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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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responsibility

So, I’ve been in an Ireland sort of mood…..

…..which is pretty understandable, since I’m planning to visit the Emerald Isle this year. In honor of this adventure, I’ve been watching the only two movies I own set in Ireland (clearly, I need to get more).

One of them is P.S. I Love You (2007), starring Hillary Swank, Gerard Butler and Kathy Bates. This is not a critique or review of the film (although I do have plenty of opinions about it). It’s more of an observation, I suppose, because from the first time I’d seen it when it was released until the last viewing (which was four days ago, in case you’re curious), I had a hard time figuring out what kind of movie it was.

Was it a meditation on grief and loss? A romantic comedy? A tragedy? A drama? A romantic drama-tragedy? What the hell was it? I enjoyed it, for the most part, but I was never really sure about what kind of movie I was watching. I remember, after the movie came out, trying to read the book, probably hoping to get a better handle on it, but no go.

This probably was one of the reasons why I didn’t quite fully embrace the movie.

But then something interesting happened. Last week, on the most recent viewing, at the part where Gerry (Gerard Butler) is narrating his next to last letter to Holly (Hillary Swank) about the day they met, I heard it.

“I’m not worried about you remembering me,” he tells her, “It’s that girl on the road you keep forgetting.”

The girl with artistic fire and passion for something she didn’t know about yet. The one who got buried under the weight of life, responsibilities, marriage and sensibility. The girl who put her dreams on a shelf. She had become apathetic to her own creative nature and buried it with the need for her comfort zone.

That resonated with me, because over the last year, I’ve been fighting that same battle. I’ve been searching for that fire, to find meaning in my own life that serves me and allows me to fulfill my own best potential. If you put yourself second, there is no reason for others to put you first. It’s selfish, in a way, but by putting your needs and your dreams first, you’re better able to support and take care of others.

So, let’s go back to that first meeting with Gerry and Holly – she’s talking about creating art, whatever that may be for her or for him or for anyone. Even if it includes painting socks. Her passion, we learn at the beginning of the film, is designer shoes. By the end of the film, by chance or fate or accident, she has combined her love for designer shoes with her creative nature into a successful marketable business – shoes as wearable art. Of course, this is Hollywood fantasy, but there is truth there and it does happen. We only need to look at JK Rowling and Stephen King to recognize that it is possible.

So it got me thinking, that little bit at the end with Gerry and his next to last letter. He is reminding his wife, whom he loves, about that fire for creating. What passion did I have as a twenty-year old that I’ve forgotten? I still write, still dabble in sketching and painting, still hang with my homies, er, horsies.

The only thing that left was theater. I’d been acting in community theater since the age of three. I quit acting ten years ago because I felt that I had outgrown it and I didn’t need it. I’d performed in three plays in the last six and I felt alive each time I stepped onstage. And I remembered how it felt to be on stage, to command an audience’s attention through my passion, the words I spoke written by playwrights many years or centuries dead.

And now I know how to re-kindle that passion again, that fire. Do I need to pursue it professionally to feel legitimate as an actor? Not at all – I prefer it this way, as an amateur.

As for P.S. I Love You, I still don’t know what kind of movie it’s trying to be, but I guess it doesn’t really matter, in the long run. I got something out of it.

The Irish landscape doesn’t hurt, either. 🙂

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*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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