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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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Review: The Bill Hodges Trilogy by Stephen King

Mr. Mercedes (2015)*

In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in a distressed Midwestern city, desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair. Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.
In another part of town, months later, a retired cop named Bill Hodges is still haunted by the unsolved crime. When he gets a crazed letter from someone who self-identifies as the “perk” and threatens an even more diabolical attack, Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing another tragedy.
Brady Hartsfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. He loved the feel of death under the wheels of the Mercedes, and he wants that rush again. Only Bill Hodges, with two new, unusual allies, can apprehend the killer before he strikes again. And they have no time to lose, because Brady’s next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim thousands.

Finders Keepers (2016)

“Wake up, genius.”
So announces deranged fan Morris Bellamy to iconic author John Rothstein, who once created the famous character Jimmy Gold and hasn’t released anything since. Morris is livid, not just because his favorite writer has stopped publishing, but because Jimmy Gold ended up as a sellout.
Morris kills his idol and empties his safe of cash, but the real haul is a collection of notebooks containing John Rothstein’s unpublished work…including at least one more Jimmy Gold novel. Morris hides everything away before being locked up for another horrific crime.
But upon Morris’s release thirty-five years later, he’s about to discover that teenager Pete Saubers has already found the stolen treasure—and no one but former police detective Bill Hodges, along with his trusted associates Holly Gibney and Jerome Robinson, stands in the way of his vengeance….

End of Watch (2017)

For nearly six years, in Room 217 of the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, Brady Hartsfield has been in a persistent vegetative state. A complete recovery seems unlikely for the insane perpetrator of the “Mercedes Massacre,” in which eight people were killed and many more maimed for life.
But behind the vacant stare, Brady is very much awake and aware, having been pumped full of experimental drugs…scheming, biding his time as he trains himself to take full advantage of the deadly new powers that allow him to wreak unimaginable havoc without ever leaving his hospital room.
Brady Hartsfield is about to embark on a new reign of terror against thousands of innocents, hell-bent on taking revenge against anyone who crossed his path—with retired police detective Bill Hodges at the very top of that long list….

The first Stephen King novel I read was Carrie. I was ten years old and it captured me in a way that not much else had, at least not until Shakespeare, but I wouldn’t get to him until I was twelve and on a visit to my grandparents’ house. I’ve been reading King ever since, the most recent novel being Revival.  There are my favorites (readers of my blog know of my love for IT, but others are The Dark Tower series, The Shining‘Salem’s Lot, and The Stand, to name a few) and there are those that are not my favorites (the early Bachman books, Gerald’s GameDuma Key, and a few more).  There will be a time when my least favorite of King novels will end up being on my favorites list (this happened when I read Christine), but that’s another post.

I’d heard a lot about the Bill Hodges trilogy, especially when the TV series aired.  But it wasn’t until I saw warnings about connections to King’s latest novel, The Outsider, that I decided I should read the trilogy.  It took a couple of weeks to work my way through Mr. Mercedes, but it’s the first act of a three-act play – that’s always the toughest part.  Characters are introduced, their stories are established and clues are dropped about how things will pan out later on in Act Three.

By the end, however, I was hooked.

I had had the foresight to pick up a copy of Finders Keepers shortly before finishing the first book.  This one was finished on the morning of Friday, July 13th.  Within hours, I had a copy of End of Watch in my hands.  At around eight o’clock on the morning of July 14th, less than 24 hours after I’d bought it, I had finished it.

So – here are my thoughts, such as they are.

Bill Hodges, a retired police detective, is joined by Holly Gibney and Jerome Robinson as he tries to track down first the Mercedes Killer; then tackles a case involving two unpublished novels; and wraps it up with a series of deaths that aren’t quite what they appear to be.  The twists, the turns and the uncertainty play out as I cringe with each act of violence, worry over a particular character’s choices that may not be the best ones or weeping at the final words of the story as a whole.

From start to finish, I was on a literary joyride.  I had no desire to go about my daily life – work, hang out with my horses, talk to friends, for example.  All I wanted was to curl up and live inside these tomes, taking part in what Stephen King himself describes as a portable magic.  When I pick up a Stephen King novel, I don’t merely read them – I breathe them, live them, inhabit them as I follow each character down their unique path.  I can almost taste the air they breathe, feel the dirt that digs itself into their clothes or under their nails.

