Search

J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

Tag

Genre

So, There Are Two Sides To A Haunted House Story…..

On August 10, 2001, two films made their debut in American theaters – The Others, starring Nicole Kidman, and Session 9, starring Peter Mullin, screamed into theaters with varying degrees of success. The Others was critically acclaimed, particularly for Kidman, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance. Although not nearly as successful, Session 9 has become something of a cult classic, with mixed to positive reviews.

I saw both films in their original releases and it struck me then that any theater running both films would do well to bill them as a double feature (I made a point of telling the theater manager this idea, to no avail). Upon repeated viewing, thanks to the DVDs, I still think they’d make a great cinematic duo. For those of you who have not yet seen either film (and where have you been???), the premise of both is the Haunted House.

The Others is a fairly traditional interpretation of the gothic haunted house/ghost story. Set in an isolated English manor in Jersey, the Channel Islands, shortly after World War II, it is a locked-room mystery. The household servants have seemingly vanished overnight, with no explanation, leaving Grace Stewart and her two young children, Anne and Nicholas, to fend for themselves. In addition, the children suffer from a condition (Xeroderma Pigmentosum) that prevents them from being able to withstand the light from the sun. Their lives are structured within the confines of the multi-roomed, heavily curtained house, which is in constant shadow.

The arrival of three new servants (Mrs. Mills, Mr. Tuttle and Lydia), who have their own ties to the house, only seems to exacerbate the unsettling noises and incidents that the children insist are real and that prove there are ghosts. Being a strict Catholic with no room for the unexplained, Grace retreats further into denial, which only fuels the tensions between her, her children and the servants until, at last, she is forced to confront the truth.

  1. Isolated buildings (house, asylum), further isolating the characters.
  2. Death is the inciting incident, although it is not revealed until the end.
  3. Weather is also an indicator – fog in The Others is limbo for Grace and her children, symbolic of their own uncertainty.
  4. Photographs play an important role and are used to signal the film’s secret.
  5. Grace has a strained relationship with her husband.
  6. Graves/cemetery on the property that links to the secret.
  7. Both films skew towards one gender as the driving force, with the other gender in a supporting or other role – The Others is primarily female-driven.
  8. Use of the location to demonstrate the character’s internal life – in The Others, the house is compartmentalized, much like Grace herself.
  9. Grace holds a terrible secret that is tied to the inciting incident (#2), hidden not just from themselves, but from those around them and which is revealed, in the end, by a ghost.
  10. Grace comes to understand and accept her role in her fate and that of her children, which is what resolves the film.
  11. Grace and the children reclaim the house as theirs.

Session 9 is set in the present day at Danvers State Hospital, an actual former insane asylum, a gothic structure of deep red brick built in the 19th century. It, too, is a locked-room mystery, a haunted house/ghost story, in which five asbestos workers, led by independent contractor Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullin), are hired to clear out a portion for city use.

From the moment he and Phil Cronenburg (David Caruso) drive onto the property to meet with a city official to pitch their bid, Gordon is mesmerized by the building, haunted by its shadows and items left behind by the patients and doctors, and even seems to hear a voice whisper his name (Hello…..Gordon.). After winning the bid, they are joined by Mike King (Steve Gevedon), Hank Romero (Josh Lucas) and Jeff Fleming (Brendan Sexton III).

Each man is himself haunted and the asylum serves to act as a mirror – Hank’s desire to strike it rich is signified by his constant purchase of scratcher tickets and then finding old coins dating back decades within the walls of the asylum; to cope with his own stress, his concern over Gordon and resentment of Hank, Phil indulges more and more in alcohol and weed; Jeff is paralyzed by nyctophobia (fear of the dark) and is limited in where he can work; Mike, a failed law student, finds a box containing the recordings of counseling sessions between a patient (long since deceased) and her doctor and becomes obsessed with listening to them.

As the tension cranks up, tempers flare and a co-worker goes missing, the nineth and last session reveals who belongs to the mysterious voice that first greeted Gordon.

