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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

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observations

Isolate

She couldn’t draw in enough breath.

Panic was at the edge of her consciousness – what if she couldn’t get air into her lungs?  It felt as though they had been cut in half, that she had already maximized their capacity.  Then why was she so short of breath?

Voices became a blur of sound.  His voice, however, was distinct, sexualizing her body, targeting her breasts.  She wanted to cry.  Why couldn’t he stop?  Every protest she lodged at him was met with even crueler comments.  So she had given up.  He either did not hear her distress or, if he did, simply didn’t care.

The weight she had lost had crept back.  She lost interest in looking feminine.  Her baggy, over-sized t-shirts were now preferable to the blouses she had once found joy in.  Being invisible seemed safer, somehow.

But she wasn’t.  Because he still saw her as his target.

And the man next to him wasn’t stopping him.  The man next to him was looking at her with desire, not for herself, for her essential humanity, but as an outlet for his own needs.

Can no one see the terror in her?  Are they so used to the first man’s abusive nature that they see nothing wrong with it?

She didn’t know.  Worse, she didn’t know if she could trust them.

Previous installment: Target

Next installment: TBA

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Target

She thought, Am I real?

The hard wood of the chair dug into her ass – it felt as if her bones could reach right through her muscle and skin. The bowl of curry – once steaming hot – had begun to cool, untouched, before her. So she supposed she had to be real, at least for this moment.

He was still talking, the words a dull drone of sound, familiar and repugnant.  Was this really her friend?  She had asked him to stop so many times.  But he didn’t.  Instead, each request had only seemed to spur him on.  She wanted to not be sitting across from him.  Wanted to be home, wanted to be safe.  Feeling trapped.  Unsafe, not seen, not heard.

Targeted.

She pulled herself back into the present, willing her gaze to fall anywhere but on the men at her table.

“…..oops, she heard me,” he was saying to the man next to him.

She could feel her face redden, the muscles tightening into a grimace she knew no one would see.  Could see.  Her lungs felt caught in a vise, the pressure a hard weight on her sternum.  She couldn’t breathe.

Can this just please be over? Should I stay? Should I leave? If I leave, they’ll mock me. If I don’t, this will not. Stop.

She had always felt safe here, before.  It was not her preferred choice of hang-out, but even home could be too much of a good thing.  One needed to get out, to experience life, to interact with new people.  To be in an environment that was not familiar.

She was beginning to regret that decision.  Being solitary only hurt when you wanted love.

Were these people her friends?  Couldn’t they see that something was wrong?  Or was she to blame for his words?

How could she be surrounded by people she knew and still feel so alone?  Would they take his word that he was joking?  Because of course he wasn’t.  She knew.  This knot in her stomach, the rock on her chest, her constant checking for escape routes told her otherwise.  She was his target, he had chosen her, and she didn’t understand why.

But this other feeling.  That one she did understand.

Isolated.

Next installment: Isolate

So, I’m on the autism spectrum (Asperger’s)…..

…..and here’s how it manifests in me – it’s like navigating the world with a paint pallet, but with half the colors.  This means I will miss some social cues and over-analyze every word and encounter until my head hurts.  The knowledge that I’m (unofficially) an Asperger’s has been enlightening – finally, as I look back on my life, things started to make sense.  My unofficial diagnosis occurred in 2009, when three separate counselors in two different cities within a six-week period asked me if I was Asperger’s.  Never having heard of it before, the answer was naturally “No”.  Being officially diagnosed is on my List of Things to Do, and it wasn’t until recently that I’ve been able to find sources that would help (one is in Los Angeles).

How did I survive all this time?

Well, as it turns out, theater probably saved me in a way nothing else could have.  I got involved with theater at the age of three and eventually joined and several local theater troupes, as well as acting classes in college.  This gave me a safe way to explore relationships within context and having a script is really helpful. [1]  Theater is about trust and collaboration – if you didn’t trust your fellow thespians and techies, then there was a problem.  In this scenario, I had to learn who I could trust so I could work with them. [2]

Outside of theater, I tended to be on my own.  I liked being with my friends and doing stuff with them, but it also takes a LOT of energy to just be ‘normal’ enough to interact with people and social situations.  I’m also an empath, so I can feel what everyone else is feeling at any given time.  For example, while I might not be able to pick up on physical behaviors when someone is lying to me, I can definitely feel it when it happens.

