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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

Month

December 2015

So, Stephen King has said, on many occasions……

……….“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”
What does he mean by this? Read the top 100 lists, read pulp, read history, memoirs, fiction, science and more. Read what you love, what you’re indifferent to, what you dislike. Ask friends for their favorite books and read them.
What you gain from all of that reading is what works, what doesn’t, style, voice and structure. Try writing in the same style of your favorite author or break it down into specific acts (for example, Act One – Inciting Event; Act Two – Discovery; Act Three – Betrayal; Act Four – Revelation; Act Five – Resolution). Another way is to take a notebook and, while reading, keep track of what the author does to make seemingly unrelated events tie together by the last few pages.
Although King is clearly talking about writing, the idea behind his quote can be applied to any other creative endeavor. A creative artist doesn’t study just one master or medium in their chosen field – he or she studies as many as possible to learn and discover their own styles. It’s mixing and matching particular elements to find what works for you, then using it to push yourself further.
Whether you’re writing or singing or playing the guitar or acting, the more you learn about your creative passion, you’ll find that your own experiences with it has become richer. You’ll be better able to express yourself in whatever creative endeavor you pursue. It may be that you’ve discovered a passion for more than one creative art and that they feed off of and influence each other in delightful ways.
It worked out that way for me – in addition to writing, I spent many years performing onstage in local theater. It helped a great deal in developing stronger characters, understanding what motivated them, and finding the story’s beats (important moments). This may occur with you – if you enjoy poetry and music, for example, you may unconsciously find yourself writing poems in time with a specific musical beat.
There are infinite combinations to mix and match with. To discover them is to read, to play with your creative passion and be open to new opportunities as they present themselves to you. The worst that can happen is that it didn’t work out the way you’d hoped it would.
Say, “Yes,” to your creative self. Amazing things will happen. Trust yourself.

 

****
Editor’s note – this blog post is also published concurrently on Citizens Journal.

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And now, a word from Joseph Campbell…….

“Apocalypse does not point to a fiery Armageddon but to the fact that our ignorance and our complacency are coming to an end. Our divided, schizophrenic worldview, with no mythology adequate to coordinate our conscious and unconscious — that is what is coming to an end. The exclusivism of there being only one way in which we can be saved, the idea that there is a single religious group that is in sole possession of the truth — that is the world as we know it that must pass away. What is the kingdom? It lies in our realization of the ubiquity of the divine presence in our neighbors, in our enemies, in all of us.”

Joseph Campbell, author
The Hero with A Thousand Faces, etc.
March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987

Excerpt: Secrets & Howls: A Wolf’s Head Bay Mystery

 

From the Prologue:

Her skin prickled and she stopped, alert.

Whoever was watching her was back. Or he’d never left. She suspected the latter – the sensations were so strong that she instinctively knew he was still around. Gripping her keys, she turned in a slow circle, her eyes touching on every shape, muscles tense, aware of the scents carried on the ocean breeze. From the center of town, she could hear the post office tower’s bell chime out the hour.

He was close – she could feel it. The question was, where would he come from?

The attack, when it came, was sudden – her body’s instinctive reflexes were faster than her mind and she ducked just in time to miss the swinging, clawed fist.

He roared, furious. She leapt back, dropping her purse, her breath coming in sharp rasps.

He was new to this – it was obvious from the way he carried himself. But new or not, if she wasn’t careful, he may just take her by sheer brute force.

She intended to take him down first.

They circled each other – Holly hoped that something or someone would distract him long enough so that she could gain a better advantage, but she didn’t rely on it happening. She had to rely on herself.

As she studied him, gauging his skill, her analytical mind suggesting strategies that she automatically considered or disregarded, it occurred to her reporter’s mind that there were peculiarities surrounding the death of Jackson Tanner. Peculiarities that had been similar to another death…..

Her attacker growled – her eyes widened in shock as she saw him literally expand in size and knew that she was in far more danger than she had at first realized.

She had no choice now. This was a fight that would end in one way.

She roared at him until her throat was raw, her hands like claws, and she ran at him.

His first blow sliced through her shirt and opened up her belly – four neat, parallel incisions, nearly gutting her.

 

The next blow killed her.

 

Secrets & Howls

Thirty-two years and seven months later, in a galaxy far, far away…….

……..the continuing adventures of a certain Rebel team and their compatriots are finally being told in cinemas across the world.

