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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

So, while working on my novel…..

…..(henceforth referred to as Novel Now Finished), I had a fairly diverse cast of characters. I knew their histories, what the relationships were, what they did for a living, and their favorite flavor of ice cream. The names I researched and chose for them reflected aspects of their personalities – a lot of the time, it was right on the nose. Sometimes it wasn’t and I’d have to come up with a new one, with the help of friends.

In Novel Now Finished, one character had a tendency to change his name almost every time I revised a draft of the story. He was quite annoying about it, too – lucky for him, he’s also a very charming and forthright fellow, a practitioner of law and magic, and quite handsome to boot. So, right up until the eighth revision, I kept him in the story, enjoying his easy repartee with the narrator. However, because I was having difficulty finding a way to introduce and establish his character early on, my editor suggested that he be removed and his scenes saved for the sequel.

This was not an easy decision to make – I didn’t want to lose him and I fought hard to find a way to keep him in Novel Now Finished. I tried to at least plant seeds of his presence early on through dialogue by way of other characters, but could not actually place him physically (so to speak) in an early scene where he and the narrator could meet and interact.

Did I mention that he was also the romantic interest?

Anyway, I ultimately excised him out of Novel Now Finished and saved his scenes to a separate Word document.

What happened next was unexpected – the story died.

I mean, it was still a good story, I still enjoyed the characters, but…….it had lost any sort of energy to draw me in. And because I no longer cared or had any enthusiasm, Novel Now Finished became a chore to re-write scenes, even to open up the document. Even my editor felt that it had gone as far as it could go, that maybe I should focus on another project. My gut said otherwise – I could not let this story go, I knew it would be life-changing, I knew it was important to me, somehow, and not just because it was something I wrote and had worked hard on for three years.

So I sat on the manuscript for six months, with no desire to write another word ever again. Then, when month seven was half-done, I reached out to another editor, to ask her to take a look at it and see what her thoughts were. She agreed and was able to not only give it a thorough read, but to provide notes, as well. One of her first notes was to find a way to make a more solid connection between the prologue and the rest of the story.

I chewed on that for a bit, then added a business card in the opening scene for the narrator to find, which would then confirm and encourage her next move. The business card, I decided, had to belong to someone related to the narrator’s quest. Someone who might be connected to her larger problem, but can also keep secrets, have particular knowledge that the narrator needed, and be part of a profession that has a somewhat dubious track record of being trustworthy, despite the need for trust. Someone who might not be what he seems to be, given where his business card ended up.

Naturally, the Charming Character, who practiced law and magic, was the most obvious choice to belong to that business card. It would allow me to introduce him early on, provide some ambiguity to him until proven otherwise, and it would give the narrator some conflict. And as soon as he opened the door to Chapter One, arguing with his law partner, and almost walking into the narrator, the novel came back to life. The synergy between Charming Character and the Narrator fell seamlessly back into place, but it was new and fresh and made their later interactions easier to accept and believe.

So. What’s the take-away here?

Trust your gut.

So, deleted scenes from Novel Now Finished…..

…….are being reassigned to the sequel of my first novel, Secrets & Howls.

In a way, it makes sense.

Both novels/series take place in the same geographical area (Northern California) and in the same fictional county in which I placed them. Both series are also supernaturally themed, with werewolves, vampires and witches being fully integrated with the non-magical world by hiding out in plain sight. [1] Given that some of my favorite TV shows, movies, and books deal with variations on that subject, it’s not surprising to me that I’ve chosen to do the same. And by exploring themes of self-empowerment, self-reflection, and facing down that which haunts us, the supernatural world seemed like an obvious back-drop to reflect back the internal struggles faced by the characters.

Although Novel Now Finished is set in the present day and Secrets & Howls and its sequels take place in the summer of 1978, the deleted scenes in question are set further back in time, by at least one hundred years. Not only that, they deal almost exclusively with the characters of Secrets & Howls. So, even though it was interesting and a lot of fun to come at that particular story/world from a different perspective, it didn’t serve Novel Now Finished. But it does serve Secrets & Howls and the sequels that follow.

What framed those deleted scenes were characters and settings from Secrets & Howls, and which I also excised from Novel Now Finished. This helped me to finally see who survived that fateful summer of 1978 and who didn’t, thus giving me a way back into that story.

So, while I develop the sequel to Novel Now Finished, I can finally map out what happens in the sequel to Secrets & Howls.

And believe me, I’ve had a lot of questions about that.

[1] There are also a plethora of ghosts to contend with.

So, 2021 will be the tenth anniversary….