There have been times when I would come out of reading a book, having tuned out the world around me so completely that I felt like I was surfacing from the deep blue sea.

This trilogy was no different.

 

Rating: Five out Five stars.

*All book descriptions are from the covers.

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So, in the fall of 2016…….

……while working on my first round of notes from my editor, I had the conscious thought that Novel Now Finished would be a life changer.  At the time, I thought it would center around picking up a book contract from a publisher (and it may well do).

Working on edits.

However, as I’m working on incorporating changes based on my editor’s note, I’ve been slowly coming around to the idea that there is a deeper meaning to my original thought.

One of my editor’s most constant notes to me is about giving my Narrator more agency in her own story.  To have her make smarter choices and decisions, to have a more active role in the events that surround her.  To not rely on someone else to get her out of a situation or give up her identity in the process.  In essence, I was being asked to give her the opportunity to own her life and see what happens.

Whether it’s moving home (Secrets & Howls), dealing with trauma (The Pike Horse) or even being open to true love (Much Ado Over Murder), I’ve noticed that I’m often working on stories that reflect what has happened or is currently occurring in my own life.  I often won’t recognize these elements until much later, but I’m not surprised that Novel Now Finished is following this trend.

I’ve described Novel Now Finished as being about a woman who comes out of the shadows and not only reclaims her power, but embraces it.

Guess what’s going on in my own life, right this minute?

So, I’m working on edits for my Novel Now Finished…..

…..and have knocked out more than thirteen chapters (and leaving approximately thirty more to go).  Things are changing, words are being cut (sometimes whole paragraphs) and so far, I’ve removed more than 5000 words (which is about 22 or 23 pages).  I don’t delete these random sentences or passages – I keep them.  I put them on a separate Word document, in case there’s a gem of an idea for a scene, either in this story or the next one.

You just never know.

Sometimes the notes from my editor are simple enough for me to make the necessary changes without a lot of thought.  I dive in, make changes that not only clean up the scenes, but bring in a richer feel, as well.  Other times, it’s like pulling teeth and I’m staring at the computer screen, with my eyes glazing over.

You know. Like this:

This is the face of a writer in edits.

One of the things I’m hoping to incorporate into the Narrator are the aspects of someone who is on the autism spectrum, specifically, Asperger’s Syndrome.  This was a personal decision, one I had posed to my editor.  I’m an Aspie, myself, and I’ve never been shy about explaining this to the people around me. [1]  As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, being frank about it helps me to navigate the world.

As for my story, I’d been considering writing about an Aspie character and in many ways, the Narrator in Novel Now Finished fits the bill perfectly.

Am I comfortable cannibalizing elements of my life for a story?  Of course I am.  There are things from my life that I’ve put into my stories that demanded to be there.  The more I resisted adding personal bits, the more they wound themselves into it.  So, in they went.

And as I go through Novel Now Finished, I’ll be looking for places to accentuate her Asperger’s characteristics, whether it’s her speech or her focused attention on a particular goal.  I’m also going to look at my own particular habits and peculiarities, in order to flesh the Narrator out a little more, ground her in reality.

It should be interesting.

Writing usually is.

[1] I make sure to identify my Aspie-ness in a moment that seems ideal, usually, when the conversation has gone from superficial politeness to an actual conversation, where the other person and I are getting to know each other a little better.  Most of the time, this engenders an acceptance from the other person.  Most of the time.

So, I’m revising Novel Now Finished…..

……and apparently, it decided that, yes, there is indeed a timeline.  Which I already knew about, because the bulk of the story takes place a few weeks before summer.  I wasn’t particular about the exact dates beyond the number of days between separate incidents.  And for the most part, it seemed to work swimmingly.

Except, now I’m going through and cutting needless words and cleaning up paragraphs that are left behind.  And the more I cut and revise and clean up, the clearer the story becomes.  And the clearer the story gets, the more details I’m finding about the timeline.  Vague, throwaway lines like “Oh, it happened a few days ago” will find it harder to survive.  Concise statements like “It was on Sunday” will take over.