No, this is not a review, nor will I post any spoilers. This is a reflection of my own enjoyment of Star Wars, its sequels and, to some degree, the prequels.

I was seven when I saw the first Star Wars and by first, I mean the one that introduced us to Luke Skywalker, the Force and a complex villain named Darth Vader. I was so completely enchanted with that universe that I wanted to be a part of it. So I created my own stories and my own character and reenacted entire scenes. I began writing them down and have pages and pages of unfinished and badly written tales. I didn’t know at the time that it was called fan fiction, but that’s what it was.

They weren’t very good, in case you’re wondering. In fact, they’re pretty bad. But I learned a great deal from writing them, so I feel certain fondness for them. I learned about beginnings, endings, dialogue, character and sustaining them all with the multiple plot threads. I learned how to convey subtext without belaboring the point. Because I loved the characters that George Lucas gave us, I enjoyed the process of learning the craft of writing.

These stories were meant for no one’s eyes but my own. I wrote quite a few, featuring characters not only designed for Star Wars, but for my favorite TV shows and books and another popular science fiction phenom, Star Trek (yes, I have unfinished stories for all incarnations of Trek, except the reboot). Now, these terrible little stories live in a box, condemned to darkness and my own private amusement.

Then I realized I had stories and characters of my own that demanded attention and I haven’t stopped writing. What I learned from that foray into fan fiction (a term I became vaguely aware of in my twenties) taught me more about writing than I had ever learned in a formal classroom setting. I would still encourage any aspiring writer to take writing classes, if only to discover a support network, objective ears and to have fun with words.

I’ve always been asked when I started writing, but no one’s ever asked why or how. So, with the opening of Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I decided to write about the why and the how.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a lonely farm boy yearned for adventure among the stars. From the moment his uncle bought two droids named C-3PO and Artoo Detoo, he began to walk a path that led him to encounters beyond his wildest imaginings and he took all of us with him.

So, John Lennon once said……

………that every child is an artist until he is told he isn’t. It doesn’t have to be an actual person saying this to an actual child (or an adult) for them to feel ‘not good enough’ at being creative. A first attempt can be pretty intimidating, especially if this is a new experience for you or you’re trying something different. Comparing yourself to another’s artwork can be pretty tempting to do, but it’s counter-productive and wreaks havoc on your self-esteem.
By all means, look at another artist’s paintings or another writer’s work, but use their final product as a tool to guide you. Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa from 1503 to 1506 and even then, it’s suspected he worked on it as late as 1517. Look at the back of any Stephen King novel and you’ll see two sets of dates – the start date and the finish date. It takes King anywhere from three to five years to write each novel and he works on more than one at the same time.
I’ve always regarded being creative as something akin to archaeology. You have a plot laid out, the tools to uncover it, and an idea of what it looks like. As with a chisel and hammer, you take pen and paper (or canvas and brush) and start to dig. You don’t find the whole thing right away – maybe a piece here, a fragment there. You follow a line that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere and then find that it splits off into a different direction. Eventually, you have an almost complete skeleton to speculate and ponder over.
Are you finished? Hardly. The best thing to do with a roughed out draft or sketch is to set it aside for a few days. Then the real work begins. Details start to emerge that you didn’t see before. The piece which appeared to be apropos of nothing has now found its proper place. The fragment that didn’t seem to relate to anything is suddenly a crucial plot point.
This is where opening up to your creative self can be a little terrifying. It’s about letting go of the inner critic, ignoring that little voice that says you can’t do it, and taking that huge step forward. Because what you’re trying to unearth isn’t a work of art or the next Great American Novel. What you’re doing is sifting through the doubts and worries and ‘I can’ts’ to find that young artist and say, “I am an artist and I can.”

*****
Editor’s note – this blog post is also published concurrently on Citizens Journal Ventura County. JJB

And now, a word from John Lennon………

“If someone thinks that Love and Peace is a cliche left behind in the Sixties, that’s his problem. Love and Peace are eternal.”

John Lennon, musician
October 9, 1940 – December 8, 1980

Ladybugs.
Ladybugs.

Excerpt: How to Bury the Undead

Chapter One

I’d been thinking about that encounter with the vampire a lot, lately.

