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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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So, my Novel in Progress is coming along……

…….and I’m starting to feel energized by writing again.

One of the notes I was given was to not summarize parts of my story – that if it was going to be mentioned, it deserved a scene of its own, in the present, as an action. So, I broke a chapter in half and created not just two, but three, chapters out of one. This includes the active version of what was a summarized scene.

The new scene, the one that breaks the former single chapter in half, takes place in 1924. An incident occurs in that year that is continually referred to throughout the story. It’s a pivotal moment in the story, as it affects several lives over the course of several decades leading up to the present. It may also be key to how the Narrator resolves the story and put an end to the danger that began even before 1924.

So it made sense to bring this moment out into the open.

And now I’m getting ideas on how to add some necessary details of the Narrator’s past into the main frame of the story.

And I’m beginning to feel excited by my work again.

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So, it’s Day 2 of 2017……..

……..and so far, so good. I’m alive, I have a place to live, I’ve got clothes to wear and food to eat. I have friends who funny and witty and supportive. There’s not a lot more to ask for, when those are very real and very priceless things to have in life.

Of course, as good as it is, I want to expand and improve on it, to strengthen what I’ve got and work on what’s weak. You could call it self-improvement, I suppose, and that’s all right with me, as I’m always striving to be my best, most authentic and truest self. Goals are helpful in this regard – they serve as motivation to achieve a specific result and as markers to show how much further you might have to go.

My goals for this year are varied. Some are practical (because being practical is a good thing, even for a creative person), some are whimsical and some are just explorations of what looks like fun.

This year, I am determined to learn how to tap dance. I don’t expect to get on a level of Gene Kelly’s caliber or even Debbie Reynolds (who learned for Singin’ In The Rain in just 90 days what Kelly had done for years). What I expect to get out of it is some exercise, some fun and a new skill that may carry over into something else. You never know until you do it where it will end up leading you.

I’m also equally determined to learn how to play my violin. I can hear the notes and pluck the correct strings with my fingers and get a (somewhat) accurate recreation of what I had just heard. The actual playing of it with the bow, however, is slightly problematic – my fingers don’t like the placement when holding the violin itself.

How do I correct this, in order to play the violin as it is meant to be played? How do I learn to dance with my tap shoes in a graceful pattern?

Three words – practice, practice, practice.

How do I manage to find the time to practice? Self-discipline.

As with anything else in the arts, you become skilled with practice and you are always learning, but it is the self-discipline that separates the wannabes from the achievers.

Still waiting patiently, the violin waits.
Patiently, the violin waits.

So, one of the most unsettling writers of the 20th Century…..

……would have celebrated her centennial birthday last week, on December 14, had she not passed away in 1965. Cited as an important influence by Stephen King, Joanne Harris, Neil Gaiman and many others, Shirley Jackson wrote story upon story that left her readers unsettled and haunted with the ambiguity within her words.

I’ve been reading her work from an early age, most notably The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which ranks as my personal favorite of her fiction, topping We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), The Lottery (1948), and Hangsaman (1951). Her non-fiction, Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages recounts life at home, her children and the various ‘adventures’ they encounter. Her deliciously dark wit and humor are in full display in those tomes, and I highly recommend reading them.

Reading her fiction is a fascinating experience – for me, I start to notice a physiological reaction to her prose. In reading Hangsaman, I felt a low level anxiety in following Natalie’s thoughts and interactions as she left home for college. There was also that sense of foreboding, the shadow of unknown dynamics at play, and feeling suffocated by Natalie’s fellow students. There is the sense that she is at the bottom of the totem pole in the social hierarchy.

Every time I read The Haunting of Hill House, I root for Eleanor to overcome her insecurities, to let go of her guilt and to embrace her newfound freedom, both from her family and from Hill House itself. I feel her anxieties and hurts and indignations as if they were my own. But the story never changes, no matter how many times I read it and wish otherwise – Eleanor’s fate is already written and acted out, before one even picks up the book.

Shirley Jackson knew how to invite one in to her stories, knew exactly how to hook and keep you in it until the last word. She allowed the story to envelope you, insinuate itself into your imagination, haunting you long after you had shut the book and put it down. Her prose is quiet and engaging, simple, yet complex.

She is, for me, one of the writers I wish most to emulate, using my own voice and skills to strike that same haunting and sparse tone.

On the year of her one hundredth birthday, I join the ranks of writers who find inspiration in her work. I continually marvel at her ability to bring the darkness of every day life into the light and the suffocating spiral of ambiguity and uncertainty infused in her characters.

 

Opening paragraph to The Haunting of Hill House (1959).
Opening paragraph to The Haunting of Hill House (1959).

Recommended:
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Lottery & Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

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.

 

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

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.

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