So now, I’ve got a Word document in place to keep track of the timeline and help minimize confusion (which would be mine). This will also help keep it clear and concise for readers (which would be you, if I may be so lucky).  As of today, I’ve managed to track one week, beginning with a case of vandalism.  It’s a few sentences long, with the timeline basically being the day of the week, followed by a dash (-) and a short sentence describing the event that occurred on that day.

I haven’t decided on actual dates beyond the month, but that will change at some point.  I’m a little over a hundred pages into the revision as I write this blog, but as I go along, that timeline will grow and become as detailed as necessary.

And then I’ll go back and do it all over again.

The Manuscript in Question.

So, I finally wrote the ending to my Novel in Progress…..

…….and it felt good.  While I didn’t write the actual ‘The End’, it was a definitive ending that will carry over into the next story.  There were a lot of fun and humorous moments in this story, as well as frustrating ones, but I muddled through and got to that final period that ended the final sentence.

There were some interesting things going on in this story, not the least of which that it has parallels to my saucy speakeasy story. [1]  The story begins and ends in a cemetery and involves a family.  The Narrator descends into a basement (house, library, county court house, store) on at least four separate occasions.  She grows progressively less resistant to the idea that she has power, that she matters, that she has a voice.  Her reliance on ghosts is cut off until she finally is able to embrace her strength and power and chooses to face it, rather than run, which was her normal reaction.

If I were to apply Jungian theory to this, I’d call the basement the physical representation of the Narrator’s subconscious.  In each instance, she is given information, which she takes back with her to the surface.  By not resisting her own power, she is literally able to unlock and open doors without using a key or lock picks.  By choosing to embrace this power, she destroys the lies told about herself and is given the opportunity to know herself honestly.

This was not a planned theme – as I drew closer to the ending, I became increasingly aware of these subtle meanings within the text.  As I go back into it, for editing, revision and general clean up, I’m sure I’ll start finding more subtleties and either rein them in or emphasize them a little more.

The Manuscript in Question.

[1] I wrote a blog post in March of this year about the multiple similarities between this novel and my saucy speakeasy.  You can find it here.

So, I’m getting close to writing ‘The End’ on my Novel In Progress….

……and I know this because I’m distracting myself every ten or fifteen minutes.

If it’s not a post on Facebook, or a handful of tweets, or even preparing a few entries for my Patreon page, it’s channel surfing. Or I’m surfing the internet, looking up articles for new story ideas.

I’m procrastinating, in other words.  Not an unusual thing, but a definite habit.  Because once it’s done, it’s done.  There’s no going back…..well, okay, that’s not true, because there’s editing and revising and moving whole chunks of narrative around or eliminating altogether.

The point is, writing ‘The End’ on a story means that I no longer have this project to go back to, in the manner that I’m used to.  Now, when I go back to my novel, it will be to murder my darlings (words, for the lay person) and tighten up the narrative.

I’m distracting myself right now, writing this blog post.  And in a few minutes, that distraction will carry itself over to errands that need doing in town.  Maybe even lunch.

And when all that is done and behind me, I will fire up this computer, open up that document and throw words at it until I have no more.  Take a deep breath, throw some more words in, move things around and I will keep doing that until I am forced to write the inevitable.

‘The End.’

The Manuscript in Question.

So, Novel in Progress is coming along……

……and I’m really excited about it.  I haven’t been this excited about a writing project in a really long time, so I’m doubly happy.

So far, it’s clocking in at just over 94,000 words, but the actual number is in doubt, since I’ve got a couple of scenes to write, as well as the ending. The word count is also fluctuating because words are being added or sacrificed – they’re definitely getting moved around – and, since that’s how a writer pens, it’s all good.

What projects are you working on?

So, I had the opportunity to see a performance of Frankenstein…..

…….featuring actors Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Johnny Lee Miller (Elementary), alternating the lead roles of the Creature and his creator, Victor Frankenstein. The novel by Mary Shelley has captured the imagination of people the world over and has been given countless adaptations for film, television and stage, either adhering to the source material or being a loose interpretation. The novel has also been an inspiration in popular culture, ranging from comic books to video games to toys and models.

This stage adaptation written by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle premiered in 2011, at the National Theatre, where it was filmed live and screened in selected theaters across the world. It was given an encore screening by Fathom Events on October 25, 2016, with Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Frankenstein.