……..of my novel, Secrets & Howls, being published. In anticipation of this, I’m revising it and remembering how I really loved working on it. The story opened pretty much as it does now, with a character moving into the sleepy village of Wolf’s Head Bay. As it happened, two very different plot lines featured characters moving into town (Elizabeth Phillips and her son and Marita Brye, the main character), but originally, it wasn’t the Marita we followed in the opening pages, but Elizabeth. I realized early on that the opening could stay, but only if it was Marita.

This meant merging the similar plots to reflect Marita as the primary focus; Elizabeth became a local resident and secretary in the local police department. I also had to integrate a series of letters from 1852 to end each calendar day in the book (which takes place over the course of a week). Then, to keep things interesting, I pretty much threw everything into the story. Except the kitchen sink – that would have been too much.

In the last few years, however, I’ve grown as a writer, thanks in large part to my editors. There are still four more books to write in this series and I’ve got the second one mapped out, with room for making detours along the way. Now, with my most recent novel complete and ready for submission, I’ve decided to go back to Wolf’s Head Bay and see what needs to be done.

It’s still a solid story, but I’m enjoying the revision

So, back in February, before the whole quarantine happened…….

……I went to the movies, hoping a little cinematic entertainment would be just the ticket to stop over-thinking (it usually does the trick).

While standing in line, I engaged in conversation with the two couples standing in line ahead of me. The four of them were going to see The Invisible Man, starring Elizabeth Moss of A Handmaid’s Tale (the film is a great twist on the HG Wells classic novel).  I was planning to indulge my inner nerd and see Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (it was a fun romp – Margot Robbie kicks ass, as do her fantabulous cast-mates).

As we talked, I noted on the marquee that Parasite (2019) was also playing, but at a much later time than was convenient for me.  An older couple behind me went into a tirade about how awful it was, that it should have just gotten best Foreign Film, that they didn’t get understand any of it and that – get this – it had SUBTITLES.

“It’s from South Korea,” I said, thinking I had just stepped into some kind of Twilight Zone alter-verse.  I mean, what were they expecting from a foreign film?  Badly dubbed English?  They waved aside the nationality of the film and continued to snark.

And all I could think was, “Wow, what a missed opportunity.  They had gone to see a film set in a culture and country that operates on a completely different system of beliefs, ideas and views than ours.  And all they got out of it was that they had to READ.  It offended them on some level that they were expected to engage their minds, instead of being fed mindless entertainment that is pre-designed to push specific emotional buttons.”

I turned away mid-snark, unwilling to even point out that foreign films are a way to experience that which is unfamiliar to us, much like fiction allows us to inhabit the lives of those who are different from us.

The arts are supposed to push our minds out of the comfort zone and see the bigger picture that lies before us, either by speculating about how technology (medicine, mechanical) may come to pass or by reflecting what is, as Parasite (2019) did – class conflict, social inequality and wealth disparity.

Mary Shelley (essentially the mother of modern science fiction), HG Welles and Jules Verne took what they saw before them and speculated on what might be.  Director Bong Joon-ho (who co-wrote the script with Han Jin-wan) took what he saw before him and reflected it back to his country specifically and to the world at large.

English is not the only spoken language in America (the oldest languages spoken here belong to the First Nations, if they survive at all, thanks to white colonialism), nor is it the only language spoken in the world.  In other countries, one is expected to not only be fluent in their native tongue, but to also have at least a solid grasp of more than one non-native language (English being one of them).

It would behoove the American people to get their collective heads out of the bubble they seem to believe we live in and realize we are not an isolated nation (though that seems to fast becoming a reality).   Learning another language is not only good for the brain, but it shows interest in something utterly foreign to us – the language is not separate from the country it originates from.  By learning another language, we open the door to a world we would not normally see – from music and literature, to art and cinema, adding a language that is new to you will only enrich your life as it is.

Unfortunately, few see it as what it really is  – a ticket to parts unknown and a gift.

So, I stumbled across an old screenplay……

……that I wrote twenty years ago, while searching for old magazines for an art project.  Only the first few pages had been typed, the rest were in long-hand.  So I put everything aside and read the old script, curious at what my younger self had produced.  It’s a romantic comedy involving a video store, a matchmaker with a mysterious background, a search for the film To Have and Have Not and the ghost of Humphrey Bogart.  It was with some surprise that I realized the story held up really well. 

A page from the old script.

It’s not a perfect screenplay, by any stretch of the imagination, but it had genuine feeling and heart and that’s where art begins to fly.  And so I put it on my desk, with thoughts of going back into it and revise it into something…..new and exciting.

