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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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reading

So, it should come as no surprise that I dream about books…..

……because I love reading and have more books on my To Be Read shelf than I’ll ever be able to finish.  I dream mostly about books I’ve already read, but on some occasions, I’ll dream of titles I’d seen, but never really intrigued me enough to actually pick up.  When those books show up in my dream, I go out and get them – either from the library or the bookstore.

There is no such thing as too many books.

Case in point – years ago, I dreamt that I was driving along a highway that merged into another highway.  Underneath the overpass was a dry-docked tall ship – it was in perfect condition, but abandoned.  Somehow, I was able to park my car and climb inside the ship, which I took my own sweet time exploring (because, really, who wouldn’t?).  In the captain’s cabin, I found two books – Outlander and Voyager.  I recognized them immediately, since a friend worked in a bookstore and I’d seen them on the shelves.

I immediately picked up those two titles (first and third, respectively), as well as the other two titles that were available at the time.  I read them in about a month (yes, I know they’re bricks, but I read IT by Stephen King in three days, so…….) and was wiped out with the breadth and depth of the characters.  Although there have since been several more titles (and a TV series) released, I stopped at book four.

I guess I got what I needed out of them, although to this day, I’m still not sure what it was I’d been looking for in those books.

Most recently, I’d dreamt about Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz.  I’d read a number of Koontz’s books over the years, but I’ve always preferred Stephen King.  No disrespect intended – I just don’t mesh with Koontz’s style in the way I do with King’s.  That said, my subconscious chose that title to communicate with me about something in my waking life.

How I came upon the book in my dream was interesting – I was as I am in the Here and Now, in an antique store.  A friend whom I grew up with was also in the dream, only he resembled his high school age self, with some of his intellectual and emotional growth as an adult.  The shop did not carry books, not even used ones, but on one shelf was a row of books, all brand new and I pulled out Odd Thomas.  I remember thinking I could get it used at my local used book store, but it seemed imperative that I get the book immediately.

So I did.

And, in case you were wondering, I did indeed pick up the book a few days later.

Used.  From my local used book store.

And I’m pretty sure I know what my subconscious mind was telling me.

Dreams and books are like that.

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So, I had my first solo book reading a few days ago…..

……and I learned a few things from that experience.

  1. I could have had more material prepared to read. [1]
  2. Given that it was a hot day, I could have brought some refreshments. [2]
  3. It was suggested I stream it live on Facebook for others who weren’t able to attend to share in the experience. [3]
  4. I now have a better sense of timing it. [4]
  5. Confidence is key.

Those five things are my immediate takeaways from the experience.  I had a lovely crowd of 11 and I sold one book.  Successful turnout?  I’d say so.  This was, as I’ve indicated, my first solo book reading.  I’d been a part of a couple of book readings before, including one at a writers conference.  That event involved multiple authors – in both cases, the only ones in the audience to hear me read were the other authors. [5]

The biggest takeaway for me was being confident in my own work.  It’s easy to hide oneself in a crowd of like-minded and talented writers.  But here, I was exposed to the public, vulnerable, easily seen.  I couldn’t hide.

Still, I did it.  And that takes a bit of courage.

So now, for the next book reading I prepare, I have a better sense of what to do.

And that, you can be sure, I’m looking forward to. 🙂

[1] It took a combined total of maybe 10 minutes to read the two pieces I had selected.

[2] Lemonade and water would have been my first choice, obviously, but the location was in the conference room at the local library, so that’s a possibility I need to check on for next time.

[3] I hate to admit it, but I’m not sure how to work the streaming feature on Facebook, though I’m sure someone might have been able to figure that out. Next time!

[4] I had created an event page and blocked out two hours.  In reality, it took just under an hour. Now I know.

[5] The other authors read amazing excerpts from their works – the only negative was that none of us made any sales.  And we should have.

So, I just wanted to point out……

……that I’m aware that a few of my posts regarding women transforming their lives are primarily white. I intend to correct that – I’ve read several books by women of color, like Alice Walker, Amy Tan and Maya Angelou, but it’s been awhile. I also plan to read and share more about men of color, like Sherman Alexie and Richard Wright.

I believe that strength comes from diversity and that representation matters, but I can’t espouse that and not show it. So, with your patience, I will be presenting posts that hopefully will be more diverse and representative of the world.

I would love it if you were to offer suggestions on writers and artists that you feel need more attention and their work showcased.

Thank you!