It was tragic and beautiful, haunting and horrific. Unlike the Universal classic with Boris Karloff, this adaptation of the novel, Frankenstein gives the Creature his voice and soul as he struggles from his (re)-‘birth’ to find his place in the world. His loneliness and desire for companionship and belonging defines the Creature, even as he is constantly rejected for being physically different than those around him. He is called ‘vile’ and ‘disgusting’, a ‘monster’ and is brutally thrown out, even as he secretly offers his catch from hunting and kindling to keep an old man and his family well-fed and warm.

His desire for love comes in the form of another creation by Frankenstein (Miller). Because of a hellish nightmare of the two potentially having children, he destroys the female creature before she becomes fully animated.

The tale of Frankenstein and the Creature transcends its original time – it is a cautionary tale of blindly following science (Jurassic Park is another example of this); it is a story of a man running from his responsibilities to his creation, thus setting off a chain of events that leads to the deaths of those he holds dear; it is the story of trying to find one’s place in a strange world, of trying to make connections and find love; it is the story of brutal rejection and vilification instead of compassion and empathy.

I first read the novel in high school, as I’m sure many of you have. I don’t recall much of my initial impressions of it, but this theatrical production moved me to tears. I wept throughout a performance that had been filmed five years previously. As cruel and angry and hateful as the Creature became, I understood his hurt, his rage, his desires, his difference.

But where he had been abandoned and abused and vilified and had no one to turn to for any kind of support, I have been blessed with friends and support. By no means has it been perfect, but from the Creature’s point of view, it might be.

Frankenstein isn’t just the first science fiction novel to be written. It is a novel about humanity – those who throw it away (Frankenstein), those who find it (the Creature) and how people react to it in those who are not like themselves.

The first step to de-humanizing a person is to take away their identity, their humanity.

There is a reason that the Creature in the novel has no name.

We are the Creature. And we are Victor Frankenstein.

And I continue to weep.

frankenstein

Recommended:
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Last Man by Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley (Biography) by Miranda Seymour
Romantic Outlaws (Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley) by Charlotte Gordon

So, I wrote a thriller screenplay…..

……while working towards my Bachelor’s degree, lo these many years ago. It was in response to the many films that featured violence against women. It’s a tiresome trope, in my opinion, even when the woman fights back and comes out on top. I mean, really, is that actual agency for a female character in a story? Or for women in real life? Can’t women just be pivotal in a film or story without having it be in response to violence acted against them?

These questions were at the forefront of my mind as I wrote it over a three month period. I did a lot of research in terms of criminology and came up with some interesting ideas, which I then incorporated into the main story. Clues and plot points and red herrings were extremely important to keep track of, as I didn’t want to give away the reveal too early, while setting it up in a subtle and sensible way.

Several male characters were victimized in the same way women had been, both in film and in real life. The female characters had agency and their purpose was not tied to experiences personal to them. One character I knew early on to be the perpetrator of the crimes that take place in the script, but a reader had indicated that it was too obvious. So, I went back in and made a secondary character already in the story not only the perpetrator of the crimes, but also the accomplice of the first character. Now I suspect that there is yet a third character tied to the first two, and I’m curious to explore that.

The funny thing about being a writer is that you never stop working on a project, no matter how done with it you think you are. I’ve never been entirely satisfied with the screenplay, but I attribute that to my own lack of knowledge in forensics and police work (hint: more research to be done here. Yay!). Also, It needed some strategic re-working in several places, which I hadn’t done due to several moves and a return to school for an MFA.

Then it occurred to me, not too long ago, that it needs to be re-written in novel form, a challenge that is exciting for me. Why? Because, despite the incredibly dark themes explored within the context of the story, I had a lot of fun writing it.

Being creative through the arts is about exploring and analyzing and expressing all facets of our experiences, from the light and beautiful to the dark and sinister. It is a safe way to express feelings and thoughts that don’t ordinarily get a voice. Music, painting, writing, poetry, dance – whatever the art form, what feels silenced can be heard.

I haven’t begun working on adapting the thriller screenplay into novel form, yet, but it’s definitely on my work plate. The twist at the end had grown to a double twist and now I suspect that there’s a third twist yet to come.

That’s exciting to me. Do you have a project that’s been teasing you, mocking you, daring you to come back and re-work what you’ve started?

If you do, go forth and re-make that creative project into the art it demands to be.

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