At the same time, I’ve been contemplating revising my Saucy Speakeasy story and setting it in modern times.  As much as I loved the appeal of the Roaring Twenties, the music and the threat of danger lurking when dealing with illegal hooch, Saucy Speakeasy just was not working out the way I’d hoped.  I had written some brilliant moments and one incredibly intimate and sexy scene that I still blush thinking about. [1]

An old concept photo for the Saucy Speakeasy Story.

Then it dawned on me – I could merge both stories into one, creating an external conflict that was missing in both stories; fill in the blanks within the screenplay; bring a level of humor that was lacking in the speakeasy story; and flesh out the characters of both.  Instead of a video store, there’s an antique bookshop located in the building above the speakeasy.  There’s a meet-cute, a clueless bookshop clerk and, yes, a somewhat supernatural element. 

Taking two stories and merging them into one is not a new idea to me – I had taken elements of a short story to add to Novel Now Finished.  It ultimately created an unrealized subplot and opened up a lot of possibility to the Main Character’s backstory.  

What I hope to achieve with the screenplay and the speakeasy story is similar – other than the time period, both are about two people who are each other’s equals and find a true partner in love and in life.  And because it is fiction (as well as a romance), there will be the mandatory conflicts, mayhem and misunderstandings.  

The matchmaker may or may not become a part of the story – so far, she has kept that decision close to her vest. 

 

[1] I still can’t believe that I wrote it.

Image by Bitmoji

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So, I got hooked* on Once Upon A Time……

……..a fantasy TV show that aired on ABC and involving characters in both their fairy-tale context (with a twist) and in our modern world.  The most common reaction I get when I mention the show has been, “Yes, I loved it, but it got really weird”, with no clarification on how it got weird or why.  But this is a show involving fairy tales and magic, so weird kind of left the station with the very first episode.

One of the things that utterly charmed me from the start about the show was how the writers took one event and approached it from multiple view-points.  An example of this would be the ‘hold-up’ of Prince Charming’s carriage by the bandit, Snow White.  As a reader/viewer and even in real life, it’s easy to forget that everyone involved in an incident (from chance meeting to purse snatching) will have a completely different experience and interpretation of events.

As a writer, I loved the attention to detail in these moments and how they were woven together.  It takes well-thought out planning in advance – no flying by the seat of one’s pants, here – so I suspect that the creators of Once Upon A Time had their vision mapped out over at least three seasons before pitching it to ABC (and the parent company, Disney, who owns the rights to many of the characters that appear in the show).

I missed the original run when it aired on ABC, and my memories of it were articles about story lines and plot points.  There was some minor controversy over season 7 (something to do with Cinderella, if I remember it right), but coming to the show as I did, none of it seemed all that important.

Just a tempest in a pot of tea, from my point of view.

The show is fun, it’s campy, romantic, full of adventure, thoughtful contemplation on good, evil and the possibility of redemption and twists on established characters.  The conceit of fairy tale characters living in our world is delightful and it’s perfect viewing when things feel dark and heavy in our world.

Definitely on my list of shows to re-watch.

Maybe I can savor the show an episode at a time.

‘Maybe’ being the key word, here.

*Pun fully intended.

 

Like what you’ve read?

Want to leave a donation?

Trot on over to Venmo.

Search for @JJB-Wordslinger1.

Post an amount ($1 or more).

Every bit helps to keep this writer going!

Thank you.

So, every morning, I get to do the most amazing thing…….

………I get to feed horses and bask in their grounded presence.

While with the horses, I’m also privileged to see real magic in this world – nature.

Nature just is.

Just a couple of blokes, hanging around…..

There is no good, there is no evil.

Just pure instinct in motion – like a red-tailed hawk capturing its breakfast or a hummingbird taking a long drink of water from a puddle.  Or four turkey vultures unwittingly re-enacting a scene as the Fab Four in The Jungle Book (1967).  Or a four-foot long gopher snake sunbathing before slithering off into the bushes for a quick snack.

There is so much more that I’m witness to and I wish I could have you see what I see.

A young red tail hawk.

I truly feel like I’m living a Disney movie – sometimes the G-rated cartoon (because it does get silly and whimsical), but most of the time, it’s more organic and earthy, like Middle-Earth.

Nature is magic.

It has both light and shadow.

It is primal and ancient and has no regard for you.

Treat it with respect and you will be granted more than you asked.

So, I had my first outing as the Main Character from my 1940s story….

