your ducks in a row, turns a series of random spewings into a single, cohesive whole.

Much as writers try to avoid being subject to the vagaries of mood, I’ve noticed two distinct mindsets when I sit down to rewrite a piece.

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The day after yesterday

Someone attacked my city.

Boston’s joined an unenviable club, populated by the likes of New York City and Oklahoma City, London and Munich, Tokyo and Mumbai, and countless other cities around the world.

It’s difficult to know what to say in a time like this: I feel sad, I feel angry, I feel robbed. I struggle to come up with anything that feels sufficient, that lends any sort of meaning to these events. There aren’t any, of course: As my friend Paul wrote, “There can be no real logic or reason behind such a heinous action.” My brain desperately wants to shape it into some sort of comprehensible narrative, but with the person or persons who’ve done this still at large, that’s an impossible task. Even then, if and when justice is served, this still won’t make sense.

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Get It in Gear

This article first appeared in Issue 8 of The Magazine.

My first experience behind the wheel of a car was in my family’s blue Subaru station wagon. It wasn’t luxurious. The Subaru predated automatic locks and power windows, its chassis had started to rust, and turning the steering wheel could be a Herculean struggle.

Then again, I was only about seven years old.

It didn’t matter, though: I was convinced that “my” car—for I’d declared that when I was old enough to drive, it would be behind the wheel of said Subaru—was more than just a car. It was a time machine, a spaceship, and a racing machine par excellence. Even though I could barely see over the dashboard or reach the pedals, an hour could be spent working the gearshift or punching in the jump to hyperspace. (Seriously, who hasn’t thought the hazard flasher button looks like it would engage the hyperdrive?)

Our bond, between car and driver, was unbreakable, like Michael Knight and KITT or B.A. Baracus and his van or Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon. We escaped death on a weekly basis, rescued friends, and defeated enemies. Together, there was nothing we couldn’t do—assuming, of course, that it didn’t involve leaving the garage.

When the tow truck pulled that venerable rusted-out blue hulk out of our driveway for the last time, my only regret was that I’d never gotten the chance to start the engine.

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Macworld/iWorld 2013

As I have for the past seven years, I’ll be attending Macworld/iWorld in San Francisco this week. (Back in 2006, when I started going, it was still Macworld Expo, as it was until last year.) Every year I end up doing a little bit more at the show, and this year’s no exception—actually, I think I’ve got more responsibilities than I’ve ever had before. At this point, I’ve probably reached “step on the floor and you’ll probably trip over me” status.

My time’s split between the Macworld Live stage, which is on the second floor and open to any attendee, and Tech Talks in the conference’s session rooms.

So, if you’re looking for a chance to catch me on a panel, you’ve got plenty of opportunities to do so. Feel free to come up and say hi (after the panel, naturally).

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My latest piece is my second in The Magazine; I pitched Marco and Glenn on writing something about my love of stick-shift driving last fall, and after more than a bit of wrestling with my admittedly vague ideas, I turned over this piece. Which I thought came out fairly well, if not as amazing as I would have liked. As the old saying goes, if I’d had more time, I would have written a shorter piece.

If you’re not a subscriber, or you don’t have an iOS device, have no fear: The article will be posted here in a few weeks.

In the meantime, I’ve been fascinated by the response to it, which has mainly come in via Twitter and While the story clearly struck a chord with a number of stick-shift aficionados, it seems like almost half of the responses come from places outside the U.S. where manual transmissions are still the standard. (Ha ha, see what I did th—please don’t hurt me.)

Indeed, a friend of mine mentioned that’d he’d recently had to learn to drive stick on a trip to Europe, because the few automatics available for rental were more expensive and there was supposedly some restriction to taking them over borders. It’s funny: though I lived in the U.K. for six months while in college, I never tried driving, stick or otherwise—I’m pretty sure that handling the whole “wrong side of the road” thing would have done me in.

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Zero Dark Thirty

I wasn’t sure, while watching Zero Dark Thirty, that it really worked as a movie.

Not that it’s not good—it’s downright riveting for most of its two-plus-hour running time. But its vignette-like structure—complete with occasionally cryptic intertitles—doesn’t fall within what most mainstream audiences understand of the traditional filmic narrative. At times, it can’t quite seem to decide if it wants to be a documentary-style direct-cinema venture, or a gritty thriller.

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Go ahead and ask

I’ve wanted to be on a quiz show as long as I can remember. My grandmother sometimes used to babysit me when I was a kid, and I remember lying on the green couch in her den, and watching game shows on her tiny TV. Sure, The Price is Right had a great sense of showmanship and the giant wheel, and Wheel of Fortune had, well, Vanna White, but Jeopardy was my favorite, because it had delectable facts.

From a young age, my librarian parents had inculcated in me a love of knowing things. A frequent refrain from my father, when asked a question at the dinner table, was “Go look it up in the Funk & Wagnalls.”1 (Which always confused me, as we had a World Book.) In recent years, my friend Paul and I have participated in a number of winning pub trivia teams before the pub in question criminally stopped doing trivia night. The bastards.

Last August, in the throes of jealousy over my friend Glenn Fleishman’s then upcoming appearance on Jeopardy, I fired off an email to the people at NPR’s Ask Me Another.

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My Cup of Tea: The forgotten art of proper tea

Coffee drinkers complain all too often about how tough it is to find a decent cup of coffee. Pfft. You know what’s tough? Imagine this: You’ve just finished an elegant dinner at a fine establishment. The service has been excellent. The food worth every penny. The waiter returns, sets down a mug of hot water…and dumps into it a heaping teaspoon of Folgers Crystals.

This is what it’s like to be a tea drinker.

It’s an embarrassing state of affairs for a drink whose consumption dates back to the 10th century B.C. We’ve known how to make a proper cup of tea for thousands of years, but in the last century or so it’s as if our collective cultural tea-brewing knowledge has been whacked over the head and thrown into the trunk of a car. Filled with coffee.

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