Why I was thinking about him while fixing myself some tomato soup on a hot plate, I’m not sure, but I was. Behind me, Dottie Perswalski attempted to tidy up my tiny living room, which was not at all – although she was a ghost and had been for decades, she hasn’t learned the art of manifesting enough energy to move things yet. The living room is tiny because my entire living space is tiny. I couldn’t even call my kitchen a galley, with it being made up of a hot plate and a microwave on a battered dresser. The place being a crypt in a previous incarnation was why. The dead don’t take up much living space, especially if they’ve been cremated.

The crypt had been part of what used to be the primary mausoleum, a larger stone structure that fell into disuse after an earthquake in 1993 demolished the majority of it. The remaining structure (and my home) remained in use for another five years, but numerous break-ins and graffiti made the decision to inter the urns elsewhere in the cemetery a respectful and logical choice. That had been in the fall of 1998.

Dottie was one of those who had originally been interred in my crypt, which is why she was fussing about in my living room. In life, she had been one of five housemaids to a wealthy family in Wickerman Falls, some ten miles away. The daughter of immigrants, Dottie was happy with her lot in life until a fire burned the place down one night in the winter of 1925. It was a horrendous tragedy that killed everyone inside, including poor Dottie. She had been sixteen when that happened and is clearly of a generation that belonged in the here and now. She hangs out in my crypt because she still isn’t used to the new one. This probably explains why she hasn’t yet mastered the art of manifesting enough energy to move solid objects.

I don’t mind Dottie’s presence so much; actually, I kind of like hearing her chatter, even if it does border on the obnoxious. I guess it’s like having a younger sister, but being an only child, that’s all speculation on my part. Right now she was fussing over my shoulder, commenting on my lack of skill with the pot of soup. That was my cue to turn the hot plate on low and go sit down on my seen-better-days couch.

The couch came from a thrift shop in Wickerman Falls. So did the tiny, drop-leaf table, a couple of high-backed chairs, a dresser, my bed frame and the faded carpet on the floor, which hid a trap door to a tunnel. All of them had seen better days, especially the couch, but they were still serviceable and that was just fine by me. I don’t need much to live on, just enough to survive. Most of what makes the crypt hospitable for me to live in is the generator tucked discretely into an alcove outside the front door.

The alcove has a roof and door; it’s leak-proof and blends in perfectly with the exterior of the crypt. If you didn’t know where to look, you wouldn’t find it. It will never be warm and cozy during the winter, but it keeps me safe and it’s mine until it was time to move on again. I like it that way, but I will admit that I sometimes feel the pull to stay in one place for a little longer than a few months.

Anyway.

I was thinking about vampires in general and my first and only encounter specifically because, in the course of fussing and chattering, Dottie had let it slip in her naturally gossipy way that the “oh, isn’t he dreamy” pastor was in a big bother over some vandalism that kept occurring at night at the church, some of it on the inside next to the podium. I considered telling her that nighttime was usually the best time to commit vandalism, but refrained. Dottie doesn’t understand my sense of humor.

I kept muttering “uh, huh” as she spoke, which, I realized too late, only encouraged her chatter. Then she changed topics and began comparing the pastor to some guy named Rudolph Valentino and that’s where I lost interest, especially when the dreamy sighs began. I wondered what she would make of today’s movie stars – Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt or (I shudder to think) George Clooney. I wouldn’t get any peace, that’s for sure.

Something in my jeans pocket pinched and I scowled, shifting so that I could pull out my stupid cellphone. It was a basic model, the kind that opens and shuts like a clam-shell and also wonderfully cheap. I eyed it, thoughtful. The date to change it was looming and I’d been trying to work out how to explain the change in my number to my current boss.

I turned thirty a month ago, but I didn’t celebrate it, not even with a special cupcake from the local bakery. It was on my sixth birthday that put me on the path to where I am now, so I’m not fond of them. The spot between my shoulder blades began to itch and I squirmed, trying to reach it and failing.

The pastor Dottie was mooning over was Pastor Devon Maclaine, who moved to the area over a year ago and presides over the local church. To hear her go on about him, you’d think that he was a strong mix of good looks and charm and resembles Rudolph Valentino. For a modern comparison, think of a David Boreanez type. I didn’t see it, but then I’m not a teen-aged ghost with a tendency to develop huge crushes on a guy that even passes the neighborhood of being kind of cute.