…..and made some very interesting observations as I went about my normal routine, going to my local coffee shop and running errands around town.  First and foremost, this was the first time I’ve taken on the challenge to try and become a character in my own book.  Second, I did this primarily because I’m more familiar with how a woman of the late 20th/early 21st century would dress and move.  Third, in order to get into the mind-set of a character set in an era not my own, this was a fun and effective way to do it.

Also, my background is in theater and I’m a method actor. [1]

The dress in question.
The flats (left) and the sensible heels (right).

Simply by putting on the dress, my posture changed significantly – I found myself standing with my back a little straighter and my shoulders back.  This elevated my chin, so that I was looking up and around, not at the path before me.  My stride (which, given my height, is normally long and quick), became shorter and brisk, altering the way my hips also moved. [2]

In addition to the dress, I also styled my hair in as simple a style as I could manage – this was a task unto itself, if you want to know.  My hair and I have an uneasy truce going back many years – I often joke that it is elemental, with a mind of its own, since I can never get it to do anything more fancy than being braided.  Fortunately, I was able to find a simple style and, with a little practice and a couple of hair combs, I did it.  As mentioned in a previous blog, I had several options in footwear, two of which are pictured.  With black flats (to accommodate a recovering sprained ankle) and a retro-vintage black purse, I was ready to explore this character from a bygone era and to learn what makes her tick.

Ready to walk a mile in a character’s shoes.

My first observation was the weather – it was a warm day and the dress was made from a fabric that didn’t breathe.  That is, while the material wasn’t heavy or thick, the dress would have been better worn on a cooler day.  I had an immediate and better understanding for the mirrored compacts (to powder one’s nose) and the handkerchiefs (to blot any sweat) that women kept tucked neatly in their handbags.  To add to the experience, I had Tommy Dorsey’s music playing on my phone, which added an extra spring to my step as I walked (fair warning – one cannot walk to Big Band/swing music, one dances).  And the barista at my favorite coffee shop went above and beyond her duties to help me in my research and switched the music stations.  [3] Big Band played over the speakers, helping to create and enhance the mood while I enjoyed my drink and wrote down my thoughts, observations and general experiences.

My decision to dress as the main character for one of my stories is similar to the work I would do in developing the back-story to an established character in a play.  The more details you find, the richer and more interesting the character becomes.  And this influences the story and engages the other characters, creating a deeper experience, whether to a live audience or to a single reader.

 

[1] Theater is a great tool for writers in terms of plotting, story, and character.  By embodying the character and becoming a part of the story, one develops a better sense of timing, fore-shadowing and motivation.  I highly recommend seeking out scene study/acting classes in your area.

[2] Exercise – find a suit or a dress or some other article of clothing you don’t normally wear.  Observe how it makes you feel, both emotionally and physically (Happy? Energized? Sad? Sexy? Lazy? Angry? Dumpy?), as well as how the fabric feels against your skin.  Walk around, do your daily tasks and write down any details that you notice as you go about your day.  It is absolutely not necessary to do what I did and walk around town – you can stay home for this.

[3] As a ‘thank you’, I’m bringing her some saltwater taffy.

 

Recommended:

Tommy Dorsey – Greatest Hits (CD)
Glenn Miller – Greatest Hits (CD)

So, I’ve put off my 1940s character cosplay experiment…..

…….for a very simple reason – I sprained my ankle.  The bad news on that is I’m limping on a weak ankle, using a cane when necessary for extra support and balance.  The good news is, my ankle is healing and while it’s doing that, I’m gifted with more time to play around with the hair style that I’ve chosen.

This also puts me in a curious position – until my ankle heals completely, I’m not sure I want to wear the sensible shoes with the thick heel. [1]  So now, I’m looking at my black ballet flats, which will do in a pinch.  Not exactly period, but the height requirement on a flat-heeled shoe hasn’t changed all that much in eighty years.  Also, the entire process is about learning who this character is – is she someone who wears sensible heels or sexy ones?  Or is it dependent on the context of the situation?  Does she prefer flats over heels?

And so on.

Now, given my gimpy ankle (short-term though it is), I’m wondering if this character has a minor disability as well, one that requires her to use a cane.  It’s still all very ephemeral, so I guess I’ll find out as I go along.

Which is the beauty of research – it’s like being on a treasure hunt and each little nugget of information you gain leads you to more possibilities.

 

[1] There is always the fear of turning my ankle again – it’s painful and, if it doesn’t heal properly, I’m setting myself up for serious damage later on.  Also, even paved, the sidewalks in my town aren’t exactly level.

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