What does it feel like to be lied to?  That’s a really good question and I’m sure it’s different for everyone. For me, it’s like being sucker-punched so hard, that I’m knocked out of the situation for a few seconds.  When that feeling passes, I’m no longer able to view things as they had been.  Everything feels fragile – too bright, too dark, too uncertain.  Unreal.  I’m unable to know for certain that what I’d been experiencing before the lie was true or if it was also a lie.  So I will go quiet and shrink back into myself and observe.

And I do that a lot – observing.  I watch how people behave with each other and if an action is confusing to me, I’ll find a way to ask about it.  This is helpful both as an actor and as a writer, which is another thing that helps me survive, analyze and negotiate this world.  As it turns out, I seem to have a pretty good grasp on seeing what’s going on around me.  Interpretation is no longer out of the question.  Case in point – about two years ago, I watched two people meet for the first time.  There was nothing unusual about their meeting, nothing I could point my finger at with any conviction and say, “This was the catalyst.”  But something pinged in my mind as I watched them and I remember thinking, This will develop into something, they will be a couple before the month is out.  Lo, and behold, they were and still are.

More than one person has expressed to me that perhaps therapy would be the best way to learn social cues, to which I say, “Bullshit.”  What could a therapist teach me that real life social interactions couldn’t?  You don’t learn how to ride a horse in the classroom – you go out to the barn, hire an instructor and get in the fucking saddle.  Same thing with driving a car – sure, there are some classroom stuff that you need to learn, but for practical experience, the only way to learn how to drive a car is to get in the driver’s seat.

Same thing with learning about people and social interactions, which is where theater has been an enormous help.  At some point, you have to go out into the real world and deal with real life situations.  You find and surround yourself with people you like and feel comfortable with, so that you have a safe way to experience things in a group.

And then you just go and do.  Observe people and their actions and behaviors.  Ask questions if you find something puzzling.  Be honest about who you are and how you process information, if you think it will help create understanding.  For me, I’ve found that, in most cases, being honest about my Asperger’s does help to alleviate any potential awkwardness.  I don’t even have to go into a lot of detail.

But don’t ever let someone make their discomfort your responsibility.  It’s an unfair position to be put in and one from which you might not be able to defend yourself.  In those situations, the best way to handle it is to walk away and let them hold the bag for their own poor judgment and behavior.

You owe them nothing.

Theater is a great place to observe and learn.

[1] I’ve tried improv and I cannot do it to save my life, nor do I enjoy it.  Improv is too off-the-cuff and on-your-feet thinking for me.  Having a script gives me a sense of structure, which enables me to then build and expand.

[2] Trust is essential in any aspect of life.  However, I’ve also learned who I couldn’t trust.  And that’s a separate post.

Recommended Reading:

The Autistic Brain – Temple Grandin
The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome – Tony Attwood

And now, a word from Henry David Thoreau…..

“What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.”

Henry David Thoreau, author
July 12, 1817-May 6, 1862

So, I grew up on the mystery genre……

…….and while it’s not the only genre I have a definite passion for, it’s one I tend to return to more than fantasy or science fiction or even horror.

As a reader, I cut my teeth on Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner and many more. Like many others before me, I got caught up in solving the puzzles put before me alongside the likes of Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Perry Mason.

The requisite exclamations of “How did I not see that?” and variations thereof would often follow the reveal at the end of each case. So, of course I had to go back and re-read these books, to see what I had missed. This taught me, as I did this, to pay closer attention at how the set-up was constructed to get to that ‘surprise’ reveal.

My first fictional detective wasn’t introduced to me through his novels. The meet-cute was through a black and white movie on Channel Five, occasionally broken up by static. Basil Rathbone, in his deerstalker cap and Meerschaum pipe, brought to life Sherlock Holmes in a manner that few have matched since. Yes, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch (to name a few) have brought their distinctive talents into recreating and interpreting this iconic detective from the 19th century and I enjoy their works immensely.