 

  1. Isolated building, which further isolates the characters.
  2. Death is the inciting incident, although it is not revealed until the end.
  3. Weather is a mood indicator – although there is a rainy scene, most of the film features sunny days, Gordon’s attempt to put up the false front that everything is fine.
  4. Photographs are an important signifier – in Session 9, they were used as a form of therapy for the patients. This is replicated later in the film.
  5. Gordon has a strained relationship with his wife.
  6. Graves/cemetery on the property share links to the film’s secret.
  7. Both films skew towards one gender as the driving force, with the other gender in a supporting or other role – Session 9 is male driven.
  8. Use of location to demonstrate the main character’s internal life – Gordon end up weeping in Ward A, where the more violent patients were kept.
  9. Gordon holds a terrible secret that is tied to the inciting incident (#2), hidden not just from himself, but from those around them. This is revealed to him, in the end, by a ghost.
  10. Gordon, wracked with guilt and grief, cannot accept his fate and therefore becomes the asylum’s newest resident patient
  11. Gordon pleads with his wife that he misses her and that he just wants to come home.

This is not the first time similarly themed films arrived in movie theaters the same summer (Dante’s Peak and Volcano in 1997 and The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes in 1999) and, given that Hollywood relies on the tried and true, it won’t be the last. These two 2001 films stick out, however, because the filmmakers took the same premise and the same tropes and re-interpreted them to make two, uniquely different stories.

Note – in 2006, Danvers State Hospital was sold to a developer and was completely gutted, leaving only the brick façade, to make apartments. Session 9 is the last film of any kind to show the asylum as it was after it had closed and prior to demolition. Don’t get me started – clearly, no one took the time to watch Poltergeist (1982), which demonstrates the dangers of building on haunted ground.

Danvers, Massachusetts was formerly known as Salem. Yes, that Salem.

Advertisements

So, when I write in a genre I’m not familiar with……

…….I make a point of reading as much related material as I can get my hands on. As a way to understand the genre I’m tackling, there’s  no better way to get familiar with it than reading as many books and authors as possible. Whether it’s a thriller or erotica or a mystery, each and every genre has its own set of rules to go by. And the more you read and write and follow those rules, the better you get at understanding how to turn them on their head and create something else altogether.

When I was working on my thriller screenplay, I read a lot of true crime and criminology books, as well as thrillers that were similar in nature to what I wanted to write. Thrillers, by and large, are essentially mysteries, but with bigger settings and higher stakes. In some ways, I think I succeeded, and in others, I failed. Because of the vision I’d had originally, I over-complicated certain aspects of setting and character and ended up stretching the credibility of the reality I was trying to establish. With the passage of time, I’ve been able to work out how to correct some errors and strengthen what’s already there.

With my erotic speakeasy story, I’ve read a number of short stories and novels, paying close attention to and breaking down in analytical terms particular scenes. While the nature of these stories is to be playful and sexy and arousing, my interest in reading them was to analyze how these scenes inspired (or didn’t inspire) arousal. It’s word choice, certainly, and how those words are used matters. The right words not only conjure up setting and time, they also have the added duty of creating an emotional connection between you and the characters. If you don’t feel the desire that the characters are feeling, then words were either poorly chosen or poorly placed.

My rule of thumb in knowing if I’ve created the desired effect is how I feel when I’m writing any particular scene. If the scene requires arousal and flirtatious behavior, I’ll know if I’m on the right track by how I respond to it. If the scene requires uneasiness or fear, my heart rate will be affected in a far different manner. And the only way to truly know if I’ve been successful in creating the mood I wanted is how someone else reacts to it.

So far, so good.

IMG_20160227_115204-2-2-2

So, when it comes to naming my characters…..

……I tend to put a lot of thought into it. Actually, I put an obnoxious amount of thought into it. I have the usual suspects, er, books on names and their meanings. I mix, I match, I sound things out. Sometimes I even take two or three different names whose meanings I like and try to weave them into something new. Those names I reserve for epic fantasy tales, in the same vein of The Lord of the Rings or Crown of Stars series or the Shannara books. Titles are a little different, but I put the same effort into finding the right one for each story.