I’d spoken to him more than once, but while he was intelligent and easy-going, he seemed out of place in Sleepy Eye Cove. I wasn’t sure of the appeal a small town had for him or why he chose to settle here. The congregation is on the small side, since most of the locals tend to lean towards the mediumistic. But he seemed okay with it, the few times I’d seen him out and about in town. People liked him, made a point of engaging him in conversation and inviting him to social functions.

I think he’s too good to be true, personally. Since he discovered that I had landed in Sleepy Eye Cove in late March, he’s been encouraging me to join in on the social scene, such as it is (there isn’t one). He even suggested the local historical society. I think my job at the cemetery gave him ideas that it would be good for me.

About three weeks ago, he had begun dropping hints about the local softball league. I knew about this because of the flyers left in my mail cubby in the cemetery office. Tryouts were in late April, practice beginning in May and the season ending in October. Since I wasn’t planning on sticking around that long, I had passed on the idea. Twice. It’s now mid-May. I’ve made a point to avoid him, which so far has been successful. The flyers kept coming, though, and I’d resorted to tossing them in the trash.

I know he hasn’t given up on making me a part of his softball team. I’m not sure why. As pleasant and as concerned as he is, I always felt a little uncomfortable in his presence. I couldn’t explain why, even to myself, so I just kept quiet about it and kept my distance.

Abby Somers, a part-time gardener at the cemetery and practicing witch, says he has a lost-cause complex. I suppose that’s one reason to go into the seminary.

And another very good reason for me to keep my distance.

“Quit sighing so loud,” I said, feeling cranky. “I get it, I get it. You think Maclaine is cute.”

Dottie pouted. “And why not? He has a singular light about him that only Mr. Valentino possessed.”

Typical teenage girl, according to Abby. I had asked her about it shortly after moving into the crypt and was faced with the permanent teen angst. I wouldn’t know, not having any normal teen experiences to compare it with. My teenage years were more concerned with escaping from a mental hospital with help from one of the nurses. The main part of the asylum was shut down officially in 1990. The children’s ward, where I had been placed at the age of six, was shut down a decade later, shortly after I had escaped. I still have nightmares of that place haunted by the living, also known as an asylum.

Especially about the doctor who oversaw my treatment. Heavy-set and gray, he would peer at me through his glasses, his gaze unreadable and discomforting. I didn’t like the looks he gave me and hated the therapy sessions he insisted I have. Looking back, I suspect that he knew that I was telling the truth, that I talk to ghosts, and that he misdiagnosed me in order to keep me under lock and key to study me. My parents were much relieved at no longer having to be responsible for my blasphemous accounts of ghosts.

If it hadn’t been for the nurse who had once been assigned to my part of the hospital, I’d still be there. I say ‘once been assigned’ because she had been dead fifty years before I’d gotten there, had worked there when it was an actual place of healing and despised the creepy doctor and his methods, especially when it involved children. I didn’t think that he’d stop looking for me, even though I had become a legal adult long ago. That doctor had an agenda, one I wasn’t privy to, even though I was central to it. And he wasn’t the type to let that go, once he got his guinea pig.

I shook off those thoughts and continued to ponder the idea of vampires as I stirred my soup in slow circles. I’m not exactly sure why they had leapt immediately to mind when Dottie mentioned the vandalism at the church. She hadn’t mentioned anything in particular that would have labeled it a vampire problem. And besides, vampires are unholy creatures of the night – hallowed ground is not easy for them to breach unless it had been defiled by suicide or something.

And as far as I knew, the local church had not been the scene of such an incident.

But then, since I was a fairly recent resident of the area, that didn’t mean much. The thing to do would be to ask around. There were plenty of locals to talk to, and most of them were my neighbors, of the spectral kind. Ghosts are really chatty, probably because so few of the living can hear them, so it wouldn’t be too hard to get them talking about the past. Plus, they wouldn’t ask any of the awkward questions that the living seem so fond of.

Pastor Maclaine was not on my list of those to ask.

My soup was bubbling, so I turned off the hot-plate and lifted the pot, pouring the red liquid into a bowl. Steam rose in a cloud, and I inhaled the tomato scent with a sigh.

Vampires. God, I hate those bloodsuckers. At least they clean up easily with a broom after staking.

I shuddered.

A cemetery in the afternoon.
A cemetery in the afternoon.

****
Editor’s Note: This chapter also appears in a slightly different form published on March 2, 2012 on Hubpages.com.

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