But it was Mr. Rathbone’s portrayal that led me to the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before the age of ten. I didn’t just read them, I devoured them. The Hound of the Baskervilles was my first tale and I’ve re-read that book at least once a year. I met Irene Adler and Professor Moriarty, Mycroft, Mrs. Hudson and more through Doctor Watson’s descriptions of Holmes’ exploits.

Now, after years of reading about other fictional detectives (some with licenses, some who had left the police force, some who would always retain the status of amateur), I find that I have come full circle back to my first fictional detective. I’ve read maybe a handful of interpretations of Holmes by other authors and, while they handled the character with obvious care and love, it wasn’t the Holmes I knew. I craved Doctor Watson’s words about his intelligent, arrogant, exasperating friend as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t written my own adventures involving Sherlock Holmes. I have done so, many years ago, but they aren’t meant for anyone’s eyes other than my own. As I re-read his exploits or re-watch the many film adaptations of Holmes and Watson, I find myself feeling challenged (as a writer, as a reader, as an intelligent, reasoning being) to be more observant, to work things out through deduction and logic.

And then I go and do my best to practice it.

sherlock

*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, as 2014 winds down…….

……..and 2015 fast approaches, I’ve been ruminating on some observations and thoughts that have occurred to me over the last year.

Turns out, they also make good writing points.

*Every experience you have, the good, the bad, the ugly, belongs to you. This, of course, also means that the other people in those experiences are bringing their truths/reality to the same situation, thus creating a conflicting dynamic. You can’t control that in life, so let it go. Putting it in a story, however, adds some rich texture to the plot and characters.

*People are complex creatures, but they are also pretty black and white. A good-hearted person can have a moment of coldness, and a narcissist can have a moment of genuine empathy. What happened in those moments before that caused them to behave in such a manner? At the end of the day, this makes them human. This is a good thing to remember when developing characters and giving them motivation.

*There are stories everywhere – in a bar, on a crosswalk, in a room where the packing of books and other items occur. Who are these people? Why are they in that place, in that moment? Why did this person order this particular book/item? Where? When? What? How? Every person you meet, every situation or place you walk into, has a story to tell. Find it.

*Life is unpredictable, chaotic. This is okay. Stories should also be unpredictable and chaotic, but the nice thing is, you get to control the story. Life is not so easy, but you can at least manage the sails enough to navigate the waters in good times and bad. Sometimes, the story can act as the ballast or the anchor as you go.

These are my thoughts, such as they are. You may find them helpful and insightful or you may not. That’s the way the ball bounces.

So, by observing my surroundings…….

……my intent is to process the mood, emotions and other chaotic elements of what I see into the story, the characters and their surroundings. This is helpful in two ways – one, I have details that I can attribute to one or more characters and enrich the story and two, I can see an inevitable end to the course that’s been set by chance (or a few choice words on paper).

Of course, as the writer, you might think I have ultimate control over how things pan out with the characters, but I don’t. They’re just as taciturn and ornery as the people I meet in a bookstore or a bar or, well, anywhere. That I arrive at the ending I planned on is always a bonus, but getting there has always been a road trip on the back roads of America (or Europe or Africa, for that matter) without the use of a map. Adventurous? Yes. Recommended? That depends – some writers/authors use outlines, others don’t. Personal preference.

But I digress.

I write about the things I’ve experienced or observed to better process and understand them.  I’ve seen some head-scratching incidents and behaviors that had me in a state of perplexity. I’m only half-successful in that I can recreate those situations to a certain degree and have the outcome turn out in a way that makes sense to me, but wouldn’t necessarily occur in real life. At least, that’s been my experience.

And I suppose that’s the way of Life and the way of Fiction or Art of any kind – one that Is and the other is How I Perceive It.

So, it’s occurred to me……

……that one of the reasons why I write is to understand the dynamics of life I see around me. The chaotic swirl of words, a look, body language and tone can sometimes be overwhelming and confusing to me, so I write about it. The results make for a good story, but often leaves me still groping for understanding in the real world.

It’s the “Why?”, always the “Why?” and it never seems to end.

I’m not complaining, far from it, but whenever I think I’ve got an “a-ha!” moment of clarity, it skitters off in a direction I didn’t expect and I’m left more puzzled than before.

What are the reasons that brought you to writing?

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