Why the effort?

Because names have power. Names mean something, not just to the person who carries it, but to the people who use it, whether with love or hate or indifference. Sometimes, names are secret, the true name of the self, known only to the one who holds it.

In my current Work in Progress, I had one character (a pretty major one, at that) be so dissatisfied with his name that it changed seven times. It was frustrating, to say the least. He was still so completely dissatisfied, that not only did his name change for an eighth time, he switched nationalities.

I would like to say that, as the writer, I have some control over wayward characters and plot. However, I know I’m not alone when I say, no, actually, I don’t. As soon as I start writing, it all takes on a life of its own and I have to hang on for the ride.

So whatever it is you’re naming – whether it’s your characters, your pet, your child, your project – put thought into it, make it count. Even if no one else understands it, you do.

And, really, that’s what counts. It’s your secret. Cherish it.

 

Recommended Reading:

The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Source Book – Sherrilyn Kenyon

 

So, I really love to read…….

…….which is kind of obvious to anyone who knows me. It’s also one of the most important tools for a writer to have. Fiction of any genre, non-fiction of any topic, it really doesn’t matter. If you are serious about writing, the authors you encounter on your sojourn as a teller of tales will teach you how to write well, how to shape a scene, create believable characters and three dimensional worlds.

You’ll also discover, by sheer happenstance, whether or not you can handle a series that develops over multiple books. As a reader, it requires a certain level of commitment to follow the author on a tale of adventure or mystery. It takes that first novel for a reader to be won over and want to read the next one and the one after that.

As a writer, it takes more than commitment. It takes discipline and focus to map out, if not every last detail, then a rough idea of where the overall story is going. If the tale is to be told over the course of more than one novel, it requires careful planning, timelines, and which character is to be the primary focus of which novel.

There are authors  out there whom I marvel over in terms of the breadth scope of their vision. The cast of thousands that rival any Cecil B. DeMille epic would surely give some modern filmmakers pause. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is one example; Andre Norton’s Witchworld series; Anne McCaffery’s Pern; Frank Herbert’s Dune, to name just a few.

I don’t fault any of these or other authors for following their dreams and characters into stories yet untold. For me as a reader, however, my capacity for reading a series has shrunk to five full novels. This is particularly true in a mystery series, I’ve recently discovered. I’m not exactly sure why my interest wanes after book 5, but it is not due to the quality of the story (which are always top-notch) or the characters themselves.

I suspect it’s either my attention span or I’ve gained knowledge on structure, character and world-building that I needed without realizing it. It happens like that with the people in your life, why not with books and the authors who write them?

So, the upshot here is that each of my series (including the titles that have been published) will be no longer than five novels. This is what I’ve decided works for me. At the moment, I’m developing Book Two in each of the current series you see in the cover photo. There are complications and rewards to the process. I’m also working on a novel that, while also a first in a series, is also indirectly related to Secrets & Howls. This has proven to be helpful in giving me insight into what happened after S&H.

As you practice your craft (and it is a practice, it’s a life-long one), you’ll find your own methods in writing. The books you read and the authors you follow will challenge you to do better.

I’ve said it somewhere on this blog and on my author page, but it’s always worth repeating – read. Read anything and everything you can get your hands on. Pulp, romance, mystery, history, science, fantasy – read it. If it’s poorly written, it showed you how not to construct a novel. If it’s well-written, it will challenge you to meet it at its level.

Writing is reading.

*Special Guest*: Author Harry Connolly

Writing Advice You Won’t Hear From Sensible Authors: Always Blame Yourself

I have one piece of writing advice that always seems to startle people. It’s simple: Whatever happens with my career, I always blame myself, when I deserve it or not.

Let me tell you a story that’s probably apocryphal: A first-time director is shooting a film, and the production has a terrible day. They don’t get the shots they need, they’re disorganized, the actors are unhappy, and a few more days like it will break the budget. The producer storms into the office, angry, and begins berating the cinematographer.