 

Recommended*:
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
Native Son by Richard Wright
The Color Purple by Alice Walker

*To be updated.

IMG_20160227_115204-2-2-2

 

So, I’m re-reading Stephen King’s IT……

……..which is one of my favorite novels by King, ranking right up there with The Stand‘Salem’s Lot, and the Dark Tower series. At one time, I had nine copies of this particular title. I know, that’s quite a bit. But two copies are in Spanish, one’s a British publication and the rest were various American printings, including the one with the cover of the TV movie, featuring the fabulous Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown.

I weeded them down – I kept the Spanish copies, the British copy, the American hardcover and one of the paperbacks, which I refer to as my expendable copy. Expendable, because it is so well-read and battered that some of it is being held together by tape. This one I am not afraid to read while in the tub or on a trip – it’s already worn out, so what’s the worst that could happen to it now?

In any case, I hadn’t read IT in a long while before picking it up a few days ago. It was like slipping on a comfortable sweater or pair of shoes – worn, familiar, loved. I know every word of this massive tome. In fact, I’ve read it so many times, that I will skip my least favorite parts in order to devour my favorite ones. Because I know IT so well, I don’t miss much. Sometimes I focus and read every single word that King put down in this tome.

Derry, Maine is a small town like any other with its secrets, its routines, its people. I grew up in a small town not so different from Derry, although located some three thousand miles away to the west. My childhood friends are now my grown-up friends and they resemble, to some degree, the Losers Club of 1958. Although we did not face off with any killer clown from outer space, we had our share of adventures. That sense of familiarity creeps up on you, much like the thin wisps of fog that creeps inland from the sea.

The attention to detail that King puts into this novel pays off in ways that still hold up, no matter how many times you read it. I read IT for the first time when I was 17 and I haven’t stopped, nearly thirty years later. In spite of the many times I’ve read IT, I am always caught by surprise by a phrase or event. On some level, I’m even willing some things to change, even though I know it will always turn out the way it had before.

And I never fail to cry at the last line written before closing the book.

Clockwise from top: American HC edition, British HC edition, travel copy, Spanish edition.
Clockwise from top: My copies of ‘IT’: American HC edition, British HC edition, expendable copy, Spanish edition.

Recommended:
IT by Stephen King
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
On Writing by Stephen King
Danse Macabre by Stephen King

So, I have a deep passion for language……

……and as a writer, it would be seriously detrimental to my craft to not only not love language, but to not have a deep and abiding passion for it as well. In fact, I have such a passion for words and language, that I actually have a dictionary collection (my favorite is The International Dictionary of Theatre Language).

But I also love foreign languages and have numerous foreign language dictionaries. I am in the (very) slow process of learning French. To help with comprehension, I also have a couple of novels in French, titles that I’ve read in their original English. This way, I’m familiar with the plot and, instead of struggling to learn both the story and the language, I can focus simply on the language itself, searching for words I recognize to establish context.

To hear the language in spoken form, I have a couple of films in which French is the primary language. If possible, find books in the language you hope to learn in audio format – the more you listen, the more you can pick up how words sound and pronunciation. This is helpful, but not absolute – like English, there regional dialects and colloquialisms to take in to account, and some words may have a different meaning.

I did something similar while taking a Spanish class i college many years ago. I found poetry by Pablo Neruda that had his work in Spanish on one page and the English translation on the next page. By reading the Spanish translations out-loud to my tutor, my pronunciation and comprehension of the Spanish language grew.

Of course, I’m a little rusty, but the thing about learning something, even a little bit, is that you don’t really forget it. With practice, you can awaken that muscle and get it back in shape in no time. The thought that kept me going in learning a foreign language by reading a novel I already knew was this – if reading can help us with comprehension and pronunciation in our native language, then surely it can apply to learning a foreign one.

 

A small portion of my foreign language dictionary collection.
A small portion of my foreign language dictionary collection.

Recommended:
The Essential Neruda by Pablo Neruda
Le Crime de L’Orient Express (Murder on the Orient Express – French translation) by Agatha Christie
Ca (IT) (French translation audio) by Stephen King

So, back in April, I was interviewed…….

……….by Heather Kirchhoff for Girl Who Reads. I had lovely interactions with her via email, prior to the actual interview, and I appreciate the time she took to ask her questions, all of which I found to be thoughtful and enjoyable.

It was a privilege to do this, and I am grateful for her time.

You can find the interview here.

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

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.

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