And the cinematographer smiles.

Why? Because the person who takes the blame is the person who has the power. By yelling at the cinematographer, the producer has put him above that noob director.

When I first heard it several years ago, this anecdote became a weird obsession for me. Suddenly, everywhere I looked, whenever I saw credit or blame being laid out, it was always about power. A boss who blamed an underling was admitting that they didn’t have control over the project. A boss who never shared credit was taking away any sense of authority their staff might have. And so on.

Writers did it all the time. Editors didn’t recognize their greatness. Marketing people didn’t understand the book. Readers only cared about the latest fads. Writers took credit for every sale and positive review, but when something bad happened, it was for reasons beyond their control.

Which meant they were giving away their power.

My response was that I began to horde blame. Every rejection was my fault. When something wouldn’t sell, I told myself it was the writing, not the market. When books didn’t sell, it’s because the writing wasn’t exciting enough. When readers left reviews that seemed to describe a story written by some other Harry Connolly in some alternate universe, I decided that they must have skimmed because I bored them.

What can I do to fix this for next time became my mantra.

I have certainly had opportunities for spreading blame. The Twenty Palaces novels were sold before the huge economic crash but were published after, when things were really tough for a lot of people. Sales were never going to match the profit/loss sheets written up when Del Rey was figuring out my advance. And Circle of Enemies didn’t appear in brick and mortar store for two weeks after publication date because Hurricane Irene damaged a pallet in the warehouse.

But you know what? It’s my job to write a book that overcomes problems like that. Other authors, like Seanan McGuire and Kevin Hearne, released urban fantasies during the recession, and they found a thriving readership. If they could do it, I should have been able to do it, too.

It’s my job to write a book that is undeniable.

And I know that, on some level, all this self-blame is ridiculous. Sometimes a story is rejected because an editor is having a bad day, or they just bought s very similar story, or something else that has nothing to do with the author. Sometimes books get terrible covers. Sometimes readers assume your book is going to be crap based on the cover or the genre, then skim it to convince themselves they’re right.

Sometimes it really isn’t the writers fault.

But who cares? Taking the blame anyway means focusing on the work to make it stronger and better. It means putting your time, energy, and attention into things I can control. Was a particular story rejected because that particular editor, for example, hates zombies? I don’t even entertain the question; the best thing to do is to assume that the story simply wasn’t good enough and try to make the next one better.

Because the alternative is to believe that I am already good enough, and that way lies stagnation.

The Way Into Chaos Cover

The final book in my new epic fantasy trilogy (about a sentient curse that causes the collapse of a mighty empire) is out right now. Have I mentioned that it got a starred review in Publishers Weekly? Quote: “This twisty, subversive novel will win Connolly a whole new set of fans.”

You can find out more about that first book here, or you can read the sample chapters I’ve posted on my blog.

And hey, if none of that sounds interesting and you don’t want to click, no worries. I know who’s to blame.

 

BIO: Harry Connolly’s debut novel, Child Of Fire, was named to Publishers Weekly’s Best 100 Novels of 2009. For his epic fantasy series The Great Way, he turned to Kickstarter; at the time this was written, it’s the ninth-most-funded Fiction campaign ever. Book one of The Great Way, The Way Into Chaos was published in December, 2014. Book two, The Way Into Magic, was published in January, 2015. The third and final book, The Way Into Darkness, was released on February 3rd, 2015. Harry lives in Seattle with his beloved wife, beloved son, and beloved library system.

So, one of the things I like to do…….

……when writing in a particular genre is to read as much of what’s been written before I decide to try my hand at it. It helps me to get a sense of style and word choice within a specific setting (one’s characters are not going to be speaking 21st Century slang in 31st Century society. Or 11th Century BCE society, either). It’s also helpful in seeing how other authors develop mood, setting and location, as well as character.

This goes for every genre, from the Western to the Mystery to Historical to Erotica, a genre that relies heavily on evoking a wide variety of sensations and emotions that lead to a specific….well, climax.

There is the argument floating around that reading works by others in the genre you want to write in is harmful in that it may ‘influence’ your own work. This is true, but not in the way you’d think. Reading the newspaper influences you. Reading poetry, or historical non-fiction, or biographies or archaeology or whatever you pick up to read is going to influence what you write. The more you read, the more  you learn about language, about style, about story and character and development.

Not reading the genre you want to write in only hurts your own work. Why? Well, in addition to not seeing what’s out there, you’d also fail to learn what works for you and what doesn’t. You’d never know how, with your own unique perspective, you could approach the Epic Quest Fantasy. Or the Space Opera. Or find a new twist on the Western or Mystery.

If you read enough (and I highly recommend reading everything you can get your hands on), you can see how similar the genres actually are. What makes them different is the emphasis – a mystery with a dash of romance could be the inverse of a romance with a dash of mystery. A historical novel set in real place could be, with just a few changes and a splash of magic, an epic fantasy. A Western is just an adventure on horseback, whereas Science Fiction is an adventure on a spaceship.

So read. Read the Ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, pulp fiction, genres you love and the ones you don’t like, authors you despise as well as the ones you admire. Read history and biographies and true crime, to learn how real people behaved and real events played out.

When you read, always seek to be entertained, but be conscious of how language, story and characters are handled.

What book and/or author was your greatest influence? Was it more than one? A specific genre?

So, there’s this thing called language……

………and it has far more to do with story than how any one particular character speaks. Language, more than anything else in the written form, sets the tone and brings to life the world within each book.

I found myself pondering language and its importance while reading a book that, with the exception of a handful of words describing articles of clothing, could have been set in the 21st century. The time period is in the Regency era. I had no clue about the When of this story and it took an entire chapter to figure it out.

And there’s the point. I shouldn’t have had spend any time trying to figure it out. I should have known from the first page that what I was reading was set in a time far removed from my own, where modern conveniences hadn’t been thought of, let alone invented. Given that the role of women was severely limited up until the last century (though in some parts of the world, that is still the case) and, therefore, her value equated solely with her virginity, the emotional stakes should have been higher.

Did it matter that the novel in question was erotica? Nope. I’ve read historical romances with equally (and also better written) steamy scenes. I’ve encountered similar problems in other genres, though not as severe. What separates good from excellent is how one handles the language, particularly if writing a period piece.

From the very first word, language should inform the reader about the world they are about to enter, whether it’s Regency England, Ancient Greece or Egypt, or featuring scientists in another part of the galaxy.  Language is that important in determining time and place.  It can make the difference between a successful story and an unsuccessful one – either drawing you in to know more or throwing you out entirely.

Which experience would you prefer while reading?

So, I’ve been working on a project……

……….that is so far outside my comfort zone that it makes the Andromeda Galaxy look like it’s just a stone’s throw away from Earth and easily reached via space shuttle.

Ironically, it’s become by far the most fun to write and, rather than write it strictly on my computer, I’ve gone back to old school methods and am writing in long-hand. Although I’ve only written about four or five pages (most of it exposition as I work my way into it), the catalyst action for the lead character has been re-written to suit her last name (Falls) and her subsequent journey of self-discovery has begun.

There is a kind of magic to writing in long-hand.  – the feel of the pen in my hand, the way it traces out words on paper, the way letters emerge and link together to form words, how the paper makes a crinkling sound with the weight of those hand-written words.

Of course, the downside is that when you write by hand, cramps in fingers and palm will ensue. I suggest ice wrapped in a towel to relieve the pain.

So there is an interesting dichotomy here – the magic and comfort of writing in long-hand and the act of tackling a genre that is outside my comfort zone. Rather than the removed medium of a pixelated Word document on a computer, using pen and paper creates a more immediate experience with the story (and lots of scribbled notes and corrections in purple ink in the margins as I go along).  I suspect that there is a subconscious point to this particular choice of writing method and the story itself, but I’m content to allow it to reveal itself on its own.

And, given the need to create heightened sensations in this project, it’s more than appropriate to revel in the sensuality of ink revealing itself on paper.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